Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts
This is the text of my keynote address delivered at the Digital Library Federation Liberal Arts Colleges Pre-Conference hosted at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, WI, on November 6, 2016. Thanks are due to the following folks for their collective eyes, ears, and energy that they contributed to the ideas present in this talk: Hillel Arnold, Karina Beras, Kelsey Duinkerken, Jessica Farrell, Jasmine Jones and Krista Oldham. All faults present are my own.
Good morning all. Thank you for having me here today to help launch the Liberal Arts Colleges Pre-Conference of the Digital Library Federation. I will begin these things, as I do, by recognizing the labor, physical and mental, required for us to be here today, especially the maintenance workers and technicians at this hotel. Let’s give them a big thank you and please thank them later this week as you see them. See them. I also want to thank Bethany, Oliver, Chelcie, and Lizzi for their amazing logistical coordination to bring me here.
I almost wasn’t here today, in this city of Milwaukee where my late Uncle Dan once was a community superintendent with the Milwaukee Public Schools. The reason I almost wasn’t here is because just yesterday I was on a plane with 3 crying children as we flew 14 hours from Doha, Qatar, to Chicago. That 14-hour joy ride was preceded by a 5-hour plane ride from Colombo, Sri Lanka, which itself was preceded by a 9-hour non-internet stay in the Colombo airport, which itself was preceded by catching an amphibian airplane from Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, in the east of the island to Colombo in the West. All that to say: I might be a lil tired up here. My body doesn’t know which time zone it’s in, I got PTSD from them bad kids, and I’m ready to be home to Philly with my bae.
BUT. Before I go back to Philly, I want to address you today on the topic of education. Specifically, I want to address the topic of higher education. I mentioned that my Uncle Dan was a superintendent in Milwaukee Public Schools, but before that, he obtained his doctorate from the University of Akron in educational administration and later he was on the faculty of Cleveland State University. I so wish he could be here in the flesh to hear me speak, but I know he’s listening and watching me, and as he does so, he will hear me explain my motivation behind a project I helped organize at Princeton last year, the Archiving Student Activism at Princeton (ASAP) project, coordinated by a team of us in the Princeton University Archives. The goal today isn’t to offer you any specifics — technical or otherwise — about the project. Much of that stuff is online and there is a forthcoming book chapter about it. So this sentence is the last you will hear about ASAP today.
Rather, this morning, I wish to do something bigger, something grander, something I think my Uncle Dan — who graduated from one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world, Miami of Ohio — would appreciate. I want to respond to a question I asked myself, because of course, I ask myself questions all the time because I am a big dork at the end of the day. The question I prepared for myself is simply this: should institutional archives of liberal arts colleges document student protests and activism that critique or otherwise implicate the college, and if so, why?
Responding to that specific question, I argue that institutional archives at liberal arts colleges should document student protests and activism that critique or otherwise implicate the college because doing so aligns the archive with the explicit function of the liberal arts college within a democratic society and allows for the examination if not deconstruction of some of these liberal arts colleges’ implicit functions. Moreover, I will argue that actually the explicit function of the liberal arts college commands institutional archivists to collect and preserve records that highlight the conflicting nature of the liberal arts’ implicit function. I’m going to make this case from a range of evidence and experience I have at two liberal arts colleges that together have been in existence for 585 years.
Few of those 585 years have been more active than the last two at America’s universities and liberal arts colleges in particular. Collectively our colleges have been awakened with a new generation of student leaders and thinkers who are pushing many of our campuses to live their educational creed as it is written, not as it practiced. Young adults, mostly ages 18 to 22, have collectively looked at college professors, presidents, and practitioners and said, in unison, do better. They have made this claim in addition to carrying the burden of competing at some of the most rigorous schools in the world. Ours, as much as any time, is a moment ripe for revisiting the liberal arts college endeavor and contextualizing the role of archives within that.
To get us started, I’ll offer a very uncontroversial account of the explicit function of the liberal arts. The explicit function of the liberal arts — our raison d’être — might simply be to prepare the ‘demos’ for democracy. From its origins in Ancient Greece to its formation in the British colonies of North America, the liberal arts as a concept is fundamentally concerned with fostering free minds to take active and informed roles within the citizenry of a nation or state. One of our nation’s oldest liberal arts colleges characterizes the liberal arts as:
“[a process] through which students think and learn across disciplines, literally liberating or freeing the mind to its fullest potential. The essence of such an education is not what you study but the result — gaining the ability to think critically and independently and to write, reason, and communicate clearly — the foundation for all professions.”
