Alternative Student Break: Helping Rich Kids Feel Good About Themselves Since 2007

This is my column for the Daily Northwestern this week.

This week, students from all over Northwestern will be applying for Alternative Student Break, a program that sends students to other parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work for a week. ASB is popular because it’s so hard to find anything negative about it. Traveling! Helping poor people! Making friends! What’s not to like?

I’ll concede that ASB is a great learning experience and a good way to bond with other NU students. It’s important to make yourself aware of the difficulties people and communities face elsewhere in the United States and in the world. However, I’d stop short of viewing ASB as some grand act of charity, which is the way that many students seem to view it.

First of all, as volunteer work goes, it’s not cheap. Domestic ASB trips usually cost at least several hundred dollars while Hillel’s trip to Cuba this spring costs a whopping $2,900. That’s probably twice as much as I’ve ever had in my bank account, and I’m comfortably middle-class.

It seems that many NU students assume that several hundred bucks for a spring break trip is small change. After all, chances are that many of the students who will spend their spring break on ASB in Kansas City or Pittsburgh will have friends vacationing in Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean. But given that you could just as easily volunteer at no cost right here in Chicago (not exactly free of its own problems) or in your hometown, one really has to wonder about the sense of paying to volunteer elsewhere.

More troubling than ASB’s price tag is the implicit assumption it makes about service work: that it’s something wealthy people do for poor people. This assumption may seem like common sense at first; after all, what are poor people supposed to do? Help themselves?

Yes and no. I do believe that those with the resources to help improve their society should do so. Sometimes it’s the richer people who have the time and money to do things like march in protests, call their representatives in Congress, donate to charity and go on ASB trips. But I think that the highest level of helping is to help others help themselves, and sometimes that means making a commitment that lasts much longer than a week. It means becoming a mentor to a child at risk of dropping out of school or volunteering at a job skills training center for unemployed people. It means starting a ripple effect by helping people raise themselves up, so that they will keep rising long after you’re gone.

Although throwing money at problems rarely helps, there are still ways to use money to help people improve their own lives. Microlending, which has really taken off in recent years, involves giving small loans to people in developing countries who want to start their own business and make it out of poverty. Loans can be as small as $25 and Kiva.org, one of the most well-known microlending websites, boasts of about a 99 percent loan repayment rate. It’s like giving to charity, except you get your money back.

But I get it. Giving some money to a stranger across the world doesn’t make nearly as cool of a story as spending a week rehabilitating abused animals. Nobody’s going to gaze at you in adoration because you gave $100 to a man in Tajikistan so he can buy seed and fertilizer for his farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have done a really important thing.

If you’re interested, NU even has its own microlending organization. It’s called LEND and it supports Evanston businesses. If I had several extra hundred dollars lying around, I’d invest it in this organization or in a Kiva loan. After all, when you take an ASB trip, a substantial amount of the fee you pay goes towards things like travel, lodging and food. What if you took all that money and invested it directly? Such an investment means that all the money you have to spend goes right to the people who need it most.

Just as ASB neglects the long-term view, it neglects the roots of societal problems, such as discrimination, ignorance and bad government policies. Are ASB programs helpful? Sure, to a certain extent, they are. But they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The houses you build during your week on ASB may help people, but they do nothing to solve the problems that made those people homeless.

NU is quite an apolitical campus, but it still boggles my mind that many NU students love helping poor people so much but take so little interest in the government policies that keep those people poor. The sorts of changes our society would need to make to end poverty and make ASB trips unnecessary are much more far-reaching — and perhaps less compelling. These changes take years, and they include things like educating yourself and others, talking to members of Congress, starting campaigns and teaching your own children to vote intelligently and with empathy.

This is why I feel that ASB is really more about the students than about the people and communities they’re helping. It’s more about the students’ experience, their desire to learn about others, their need to feel helpful. To put it less charitably, it’s a way for rich kids to feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go on ASB trips. Go ahead and go. Have a great time. But always remember that your responsibility to the world doesn’t end after a week of building houses or tutoring kids.

