November 8, 2012
I think it is time to have a discussion about discussion at Hamilton.
I am not the first to touch upon this topic in recent issues of The Spectator. The Oct. 18 issue featured an opinion article by Samantha Wilson ’15 about the best way to talk about race. The next week, Christopher Delacruz ’13 wrote about how to best approach political discussion. While it is productive to explore strategies of discussion, I believe we first must recognize that at Hamilton, such discourse does not happen nearly as often as it should. But why not?
As Kayla Safran ’13 pointed out in “Conservative voices scarce, stifled on campus,” published in The Spectator’s recent election issue, productive discussions cannot occur when certain viewpoints, such as those of the conservative, are greatly discouraged or silenced. This aside, I also wonder whether the appropriate mediums exist on campus through which students can safely and productively express their opinions and exchange ideas with each other.
Talking face to face is ideal, but it can be difficult to do with touchy subjects. For situations in which physical discussion is appropriate, I think student organizations and student government do a good job at staying open to student input, publicizing their meetings via email and encouraging outsiders to attend them. At the same time, I am sure that if asked, many club leaders and Student Assembly members would agree that they would like to see better turnout of non-members or new members at meetings. Thus, these opportunities for discussion may suffer due to lack of participation.
Student media offers students opportunities to “bitch and moan,” pardon my French, in various shapes and forms. This student newspaper gives the student body a space to share their views on a variety of topics using formal news writing, while more satirical publications such as The Duel Observer and The Daily Bull make their commentary through humor.
A recent publication proposal to the Media Board has pointed out a weakness that many existing student publications have in promoting discussion—namely, that while they give students a place to express opinions, they often do not allow for a consistent back-and-forth exchange.
I hesitate to agree completely with this statement. First of all, I think that print publications can play an important role in simply sparking verbal discussion, even if they do not offer the means to continue it. At the risk of sounding like a bitter editor, I would argue that students are also welcome to respond to articles by writing letters to the editor, but that this rarely happens. Why exactly? I do not know. It could be that some of the content we offer is not always “controversial” or “sexy” enough to inspire someone to take the time to write in to us. And it could also be that many students feel that their time could be better spent studying or going to the gym over writing a letter to the newspaper.
Still, I recognize that writing a letter to the editor is no match for discussion, which should really consist of many exchanges, as opposed to an article and a single response.
Electronic mediums for discussion such as online forums and social media sites present their own approach. Online forums offer a certain anonymity that might appeal to the timid but opinionated, yet fail to hold opinion holders accountable. Facebook and Twitter solve the problem of authorship, but rarely have I seen them used by Hamilton students or my other friends to talk about serious issues.
Facebook recently introduced a feature that helps organize groups by network. The Hamilton College Groups page lists groups for clubs and concentrations on campus, with varying levels of participation.
I wonder what would happen if students created Facebook groups that they used to have extended discussions. These Facebook groups could be a great place for students to talk informally without having to meet in person. But they would also hold people accountable to their opinions by making them post from their personal accounts. All we would need is a for someone to take the initiative to start the groups and occasionally mediate discussions.
The Spectator recently added a comment section to its website, mediated by Facebook. I would also encourage people to use this means to start conversations relevant to content we publish.
Let’s face it—Hamilton isn’t perfect, but it is definitely full of intelligent people that hold opinions they would like to share and have others build upon in one way or the other. In the Socratic tradition, only deeper insight can come out of exchanging them (respectfully, of course). Who wants to start?