It would be a faux pas for me to declare this a definitive definition on the explicit function of the liberal arts college, for doing so would directly contradict the spirit of the liberal arts itself. After all, it’s not critical thinking if I force an idea onto you without debate. But, for the purpose of this address, I submit that this definition will suffice due to its inclusion of phrases such as “literally liberating or freeing the mind” and “the ability to think critically and independently.”
Two of those root words in the previous sentence — liberation and independence — have been particular topics of interest of mine lately and actually can serve as conduits to a commentary on the implicit function of the liberal arts college. This commentary on the implicit function of the liberal arts college will create more disagreement, discord, and debate than the explicit function, as it pushes us to confront Neil Postman’s Fourth Law in his essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.” Postman’s Fourth Law of Bullshit simply states:
“Almost nothing is about what you think it is about–including you.”
The ‘you’ here can apply to liberal arts colleges more broadly and specifically to the chief distributors of their bullshit, including and especially the librarians and archivists who work within their walls, myself included. Applying Postman’s Fourth Law to an analysis of liberal arts colleges, it becomes clear that they are not only concerned with critical thinking and civic engagement. That may be their explicit function, but the implicit function of liberal arts colleges may be to replicate systems and structures of social inequality and exclusion, including but not limited to racism, sexism, classism, and transphobism — sidebar: Microsoft Word is pure trash for giving me a red squiggly under the word transphobism. The word is actually real, as is the pain of countless trans people in our society. Microsoft, if you’re reading, do better.
To support my claim that the implicit function of the liberal arts college is to reproduce structural inequality, I offer you evidence from the same liberal arts college that I cited earlier: the same liberal arts college concerned with liberation and independence. I doubt many of you in here know about the history of black colleges and universities in this country, and I have that doubt for many reasons. The first is that most of you are white and can afford to be ignorant of blackness. The second is that many of our library and archive consortia — this one included — excludes our librarians, libraries, archivists, and archives at black colleges and universities, so even when you think you are immersing yourself within the field of librarianship, you remain blissfully unaware that there is a whole different world out there to which you are functionally illiterate. This unawareness is both a product and reification of systemic racism, and it doesn’t require racists whatsoever.
It’s that systemic racism that ushers us into why I bring up the history of black colleges, because those in the know on such matters will tell you that the oldest historically black college or university (HBCU) is either Cheyney University, established in 1837, or Lincoln University, founded in 1854, both of which were established in my home commonwealth — not state — of Pennsylvania. But that contested rendering on the history of black colleges neglects to inform the listener that in 1831 — six years before the creation of Cheyney — educators and leaders at the afore-cited liberal arts college squashed what would have been the establishment of the first black college in the United States.
The chosen location for this potential first black liberal arts college was not Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or New York; three states with steep abolitionist histories. The chosen site of this experiment was none other than New Haven, Connecticut, but leaders at Yale College opposed and suppressed the opening of such a school on the basis of thirteen specific resolutions, one of which is worth a full quotation:
In some ways, by characterizing the maintenance of racism as an implicit function of liberal arts colleges, I’m undermining the power of this passage, which is actually extremely explicit in its elucidation: the education of black people, this passage intimates, would disrupt the institution of slavery, and such a disruption is unwarrantable and dangerous. Do you remember earlier when I mentioned the two words of ‘liberation’ and ‘independence’ would appear later in this address? Here it is. This same liberal arts college today claims to be interested in “liberating and freeing the mind” but was once deeply invested in the iniquity of American independence and the tightening of the slave’s shackle. What’s more, this college has done nothing to grapple with the legacy of its explicitly racist history, a history that is not ancillary to that college’s function but essential to it.
Actually, I stand corrected: this institution is grappling with its racist endorsement and enabling of American slavery. Earlier this year, that institution’s board and president, going against the votes of the majority of its students, chose to retain the name of one its residential college named for John C. Calhoun, the vociferous defender of slavery who, according to that institution’s logic, would be erased from the history books were the residential college to bear a different name.