Memo to Northwestern Students: You're Not Cool

This is the guide we wish we had before we came to our schools. It will tell you everything you need to know about social life, party scene, and even some academics (those of us who get in to these schools need to stay at them) if you are a normal girl that happens to be smart enough to get into a top university. It’s biased, it’s blunt, and many people will be offended…but those people shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is when you know beyond a doubt that whatever follows is going to be absolute drivel.

The preceding quote is from a new anonymous blog called “We are the We.” Like College ACB but without the community, “We” prides itself on being the one and only voice of campus social life. Tellingly, the blog only covers a few campuses for now, and mine is one of them. The tagline? “Top schools, normal girls.”

Let’s take a look at what We has to say about life at Northwestern:

Typically fluctuating between SigEp, Lodge, Pike and SAE, every freshman girl learns within the first couple days that your chances of joining a Top Tier sorority in the winter instantly increase by being seen and associated with by Top Tier boys, and are fucked if you mess around with some girl from a Top Tier’s ex.

~~~

The amount of hook up overlaps solely from freshman year could put state schools to shame, and by sophomore year most best friends have hooked up with generally the same exact people. Though girls complain about the lack of options, they have no problem picking the guy their roommate hooked up with the night before as their prey.

~~~

The longer you’re at Northwestern, the more you realize there are some students who truly don’t deserve to be walking within a 15 mile radius of the campus you worked your ass off the first 18 years of your life to attend. It’s no surprise that like most elite schools, it’s possible for some dumbasses to slip through the cracks, but now we actually have to, like, deal with them.

~~~

Shocking new revelation just in: girls in college love to drink. Though there are still a few high-and-mighty girls unwilling to get shitfaced with everyone else, the majority of females find a few nights a weeks to make an appearance at a frat, bar, or Greek event. You’ll learn in the first few days on campus that NU students have a relatively set schedule for going out, and you’re bound to get a “Keg tonight?” text on Mondays and Saturdays or a “Deucin’?” one on Thursdays from guys or friends.

Had enough? I sure have.

The Northwestern depicted in this blog is catty, superficial, judgmental, uninterested in any sort of learning, and, I’m proud to say, has nothing to do with the lives we actually live at this school. I’m sure there are people here that this describes to a T, but despite claiming to be “everything you need to know” about campus life, the blog falls hilariously short of describing us.

The assumptions and prejudices catalogued here are too many to list. First, the idea that people who are “unwilling to get shitfaced” are just too “high-and-mighty.” False. It might surprise some people to know that non-drinkers (or moderate drinkers, really) might actually have other things to do with their lives besides drink–imagine that! Maybe that’s beyond the scope of We writers’ collective imaginations, but I assure you that it is true.

Beyond that, one has to pick through a cesspool of “men are x, women are y” tropes in order to understand what We is trying to say about Northwestern social life. Men are douchey players. Women are nasty sluts. Etc., etc.

I’ll give the writers props for recognizing, as they do in the quote with which I opened this post, that they’re going to offend people. But then they refuse to take responsibility for being so abhorrent by claiming that people who get offended “shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.” Why the hell not? Is it the secret diary of Northwestern’s “elite?” If so, they might want to make it a bit more private.

In a section titled “Who are ‘the we’?”, the writers say, “We know what we are talking about. Trust us. We are anonymous for a reason, but this reason is not because we are not legit.”

Don’t worry everyone, they’re legit! I shouldn’t have worried. Of course, they don’t elaborate on this mysterious reason for which they’re choosing to stay anonymous, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that nobody likes nasty, shallow people who post hateful bullshit on the internet. Were these writers to use their real names, their precious social lives would probably suffer.

I also took issue with the blog’s tagline: “Top schools, normal girls.” First of all, define “normal,” and explain why “normal” is preferable to whatever its antonym is. If by “normal” they mean “statistically mainstream,” they’re simply wrong. The majority of NU students do not belong to a Greek organization, for instance, and most of those who do, belong to what stuck-up cretins like We refer to as “lower-tier” houses. Meaning, as I understand from my friends in the Greek system, houses that are more concerned with having fun and making friends than with high school-esque notions of “popularity.”

Similarly, most Northwestern students drink in moderation or not at all, and relatively few have lots of casual sex. Those who do tend to hook up with friends or acquaintances rather than strangers at bars or frat parties. Does this make them less “cool?” Apparently. But nobody who lives the life they want is going to care.

And if by “normal” We means “desirable,” well, all I can say is that they need a serious attitude adjustment.

The last thing that pisses me off about this blog is the name. “The We.” This conjures up an image of a ruling class of socially skilled and designer jeans-clad heiresses who preside over the campus like royalty. “We” implies that these writers speak for all of us. Well, they don’t. Count me the fuck out of this “we,” because it has nothing to do with me or anybody I know at Northwestern.

It never fails to amuse me that some Northwestern students are so desperate to project their Mean Girls-ish vision of social life onto our school. People. You’re not cool. Stop trying to be cool. The harder you try, the more idiotic you look, and the more you forget what you actually came here for.

