No SPARCs amongst students

There may be more wasteful uses of three hours than a SPARC workshop (watching Battlefield Earth twice in a row comes to mind), but I can’t think of other wasteful ways the College makes mandatory. I could use this space to make fun of the pointless evening, particularly the part where we constructed pipe cleaner objects, linked them together in small groups to form meaningful scenes, and then chose one to throw away, poignantly forcing us to contemplate how we might feel about having to throw away some piece of our own identity in order to feel part of a community – but that would ignore a much larger issue. Williams, or at least the diversity groups operating therein, seem determined to tackle the issues of campus diversity, community and respect by holding mandatory workshops that don’t work. Workshops in which blinding flashes of the obvious such as “I think we should do something to make people feel more comfortable” are the norm while any topic that may actually be hard to discuss is avoided. Such an approach is not just a waste of time, it actively hurts the causes it tries to support.

There are a few simple reasons why any diversity workshop, as currently defined, is doomed to failure. The first is the “Mandatory Diversity Training Paradox,” which says that people willing to actively participate in such a workshop and/or alter their views as a result do not need the workshop. They are people who have already considered the issues and will hold discussions on the subject anyway. The inverse is also true: the people in need of diversity training are those who do not want to be there, are not likely to participate in a meaningful way, and will not have their views affected by such a discussion anyway. While there may be some value in forcing people to think about the issues against their will, the most likely result is people just as close-minded but now hostile to the idea of opening up. Even worse, they are likely to be convinced that with diversity training completed, the issues need not be further considered.

There are certainly exceptions to this nearly immutable law of nature. No matter how asinine the content of an event, there will be people introduced to new thoughts, breakthroughs made, and bonding attained. These hypothetical beneficiaries fall into the almost mutually exclusive categories of “caring and open-minded to the extent that a workshop could have an effect” and “bigoted, close-minded, and/or lazy to the extent that they cannot address these issues on their own and thus a workshop is needed.” In all fairness, these people exist, but there are far too few of them for mandatory class-wide workshops to be an appropriate solution.

Even if such people represented a majority and a good conversation would make a difference to those involved, the possibility of such a conversation being sparked (pardon the pun) is fairly remote. A group of people put in a room (especially an entry which has to live together for the whole year) and instructed to talk about the importance of diversity has no incentive to say anything “controversial” or “offensive.” If something so improper does come up it tends to both be condemned by the rest of the group and dropped as quickly as possible: few people feel compelled to be unpopular, even fewer want to be uncomfortable, and virtually no one feels like taking such risks at a boring and mandatory workshop. Risks could be forced, perhaps by selecting truly controversial topics (the campus Mad Cow controversy, reparations for slavery, and racial profiling in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks come readily to mind) that people can’t help but be passionate about, but facilitators seem as unwilling to cause discomfort as their audiences are to experience it.

Almost every SPARC activity provides examples of this substance-free mindset. Consider the Think/Feel quiz on gay rights that was filled out and discussed. I use the word “discussed” lightly, because the format called for us to be randomly assigned to different people every 20 seconds, during which time we briefly discussed our responses to a given question (the hot button issues of the day, bound to provoke fierce confrontation, such as: gays deserve the same rights as other Americans, gay people can be identified by the way they act). Our gender discussion was even less valuable – the girls talked while the boys listened, and then the boys talked while the girls listened. Nothing helps you gain a perspective for another’s opinion quite like not being able to talk to them about it.

It is these types of activities, laughably reminiscent of grade school or Mr. Rogers yet taken seriously as part of the community building process, that underscore just how futile our existing efforts at dialogue seem to be. If problems were being addressed in other ways, people were talking, and every now and then we had to attend a useless seminar, I would have little cause for complaint. But here at Williams, our reaffirmations of virtue seem to satisfy everyone as the totality of our obligations. We point to them as “our effort at community dialogue” and declare the job done. We use our ineffective processes to ignore our lack of meaningful progress, convincing ourselves as we go along that we have made a difference. The end result is a community that has fooled itself into believing its problems are addressed, masking them behind a façade of action.

I do not pretend that there are no issues with diversity and community here on campus. I have not been here long enough to experience or understand them in any depth, but my impression is that there is a very large group of students committed to identifying and addressing problems. I don’t know the right way to go about solving the problems, but I know that there are plenty of options that ought to be examined. Until something more effective is devised to replace events such as SPARC and the eerily similar and equally brain-dead Community on Campus program for first-years, I can’t see how the problems facing community life at our school will get anything but worse.

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