You might still be unconvinced that an implicit function of liberal arts college in a democratic society is to replicate social inequality — including structural racism — because this blockade of a black college happened almost two centuries ago and some of yall are probably thinking in your heads #NotAllLiberalArtsColleges. I’ll get to your counterarguments later. But before I do, I want to offer yet another anecdote that substantiates my claim, which I’m sure others have made in the past, about the ways in which liberal arts colleges function to replicate social inequality. To do this, I’m going to ask everyone in here to close their eyes starting right now. Please, close your eyes. I know yall tired of looking at me already anyway. But please close them.
With your eyes closed, I want you to imagine you are in high school again. Remember the fragility and freedom you had — or didn’t have — as a teenager. Remember your community, your loved ones, your classmates. Any community institutions, such as an athletic team or religious entity, remember them too. Remember your teachers. Remember your enemies. What’s high school without enemies? One day I have to tell yall the story about the death threats I got in high school. That’s for another day. Remember all of these aspects of your time in high school.
Now, imagine, if you will, that you are accepted into the very best liberal arts college in the whole wide world. You are among the chosen few in the world granted acceptance at this prestigious place, and on top of that, you are the first person in the history of your high school and in the history of your neighborhood to be admitted there. Also imagine that due to your academic merits you are accepted with a full scholarship. You inform your parents, your teachers, your community members, and your enemies. Gotta give fuel to the haters, or they’ll die, right? You tell everybody you know and some folks you don’t know about your acceptance into this elite college.
You begin to prepare yourself for enrollment at this college. You get a whole new wardrobe, not because your family can afford it, but because your parents will do anything to make sure you look your very best as you join the company of the world’s elite. Imagine all of the excitement as you embark on the train ride to this campus cloistered away in an oasis of opportunity. Imagine yourself as you disembark the train, stroll across campus taking in the new sites and sounds of serenity. Birds never sang more elegantly. Leaves never fell so graciously. Life never felt more alive.
Imagine you go to the registration counter to give the registrar your name. You see your name on the list, and you even point it out to the registrar. “That’s my name, right there,” you instruct. Imagine the registrar looks back at you, then back at the paper, then back at you once more. Imagine the registrar saying to you: “before I can enroll you in classes, I need to check on something.” Imagine your excitement about the suspense. “Will they increase my scholarship? What can be higher than a full ride? I don’t know, but I sure can’t wait to find out,” you think in your head.
Imagine that the registrar returns with different news. Actually, the college cannot enroll you in classes after all. No explanation is given to you. But you must leave, right now in fact. Imagine the disbelief and the dystopia of the moment. So, you take your suitcase, packed full with the new wardrobe your family sacrificed to purchase. You call this same family, and imagine you sitting down on your suitcase for hours until they arrive to campus to pick you up and take you back to the community you left only earlier that day. Imagine that you get back home, and you’re incensed and so you write a letter to demand an explanation as to why the college refused you enrollment after it offered you admission and a scholarship. You walk to the nearest post office, pay for postage, and drop your letter, addressed to the dean of admissions, into the mail. You wait.
Open your eyes. Take a moment for them to readjust to the lights. None of yall betta went to sleep during my story neither. With your eyes hopefully readjusted, you receive a response to your inquiry. The Dean of Admissions himself has responded directly to you, Bruce M. Wright. His response includes the following:
“Dear Mr. Wright:
Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color, or creed…so much for the general policy of the University, which policy it is the privilege of my committee to administer. Now let me give you a purely personal reaction, and I speak as one who has always been particularly interested in the colored race…I cannot conscientiously advise a colored student to apply for admission to Princeton…there are no colored students in the University and a member of your race might feel very much alone. There are, moreover, a number of southern students enrolled in the college…I write these personal reactions simply because I would wish you the greatest success in your college course both as a student and as a member of a university family.”
This letter is not from the 19th century, but from about 75 years ago. I have living family members who remember this time period, and remember it quite vividly. In this letter, we see the Dean of Admissions rationalize the college’s denial to a black student, doing so on the basis of essentially “but what about the segregationists already on campus? How do you think they would feel and, more importantly, react to your presence?” This clearly demonstrates the implicit function of liberal arts colleges in democratic societies to replicate — not challenge, deconstruct, or eradicate — social inequality.