Nobody at this school is “normal” in any sense of the word. We are abnormal by definition. We’re some of the brightest students in the nation. Letting loose and forgetting that every once in a while is great, but creating a whole blog to showcase your superficiality to the entire world is just not.

The Gym: the Poor Man's Runway

But don't try TOO hard. Like this girl.

Yesterday, one of the main student publications at my illustrious university came out with this gem, titled “Dressing to Impress at the Gym.” After the title and byline, the article takes an unfortunately predictable route:

So the gym might not be the sexiest place on earth. But, who says that it can’t be one of the most social? However unlikely, SPAC, Blomquist and the Evanston Athletic Club are some of the best places to meet guys on campus. Yes, The Keg or a fraternity party would be obvious choices, but those get old quickly. Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.

Oh, dear heavens no! Guys could be “on the prowl!”

First of all, I just want to congratulate the author of this article for her implied success in “meeting guys” at the Keg or at a frat party. I have never been able to find decent specimens there, but clearly, this girl is just more skillful than I am.

Anyway. The article goes on to list helpful tips for girls who are super duper concerned with the scant possibility that someone may look at them while they’re working out. Most of the tips involve buying severely overpriced clothing and accessories at places like Lululemon and Gap. One of them involves wearing a bright-colored bra (way to attract attention while also looking completely fucking ridiculous).

The one that really gets me, though, is the last tip:

Don’t be that girl. “You can tell when a girl is trying too hard,” Medill sophomore Antonia Cereijido said. “They’ll wear no clothing and walk on the treadmill rather than actually getting a workout. They just look kind of silly.”

That’s right, ladies–don’t be that girl who “tries so hard” and cares so much about how she looks while working out, but do go ahead and read an entire article that tells you how to look good while working out.

There are so many things wrong with this article. Where to begin?! Well, first of all, with the assumption–never stated in this article, but implied nonetheless–that no matter what a woman happens to be doing, what matters most is always how she looks doing it.

We’ve seen this before with women like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elena Kagan–women who are helping to run the country but find themselves subjected to neverending commentary about their looks.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to find this same principle at work in the student magazine of what I had hoped–before I got here, that is–was a fairly intellectual college. Women, according to this article, exist to be looked at (by men, of course). And this completely ignores the fact that many men find it really sexy when a woman is working out and doesn’t care how she looks.

The second major problem I had with this piece was the implication that even if you’re not at the gym in order to pick up guys, you should still concern yourself with the fact that you may be looked at. As the introduction says, “Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.”

Like it or not? Well, I suppose I don’t, but what the hell do I care if they look? It’s not my job to make sure that no man is ever, G-d forbid, offended by my appearance–especially not while I’m at the gym. I don’t owe anyone anything, and if they look at me and don’t like what they see, they are free to look elsewhere.

But no. According to this article, girls should always care that they’re being looked at, which is why they should always look good, even while working out, even if they’re not even looking to meet any guys. How empowering!

A third issue here is the implication that the gym is only for people who are able to fit their bodies into the cute, tight little shorts and tops that the article practically advertises. Um, last I checked, many people go to the gym in order to lose weight and/or become more fit, not to show off their already-perfect bodies.

But then again, the article isn’t really aimed at those people, is it? Because, after all, who on earth would want to look at them, anyway?

And that’s just the thing. Articles like this always imply that gyms are for attractive people only, which is just as ludicrous as saying that French class is for people who speak French fluently, and art class is for people who can already paint.

Finally, even though the article is obviously aimed at women (men, after all, don’t need to concern themselves with such petty issues as appearance), it nevertheless constructs the gym as a man’s space–one that women may occupy only as long as they follow the rules. As a guy quoted in the beginning of the article says, “I think it’s good that girls take care of their bodies and that they’re not afraid to go into the gym where there’s guys lifting heavy weights and stuff.”

Not afraid to go into the gym? Please.

Of course, the fearlessness that this guy finds so incredible comes with strings attached–women must always look good at the gym, or else…well, I don’t know what happens then. Do our memberships get revoked?

What’s really disappointing about all of this is that I’ve always thought of the gym as a great equalizer, of sorts. Anyone can go there, anyone can benefit from going there. It’s the one place where I’ve never felt like my appearance was being scrutinized, and I’ve always felt comfortable letting go and getting into the flow of exercising.

But clearly, some of the people I go to school with don’t see it that way. You’d think that there are few pursuits more self-directed than exercise, but to them, the gym is just another place to “be seen,” and its health benefits are secondary.

Of course, the author would argue with me here. She even writes at one point, “Remember ladies, health is important, so when at the gym you should still be the number one priority.”

But if she really feels that way, why didn’t she write an article about, say, how to figure out what your heart rate should be while exercising? Or how to use all those damn strength training machines I still haven’t figured out how to use? Or how to work out as many different muscle groups as possible in as few different exercises as possible? Or any number of other health-related topics?

