Activism at Princeton

Over on tumblr, Aku writes:

College rankings are an audience-grab and a crapshoot, I know. They’re not scientific. Still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that Princeton was #7 on Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s list of Top Colleges for Activists. (ETA: Disappointed that we made it so high, that is.) I’ll get into this in a more sustained way later, but I actually think there’s a lot of resistance to activism on campus (particularly with regards to feminism and gender activism, see above), and that in some ways it’s been institutionalized out of existence. I’d rather not congratulate us just yet; there’s lot’s of work to be done.

What do Princeton people think?

I spent the first half of my Princeton career as an activist. I helped to organize two anarchic, eye-catching protests, one against Proposition 8 and one against the National Organization for Marriage; I helped get Princeton its first gender-neutral housing policy; I wrote about left-wingy and gay things for campus and national periodicals; I put eighty kids on a bus and got us all to D.C. to participate in the 2009 National Equality March. The Tory (a campus right-wing magazine) called me a “campus radical” as if it was a slur. Minor national far-right celebrities character-assassinated me. I was all set to become a minor celebrity too, for being loud and in-your-face and An Activist.

Then I stopped—thanks to Princeton. For one thing, as my academic obligations multiplied, I had no time to organize protests or take days off to go to D.C. or write for campus publications. In my junior fall, my JP took up every spare moment, and there has literally not been a day since then that I have done no academic work. Furthermore, Princeton—and its faculty—helped me to see myself as a historian, a scholar, and to see my academic work as something worthwhile. My mentors helped me to begin to shut off the voices in my head that tell me I am a terrible person, and so I threw myself into my academic work as the Thing I Am Going to Do With My Life. In light of that, I saw aggressive political stances as something antithetical to being a good teacher. I took the partisan bumper stickers off my computer and notebooks. As I started to become an expert in the history of sexual identity, I also began to doubt many of the core assumptions about the “LGBT rights movement” that had informed a lot of my previous activism, and to disagree with the goals of many of the activist projects I could have continued to be involved in.

It’s true that there is a culture at Princeton that punishes taking aggressive political stances on anything. One is supposed to be seen as too clever for partisanship, hence the “apathy” that is also said by those outside Princeton—and anyone inside it who has ever tried to get people to show up to a protest or demonstration—to characterize its students. Maybe this culture permeated my unconscious while I was strategizing about how to be taken seriously by my peers and mentors. But I’ve never really toned down my political views—to many readers, my Facebook page remains as “radical” as ever, and I’ve taken to my blog or the pages of the Prince when I’ve really felt as if I have something to say. Instead, I think I stopped organizing protests because I need to focus on my thesis; because I don’t want “campus radical”—or “queer”—to be the only thing people think of when they hear my name; and because Princeton has taught me that a Facebook post, a dining-hall conversation about my Victorian men who found identity in the writing of Plato and Whitman, or coming to class having done the reading and ready to engage with its and my classmates’ ideas are all forms of activism too.

3 thoughts on “Activism at Princeton

  1. My Dear Emily,

    I do consider you an activist, scholar, and historian. This particular post resonated with me and I hope it will with others. Reading it also made me realize how much I can say I really do love you and admire you!

    With great love,

  2. Just RE: the question of whether Princeton is an activist campus. I think there are two dimensions to this. There is the receptivity of the student body, and that of the administration. While the institution itself is very conservative, my experience has been that most administrators are pro-activist and see activism as something the campus could use more of. ODUS was certainly supportive of everything we tried to do with PAWS.

    The student body, on the other hand, I found to be utterly anti-activist. I think this is entirely different from whether there are radicals on campus. Princeton has no shortage of people with strong views – which is why I’m not sure ‘apathy’ is the right term. I see it more as that people are afraid to do anything that challenges their own privilege and the structures that surround it, so they instantly respond unfavorably to anyone who does.

  3. Michael, thank you! Much love to you too. :)

    Alex, absolutely, and I think the point about structures of privilege makes a lot of sense. I am sometimes very at odds as to whether the highest echelons of the administration genuinely want to encourage activism (whether dissent for dissent’s sake or as a way of moving the student body into the 21stC) or whether they only see it as a marketing ploy that will attract more “students with green hair” (or mohawks), which is good for the university’s image. By and large, though, my greatest allies have been in the administration–Tilghman showed up to both my big protests to tacitly cheer us on, and signed our petition about keeping freshmen off the sidewalks.

    Success with the student body usually means redefining what it means to be activist, like I do above. And again, I’m at odds: maybe it’s copping out or giving up to pursue less confrontational, sneakier tactics? As I find myself becoming more conservative with age (no, really, but not in conventional ways) I find myself becoming much more persuaded to change my mind about things through small actions or good examples, and less persuaded and quicker to find fault with demonstrations. (E.g. it was first one good friend and then joining 2D for the social side that got me to care at all about food politics and to modify my diet.) It’s of course okay to decide to be an academic instead of an organizer, and of course both academics and organizers can be activists. What I leave myself wondering is whether it’s Princeton’s culture or my own personal development that got me from organizer to academic, and whether, if it’s Princeton’s culture, that means it’s problematic.

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