For a fuller account of Princeton in its role in exacerbating structural inequality, I refer you to an article written by my brother Stefan M. Bradley entitled “The Southern-Most Ivy: Princeton University from Jim Crow Admissions to Anti-Apartheid Protests, 1794–1969.” Stefan’s article quoted William White, Princeton Class of 1923, who in a 1948 piece for the Princeton Alumni Weekly wrote that:
“Princeton must remain the shining citadel of white supremacy and set an example for all of the world to see of the tolerance and intelligence of the white man.”
Again, much like with the excerpt from Yale officials decrying a black college because it would threaten the health of the republic, this excerpt communicates what one could argue is actually the explicit function of the liberal arts college in a democratic society. Mountains of evidence would support such a claim. But I think you get the point, so for argument’s sake let’s assume that this is indeed an implicit function, and not an explicit one.
I could spend the rest of this address showing example after example of evidence that speaks to this implicit function. You may, rightly, question my choice to include only examples from two well-funded, Ivy League colleges that are part of a larger university apparatus, to which I respond that I do so because these are the only two liberal arts colleges with which I have extensive experience and because these two schools have been instrumental in the shaping of liberal arts colleges elsewhere in the country, either with prominent alumni as founders, as funders, or both. Put another way, one could dig into the archives of Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, and many other colleges to find comparable evidence to suggest these spaces are sites of exclusion as opposed to inclusion, ones that make life exceedingly difficult and violent for any student who is not white, cisgendered, male, heterosexual, and wealthy. In fact, amazing archivists, librarians, and students at those first two colleges have already been doing some of that work of unconvering and bringing forward that evidence; some of those folks are in this room today and others may read this address later.
Now that I have laid the foundation of liberal arts colleges by describing both the explicit and implicit functions they perform within democratic societies, let me shift my attention towards why institutional archivists within these spaces should disrupt that implicit function by documenting student activism that directly confronts it. We should use our collecting policies and engagement strategies to disrupt that implicit function of entrenching social inequality on grounds that are at once moral, professional, and educational.
On the moral grounds, students on many of our campuses are experiencing the hell caught by previous generations of students. We are in a new wave of black student activism primarily because attacks, both verbal and physical, are escalating against black students across the country. If students are not attending a college that forbids black women from entering certain social spaces they may be attending a college that accepts it as “free speech” for football fans to dress up in Halloween costumes that depict the lynching of a sitting US president, the latter of which happened in the wholesome state of Wisconsin. In addition to these and many more attacks on black people, women, and queer students who are pursuing degrees at our colleges, our conscience must be awakened by the thousands of prisoners, mostly immigrants, who are jailed unjustly and inhumanely in private prisons throughout the country. Do you know who is a major financial investor in the companies that own and manage many of these private prisons? Liberal arts colleges with endowments that skyrocket into the tens of millions and even billions. These esteemed institutions of higher learning do financial business with the companies responsible for massive human rights violations right here on American soil. Your liberal arts college is doing that. And students at your liberal arts college are challenging that, and they’re creating volumes and volumes of archival records about their resistance to it. It shouldn’t require much moral fiber for you to collect, preserve, and provide access to those records over time, for that act of archiving can indeed bring these inequalities to even more light and lead to their lessening.
The moral grounds should be sufficient to move you to action, but if not, then let us move quickly to the professional grounds on which you should be documenting student protests that critique the contemporary liberal arts college. By a show of hands, how many in here have ever read the Library Bill of Rights? The third point in the bill of rights is to “challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” In the case of institutional archivists and librarians within institutional archives, this means actively fighting against the pressure to peddle propaganda on behalf of the college’s admission offices, communications office, or even the president’s office. This propaganda requires your passivity and negligence. Stand on your training and expertise as a professional, and make clear and compelling cases to the administration about why you are organizing collecting drives around student activism. Let them know that this isn’t personal: it’s purely professional. I know SAA gets a bad rap these days, which it has dutifully earned, but if you need another source to support your project on documenting student activism, look at the organization’s Core Values Statement and read the paragraph on accountability. We as trained archivists have the capacity to chronicle change and continuity over time, and it’s crucial to do so or else our campuses will certainly repeat cycles of injustice if records of that injustice are erased or otherwise silenced; there is literally no other part of the campus better suited and trained to do this work than archivists and librarians.