I’m very idealistic about journalism. I think that all journalists, even students at a campus publication, are, in a way, setting the agenda for us as a society. Every moment spent writing piece-of-shit articles like this is a moment not spent writing about stuff that actually matters.

Rather than writing an article that practically shits out the same sexist tropes we’ve all grown up with–that women owe it to men to look good, that only thin athletic women are worth looking at, that men are only attracted to women who actively try to look good rather than just doing what they love with abandon–this student could’ve written an article about why it doesn’t fucking matter what you look like when you’re working out.

But she didn’t do that. She chose to promote the sexist tropes instead, thus doing her small part to keep an unfortunate aspect of our culture going strong.

The Art of Looking Good

When I’m applying for jobs or scholarships, I’m often reminded to twist the wording on my resumes, cover letters, and applications (not even to mention interviews) to make myself and my experiences look better than they actually are.

I’ve never really stopped to think about how this makes me feel, but I’ll do so now.

Lying is unethical, in my opinion. So is intentionally misrepresenting the truth, which is what you do when you “word things differently,” as they say. I’ve just realized how shameful it is in my mind that being employable and successful in our society is based on our ability to paint ourselves in brighter hues than we really deserve to be painted in.

This summer, I’ll be volunteering at a summer camp for kids in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, where I’ll probably be doing stuff like arts and crafts with them. The idea of the camp is to promote health and mental wellness, though I don’t see how that’s really what I’m doing. I’ll basically be playing games with some kids from the city. But how will it go on my resume? “Volunteered at a day camp for underprivileged children of recent immigrants in north Manhattan, teaching them about health and mental wellness.”

Yeah, something like that.

And I’ll probably mention something about how I turned down a job that would’ve paid me $2,600 for this opportunity.

And here’s the kicker—nobody’s going to ask me what I actually did with these kids. Nobody’s going to go check five or ten years down the line to see if any of my interventions actually did any good in preventing them from developing illnesses like diabetes and depression. Nobody’s going to ask these kids if they enjoyed their time with me. Chances are, nobody’s even going to ask for a recommendation from my supervisor.

But I still get to put this crap on my resume like it’s such an amazing thing that I did. Me, privileged white girl from Ohio, helping these poor little immigrant children learn how to stay healthy, all for no pay. Commuting an hour there and back each day from Queens! In the summer heat! Oh, and working for my parents for a whole month after that to pay them back for sending me there.

This is what I call the art of looking good. It’s how we get into schools like Northwestern and get the sort of jobs that we’ll all be getting afterwards. Playing this game makes me sick. The thought that I, a person who loves to write and understands the power of words, am twisting them around so casually to get ahead in life, disgusts me.

I’m not naive enough to opt out of this game, because I do want to be successful in life, and clearly that’s what it takes these days. But I play this game halfheartedly, and I protest against it and buckle under its weight every agonizing step of the way.

I wish I could’ve written on my college application that, you know what, the prestigious internship I did in Israel the summer before senior year of high school was awful. I learned nothing except that I hate doing scientific research and I hate religion. I also learned that the sacrifices I made to be able to go there were all for nothing. I didn’t make any friends there. I did learn a bit about my native country, but not much, and nothing I couldn’t have learned by touring the country with my dad, which would’ve been significantly more fun.

But that’s not at all what I wrote on my college application, or else I very well might not be sitting in this Northwestern dorm right now.

Nobody wants to hear about my failures, no matter how much they taught me. Like when they ask you about your weaknesses in a job interview, they don’t really want to know that sometimes the amount of work you have makes you cry, or that sometimes you check Facebook at work, or that several times you accidentally made a comment to a coworker that might be interpreted as racist. They want to know that you have some minuscule barely-significant flaw, but don’t worry, you’re working on it!

Likewise, if I end this summer feeling like I accomplished nothing with these kids, nobody wants to know that, so that’s not what’ll go on my resume. My resume will say that I taught. I helped. I volunteered. Never, ever will it say that I failed. Even if I do.

Some Thoughts on Depression

[TMI Warning]

About five months ago, I wrote a post on Facebook (and on this blog) about my experience with depression and how I came to receive treatment for it. I remember feeling very triumphant as I wrote it, because I felt like my difficulties were finally over.

This turned out to not exactly be the case.

In January, perhaps precipitated by some unfortunate personal circumstances, I relapsed and have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to recover ever since. The months since then have been filled with a lot of self-loathing, many random bouts of crying (daily at times), and much speculation on my part as to whether or not I really belong in this world.

This is when I realized that my problems, whatever they may be, don’t simply go away when I’m not depressed. I don’t “invent” the issues that I’m unhappy about. But being healthy makes it easier to ignore the pain in the back of my mind–all the wasted opportunities, lost friends, and scarring memories that have built up over the years like dust on a windowpane. When I’m healthy, I simply don’t think about it, and consequently I’m happier. But the mockery that I’ve made of my life isn’t a figment of my imagination; it’s quite real.

