Missing The Opportunity for Dialogue

Academics are a big deal at Amherst. The school does everything in its power to make sure the academic calendar suits faculty needs so that they can squeeze in every single reading, lecture and essay they see fit to assign. Last semester, a student wrote an opinion article in this very newspaper testifying to how the administration’s high and potentially unhealthy emphasis on schoolwork left other parts of our lives — intellectual, social, emotional — unsatisfied.

This norm of prioritizing academics above student life or even well-being is why the Day of Dialogue was such an important opportunity for our campus community. The cancelling of Friday classes demonstrated that the administration was ready to take issues of race and racism seriously and address them with the whole student body. All in all, more than a thousand people — students, faculty and staff — woke up early and packed into LeFrak gymnasium last Friday morning to engage in a dialogue about pressing issues within our community.

After Biddy’s opening remarks and expression of gratitude for showing up, students were ready to make good on the mutual promise to participate in dialogue. Unfortunately, the very structure of the Day of Dialogue actually hindered real dialogue within the community and instead placed its priority on the type of academic-ized lecture that one might see in the classroom. For the first two hours of the event, a panel of five lecturers — scholars from a mix of disciplines across the country — spoke at length about the broad historical and cultural context of race in America today. Several of the panelists exceeded their allotted time, speaking for so long that the time when they were to discuss race at Amherst specifically was cut off. Although many students lined up at the microphones provided to ask questions of the panelists, only one lengthy question was answered. The Q&A session was shut down just as a student brought up the contentious issue of the mascot, and although Biddy nervously joked that that wasn’t purposeful, there is a cruel irony to the fact that our community didn’t have time to discuss one of the most relevant racial issues on campus today.

The planning behind the Day of Dialogue either struggled to know its audience or simply didn’t care to. Many students left after lunch having learned nothing about their fellow students’ struggles on this campus or simply frustrated at being talked down to by a panel of experts. A historical and cultural understanding of racial issues in America is certainly important, but what’s crucial about such an understanding is that it be actually applied to real, concrete issues present on campus today. While there were certainly some great experiences during the subsequent small group discussions, we really missed out on a fantastic opportunity to collectively hear the voices of the whole community — students, faculty and staff.