Should you find the moral and professional grounds insufficient, I invite you to rebuke, then, the educational grounds for moving into the foray of actively soliciting archival records from student communities who are calling our colleges to task for their implicit function. The educational grounds for this activity are supported by the explicit function of the liberal arts college itself. How can there be any liberation or independence in thought if we as archivists and librarians are not intentionally assembling a more perfect historical record that reflects how many of our institutions have been directly hostile to notions of full liberation or independence? Truly, how can the “ability to think critically and independently,” which that aforementioned college states as central to the liberal arts, be cultivated if we are not courageous enough to construct a critical record of student activities and student life? In this way, to lead archival projects of this nature is not to sabotage our liberal arts colleges; it’s actually an act to salvage them. It is not in spite of but because of these institutions’ published commitment to liberal arts education that we must be motivated and moved to action. We as librarians and archivists at our colleges are distinct from — not better than — but distinct from administrative offices. We are educators, first, foremost, and finally, so let us lean into that fact.
I can expect three immediate rebuttals to this claim, and shamefully I don’t have the space today to respond to each of them in detail, but I want to acknowledge that they exist and offer a few words on each. The first is that actively soliciting these types of records will impair the trust archivists have with university administrators and offices, to which I would respond: how much real trust do you have now if you are concerned that the fulfillment of your moral, professional, and educational duties will abrogate said trust? The second is that reprisals or retribution may arise as a result of this activity, to which I respond that the price of getting free aint cheap and if nothing more you can tell them that your simply following Princeton’s lead! I say that jokingly, but I do want to emphasize the significance of pointing to other liberal arts colleges where librarians and archivists have started to do this, many of them before Princeton actually. Shoutout Bryn Mawr. Kent State. Middle Tennessee State. University of Virginia. Yale and Harvard have even joined the anti-propaganda party! The third rebuttal is both extremely rare and extremely irrelevant, but it will come up, which is the risk to the college’s reputation, to which I respond: did you go to school for marketing and sales or for librarianship and the art and science behind information? I went to the latter, personally. Moreover, if the reputation of your college resides on a façade of inclusion and racial harmony, then it’s your college — and not you — that has the problem. Do you remember how far that façade got the president of the University of Missouri in 2015? It got him so far you can’t see him anywhere on campus or anywhere near another one; word to #concernedstudent1950 for that work, to Jonathan Butler, and the Mizzou football team.
I rest my case for why institutional archivists and librarians should document student dissent that critiques the liberal arts college, as it is my argument that by leaning into the explicit function of the liberal arts college we can address their implicit ones. I want to close with an account of the potential impact of this act of assembling an archival record from students that critiques the college. And I want to discuss this impact with a short narrative.
Two weeks ago, I was traveling back from Los Angeles leaving the first of four IMLS-funded community archives forums. I had a shirt made explicitly for the occasion of this forum, and that quote featured a quote from the inimitable Ida B. Wells, and it read:
Although I had worn the shirt at the forum, I really wanted to wear it at LAX airport just to see whether and how people would respond to the provocation. Lots of people did actually. TSA agents, restaurant workers, and even flight attendants said something to me about the quotation, mostly to the effect that they appreciated the realness of it. But one passenger, an older white man, came over to me to express his appreciation because prior to that moment he had never heard of the name Ida B. Wells. He shared with me that after seeing my shirt, he did some googling on his phone and was pleasantly surprised at her career. We then had a two-minute conversation about her life and work, especially its relevance today.
I thanked this stranger because his interaction helped reveal the possibilities of an archive that doesn’t shy away from the critiques but instead revels in it. Shirts, ordinarily, aren’t fitted for this purpose and aren’t ordinarily supposed to do the kind of work that this shirt did. People are supposed to wear shirts only for warmth, for style, or for status.
But the Wells shirt shows what is possible when we repurpose things that people tell us serve just one set of purposes and transform it into something new. Consideration happens. Compassion happens. Change happens. A shirt can broach these. So can taking a knee during the national anthem. So can the archive. Maybe the sole purpose needn’t be informational. Maybe it needn’t be evidential. Maybe, to bring back a word used earlier that I told you would reappear, we need archives to be liberational and have liberational value. That exchange in the airport, to me, cuts at the core of the liberal arts. The documentation of dissent delivered a dialogue. We can make these liberational moments the raison d’être for archives at liberal arts colleges, and actually, the next 585 years of our liberal arts colleges are counting on us to do so. Thank you.
Full video of the address and the question/answer portion is published to YouTube and embedded below.