~~~

I also started to realize, perhaps even more than I did when I wrote that post, how little the healthy world knows about depression. Mental illness is truly the last taboo; many people refuse to even consider dating someone who has it. Kinda makes me reconsider being so open about my experience…

Even people who would otherwise be supportive just don’t know enough. For instance, if you know your friend is a diabetic, would you offer her a piece of cake? Probably not. But would you casually make fun of your depressed friend? Unfortunately, many people would, even though teasing and jokes are things that many depressives have a lot of trouble with. (This is because depression often causes a cognitive deficit that makes people take everything–a snappy tone of voice, an odd glance, a sarcastic remark–very personally. Here’s a great guide to cognitive distortions.) I am always analyzing and picking apart things that people say to me to try to figure out if they were just teasing or not. I am terrified of the threat of rejection that these casual utterances may carry, so I am always alert, always on my best behavior.

~~~

Another thing I’m never sure of is which parts of me are depression and which are simply me. I’m a skeptic, a cynic, and generally not too big a fan of things that most people seem to really like (Exhibit A: this). I don’t fit in with my surroundings in many ways. I’m more complex, polite, caring, respectful, quiet, conscientious, serious, passionate, emotional, and sensitive than most. I’m less assertive, flaky, impulsive, cheerful, “chill,” and casual than most. This makes for a great number of personality differences between myself and most people I know. When I’m not feeling depressed, these differences fade into the back of my mind. But when I am, they come right to the front, putting up a wall between me and the rest of the world, making me feel like I’ll be an outcast for life.

~~~

One more realization–Northwestern might be the worst place in the world to be depressed. (Not that there’s really a good place for that, except perhaps the psychiatric ward of a hospital.) It’s isolating, stressful, and miserably cold from October till May. Your peers churn industriously around you like a hive of North Face-clad bumblebees while you vegetate listlessly in your shitty shoebox room and email professors, friends, student group leaders one by one and tell them that you’ve been ill and cannot come to whatever crap you’re supposed to be at that day. You eat Nutella from the jar and wonder why none of your friends care. You wonder why you expect them to care. You sleep, a lot.

Northwestern also happens to have entirely inadequate mental health services, but that’s a topic for another post. My friends and I are working to change that. But for now, this is a really, really unfortunate place to be depressed.

~~~

And that’s it, really. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going now, but hopefully it’s somewhere good.

The Value of Disagreement

A photo from an Obama-McCain debate in 2008. Just to add some requisite humor to this otherwise serious post.

I am a liberal and I go to a liberal school. Sometimes this makes me feel happy and comfortable, because I have so much in common with others here in terms of politics. I can complain publicly about Americans’ lack of belief in climate change, or about something Glenn Beck said. I can ask my friends if they’ve seen the latest episode of the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I can rant excitedly about some famous person coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. And I can do all this without worrying that I’m going to offend someone, or that someone is going to argue with me.

But two recent incidents made me ask myself if this is really such a good thing.

One was a conversation I had with a friend about a mutual friend of ours. We’re all really close and hang out a lot, but when I suggested to one that he go have a conversation with the other, he said that they don’t really have anything serious to talk about. I asked why, and he said that they always just agree on everything and there’s little to discuss.

The other was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. When this happened, my Facebook feed suddenly exploded with such a variety of opinions that I didn’t even know existed at Northwestern. Some people were screaming “USA! USA!” Others were really happy that Bin Laden was dead, but didn’t want to celebrate so gleefully. Others were ambivalent, wondering why this really mattered, or whether or not he should’ve been shot dead. Others still were furious that he’d been killed on the spot, arguing that he should’ve been tried by the American judicial system instead. Some were religious Jews or Christians, happy to have gained this victory against radical Islam. (Unfortunately, I don’t know many Muslims, but I would’ve loved to hear their perspectives.) Some were atheists or agnostics, wishing that we didn’t have these religious wars to begin with. And so on and so forth.

Immediately, tons of arguments and debates started up. I got into quite a few myself. As a result, I changed certain parts of my opinion, began to understand other parts more clearly, and generally started articulating my views a bit better. And, also, I learned a lot about many of my friends.

After that, I started to realize how much we’re missing here in terms of political dialogue. I used to be very conservative, but back then I lived in Ohio and everyone around me pretty much agreed. Now that I’m much more liberal, I’m once again surrounded by people who share my views on almost everything. Except for those times when my friends and I start getting bitchy and arguing minutiae, I rarely get to have a good political debate.

What to do about this? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how to get more conservative or libertarian students to attend Northwestern. Like it or not, this is a liberal campus.

One related issue, however, is a bit easier to solve, and that is the tendency of people to want to shut down those who disagree. (I addressed this briefly in the previous post.) The internet makes it much easier to do this because you can literally avoid “conservative” or “liberal” websites, but I see this in play even out in the real world. When I lived in Ohio, despite being conservative, I had the uncomfortable feeling that conservatives always wanted to shut liberals up. Luckily, I didn’t have to feel guilty for long, because when I came to Northwestern I found that liberals do the exact same thing. The way we respond to alternative viewpoints is often anything but respectful and curious–it’s snarky and dismissive.

For instance, when discussing people who oppose the right to abortion, liberals like to refer to them as “anti-choice” rather than “pro-life,” which is what they call themselves. This is, in my opinion, ridiculously disrespectful. Pro-lifers place the sanctity of life above the freedom of choice, but that doesn’t mean they oppose choice. It just means they value life (and they define life as beginning at conception) more than they value choice. I disagree with this position entirely, but I respect it and can see why some people would think that way.

Similarly, conservatives will purposefully refer to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” (to highlight his “Muslim” middle name) or as the “Obamination” or as any number of other highly disrespectful monikers. Why? Why talk like this about the President of the United States just because he is a liberal?

This needs to stop. From both sides. Silencing the opinions of others benefits nobody. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. If they’re right, then you should know the truth. If they’re partially right and partially wrong, you should take this opportunity to fine-tune your own views.

In fact, in order to put my money where my mouth is, from now on I’m going to seek out intelligent conservative blogs and read them. If nothing else, it’ll help me learn how to defend my own views better. Unfortunately, I don’t hear many conservative opinions here on campus, so I’m going to look for them elsewhere.

Sex, Morals, and Academic Freedom

A fucksaw.[First, some backstory--this post concerns a controversial event at Northwestern in which the professor for a class called Human Sexuality held an optional live demonstration that showed a man penetrating a woman with a sex toy. The story, which was first reported by our campus newspaper (the Daily Northwestern), quickly blew up and was featured in media outlets all over the world, including the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Here are the NYT and CNN articles on it.

Second, I wrote this piece for the blog of Northwestern Sex Week, an annual event that I'm on the planning committee of. Here's the original post.]

Much has already been written about the infamous Professor Bailey and the optional sex-toy demonstration he held for his Human Sexuality class. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, I’m not in the class and did not witness the demonstration. From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure that it would’ve had educational value for me, personally. That said, I am a member of SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators) and the Sex Week committee, and therefore, I already know quite a bit about sex. And yes, I know that women have g-spots and can potentially ejaculate. I also know that the range of human sexualities and sexual proclivities is virtually limitless, and that each individual views and experiences sex differently.

However, not everybody realizes this. For much of my adolescence, I didn’t either. Like some of the people I’ve met here at Northwestern, I freely labeled others’ sexual behaviors as disgusting, weird, abnormal, pathological. I didn’t realize how wrong this perspective was. The impression I get of Professor Bailey’s class and this demonstration is that they aim to eradicate this perspective. To that end, I can only endorse them both with complete confidence.

Second, even supposing that this demonstration had no educational value for anyone–which I highly doubt–we enter dangerous territory when we advocate banning something simply because we, as individuals, do not see its value. This is especially true in the academic realm. The concept of intellectual freedom does not exist to protect someone’s right to claim that the sky is blue; it exists to protect someone’s right to challenge existing norms and assumptions. It does not exist just to protect my English professor’s right to interpret a Dickens novel in a particular way; it exists to protect a human sexuality professor’s right to teach controversial material to his students. Even if Professor Bailey’s demonstration ultimately taught nothing, he should have the right to try unorthodox teaching styles, just like he has the right to conduct unorthodox research. Even if he failed, he has learned. That’s what academic life is all about.

I am also disappointed to read the numerous online comments from Northwestern alumni claiming that, because they disagree with this demonstration, they will no longer be donating money to Northwestern. This is, to put it bluntly, incredibly selfish and narrow-minded. In my opinion, one donates to an institution to support its overall mission, not because one agrees with every policy, every professor, every class, and every lecture. I, for instance, do not agree with some of the things that Northwestern faculty and administrators do–quite a lot of things, actually. Yet you can be sure that after I graduate, I will be donating money to this amazing school, probably for the rest of my life.

Third, this entire controversy, in my opinion, was started by a campus media given to sensationalism. With the media firestorm that has ensued, you would think that there had been some high-profile complaint from a student or parent, some allegation that the demonstration deeply disturbed a student–something. To my knowledge, there was not. In the article that broke the story, the Daily Northwestern failed to quote even a single person, student or otherwise, who had been offended or displeased by the presentation. Yet the article’s headline referred to this event as a “controversy.”

Finally, I would like to challenge all those who oppose this demonstration on moral grounds. Professor Bailey himself said it perfectly in his statement of apology:

Those who believe that there was, in fact, a serious problem have had considerable opportunity to explain why: in the numerous media stories on the controversy, or in their various correspondences with me. But they have failed to do so. Saying that the demonstration “crossed the line,” “went too far,” “was inappropriate,” or “was troubling” convey disapproval but do not illuminate reasoning. If I were grading the arguments I have seen against what occurred, most would earn an “F.” Offense and anger are not arguments.

Students were warned multiple times of the graphic nature of the presentation, and told that they were free to leave at any time. The individuals who staged and participated in the demonstration were all consenting adults. The course itself involves watching videos of people having sex, and no controversy has arisen because of that. The course, and this demonstration, involves an act that is as normal and natural as breathing, eating, and sleeping. Like Professor Bailey, I have yet to find a convincing argument for why this should not have happened that does not hinge on personal values, and that does not seek to impose one’s personal values on others.

In short, the fact that Professor Bailey was forced to apologize for the world’s closed-mindedness is tragic. And it means that we, the Sex Week committee, have our work cut out for us this year.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when you couldn’t say the word “pregnant” on television. There was a time when discussing sexuality in a classroom setting would’ve been impermissible. There was a time when a play like the Vagina Monologues could never have been staged in public, and there was a time when Sex Week could never have happened on a university campus.

Apparently, there is also a time when demonstrating the use of a sex toy on a consenting woman in front of a hundred consenting adults is unacceptable, too. That time is now. But we should remember how strange–how silly–yesterday’s taboos seem to us today.

Northwestern Doesn't Care About its Students

Evanston, Illinois, which is where I go to school, has a stupid housing ordinance that states that no more than three unrelated people may live together in a house or apartment. It’s intended to ensure proper upkeep because, apparently, people who aren’t related to each other don’t care about the state of their housing, whereas people who are related do. (???)

Anyway, up until now, Evanston has not been enforcing the rule. But now it’s going to. Hundreds of Northwestern students will be evicted this summer because they live in houses or apartments with more than three unrelated people.

And today, the Daily Northwestern reports that the Northwestern administration will not attempt to lobby Evanston’s city government regarding this issue despite the fact that it directly affects so many students.

The Assistant Dean of Students’ response? Students should move farther away from campus.

Let me give you some background on Evanston. Although it’s obviously safer than some Chicago neighborhoods, there were eight homicides in Evanston in 2010 compared to just one in 2009–something that the University and the city police don’t seem to be too concerned about. Every couple of weeks, the entire University community receives an email alert regarding a crime that has just been committed on or near campus–muggings, assaults, break-ins, you name it. Last year, a man attempted to assault a woman in one of our academic buildings.

And with all this, the University administration thinks students should move even farther away from campus, risk even longer walks home in the dark, and live even further apart from other students–all to avoid getting off of its ass and lobbying against an outdated and useless rule.

Landlords, too, will be hurt by the enforcement of this law. The first Daily article I linked to mentions the fact that many of these houses and apartments really aren’t of the quality that families moving to a supposedly wealthy place like Evanston would be looking for. Many of the houses for rent near campus used to be for sale–until their owners realized that nobody’s going to buy them. Without students to fill these houses and apartments, many of them would probably be left empty.

Furthermore, Evanston officials have stated that the reason they’re starting to enforce the ordinance is to crack down on student parties. First of all, that won’t work–the number of people living in an apartment doesn’t determine whether or not those students have a party; that’s preposterous. In fact, if people have to live with fewer roommates, they may be more likely to throw parties so that more people come over.

Also, as the Daily article mentions, having students live in concentrated areas makes it easier for the police to patrol those areas. If students start living miles away from campus and having parties there, not only will that piss off even more Evanston residents who otherwise wouldn’t have had to deal with it, but it will also make it harder for the police to stop the parties.

But, most importantly–at least, to me–the hope of stopping college students from partying (something that’s never going to happen anyway) is not worth jeopardizing their safety. Evanston isn’t a small town in Ohio. It’s a city that’s located close to a major metropolitan area. It has very real crime issues. I am shocked that for how much money I’m paying to go here, the Northwestern administration won’t stick up for its students and battle this ridiculous ordinance. Instead, it’s asking us to move farther away from campus, dilute the sense of community that is already so fragile at this school, and expose ourselves to a greater risk of becoming the victims of crime.

I should’ve invested my $200,000 wiser.

[Update] Several of my friends have pointed out that this ordinance was probably originally enacted in order to prevent minorities (who ostensibly have lower incomes and would benefit from being able to share houses or apartments with other people) from moving into Evanston. I’m still looking for a credible source confirming this, but if it’s true–and it probably is–then that’s just one more reason to repeal the law. If the city of Evanston is using a racist law to attempt to control student partying, that is ridiculous. Not to mention that the law probably does disproportionately affect minorities.

Bookman's Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. :D

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.