Talk of the Quad: As an eagle towards the sky
I’ve heard that birds are disappearing. I don’t understand all the implications of mass extinction, but I’m sure that it does not augur well for us. Maybe it’s encouraging that birds have recently found refuge in the Orient. In response to three articles published two weeks ago, I wanted to share something I noticed.
I recently saw a Chukar partridge in Brunswick. I was walking by 52 Harpswell when I spotted two older men across the street, frozen with eyes fixed on something in the lawn next to me. They were pointing and talking excitedly to each other. I will not give a detailed description of the Chukar—the article 2 weeks ago did that well enough—but will say that it’s beautiful. It certainly stands out in a suburban landscape. For its size, it was extremely disruptive that afternoon: the two men all but ran into the road to get a closer look, stopping traffic, while I scrambled to take a picture of it. This encounter roughened an otherwise smooth walk home that had been completely sanded down by routine. It reminded me that there is more to the landscape than my usual walks reveal: there are worlds besides our own that we manage to distance ourselves from but cannot quite escape. Usually, however, it takes something as outwardly extraordinary as a Chukar to wake me to this fact.
A walk across campus is usually rushed—a way from A to B. The Bowdoin landscape is pretty but is rarely more than a background for our determined lives—and a predictable, safe background at that. An erratic squirrel is the most disruptive thing most of us encounter regularly and even that is hardly enough to free us from our busy heads. We rarely observe what we see.
This summer, I worked with a number of avid birders in a community where loafing is virtue. They walked slowly and paused frequently, keen on small details and nuances I could not perceive. They saw things I didn’t and loved the wildlife refuge in a way I could not. As Liam Taylor’s Talk of the Quad explained, going birding gives us the chance to observe and connect with beings radically different from us. Done well, it can be a hobby of humility: past plumage and species lies an experience alien but not entirely inaccessible to us. The distance implied by the difference need not be insurmountable.
In the solitary setting of a beach or forest, it may be natural to step into a more active, inquisitive mindset. But to assume the posture of a birder in our crowded human habitats is a spiritual challenge. It’s one thing to realize we share a planet with people and things with inner lives as rich and vibrant as our own—in theory or in momentary glimpses in the woods—but it’s another, much thornier thing to adjust ourselves according to this knowledge. To wake up and find our mundane surroundings solid and pulsing with meaning. This opening of ears and eyes seems to ask for a lot of heart.
But we don’t have to talk abstractly about what has practical implications and examples close to home. You don’t need to dwell on last year’s frustrating campus dialogue about race to begin to suspect that we aren’t good listeners: I think about any time I let prodding personal stress keep me from following a class discussion, having a conversation with an author or understanding a friend; or how fear of awkwardness and discomfort—truly self-centered concerns—shackle all modes of discourse. There is clearly a difference between ideas you listen to and noises you hear, just as there is between seeing a living thing and feeling yourself in its eyes. Good listening is like questioning: a pursuit of truth, valuable whether or not you get an answer. It should move us. In a community of bad listeners, my peers become a collection of background noises and decorations.
Last February, Marc Lamont Hill gave a talked titled “Fighting for Freedom in an Hour of Chaos” to a small Kresge audience. He talked about global politics, Black Lives Matter and our campus, which was struggling to make sense of itself at the time. I gather that we all want to feel safe and somewhat ordered. We want to know what’s happening and especially where we are going. Most of us plan courses of life on a clean piece of paper, letting our lives fall into place around a few formal activities. We even pencil-in Ivies: binge drinking and hookup culture are not distractions from but rather natural extensions of resume culture. Waxing effusive at meals about the week’s work or the weekend’s social chores, it’s easy to ignore the soft uneasiness in each other’s voices or sadness behind the customary cheer. Our lives are rigidly structured and our community unstable. Last year had many people questioning whether or not Bowdoin even is a community. At least last year people were questioning.
It’s possible that the way we order our personal lives has made the community ill; and it’s possible that below the C.V. and the hard athletic bodies, we are not so healthy and secure. Hill prescribed “radical listening” to our ailing nation and our wavering campus: only by seeking knowledge through other’s perspectives and vigorously questioning our own could we become a community. This, he implied, is the sort of knowledge that diversity and a liberal arts education offer, but hardly guarantee. It cannot be honestly pursued on the way to something else.
Now my point has barely fledged, but I’ve said more than enough: a refuge is a good thing, but it’s far from a home. Birds belong in conversation.
Ben Bristol is a member of the Class of 2017.
Polaris and the Bowdoin odyssey
If you’ve given Polaris a glance lately, you might have noticed a few things. There appear to be three new language departments. The philosophy department appears to be on a diet. Clayton Rose (Professor Rose?) has his own discipline. Professor Barker’s Projective and Non-Euclidean Geometries has the craziest course description: "Special focus will be placed on conic sections and projective embeddings.” In theory, you could take classical political philosophy and contemporary political philosophy at the same time. There are exactly two humanities seminars that examine relationships between humans and animals. You can fulfill your INS studying (and sipping?) wine. You definitely cannot take what you really want to take.
Polaris is another name for the North Star: a stable point of light and the original navigation tool for wandering seafarers. (It is also a part of the constellation Ursa Minor, or “smaller (she-)bear.”). But is Polaris a fitting name for our course selection system?
Polaris is chaotic and essential to our Bowdoin educations. By Polaris, we mean not just the online system, but the entire course selection process. Neither benevolent nor unkind, it is both the arbiter and instigator of contentious scheduling politics. A range of disciplines, an endless lineup of professors, and arbitrary distribution requirements stare blankly at you through the screen. There’s no indication of where to go or what to do. Our need for intellectual discovery takes us through murky, pine-dark waters: how are we to steer?
Consider the deluge of 10:00-11:30 Tuesday/Thursday classes. No student will take more than one of: Introduction to Africana or Environmental Studies, Anthropology, Religion, Art History, Education. This might ruin some plans. Suppose some aspiring-to-be-well-rounded first years cannot get their introductory fill, and are forced elsewhere into some dark 2000-level unknown. A few other classes might over-register. We upperclassmen will obviously sell short on this 1101 bubble and register elsewhere, but next year’s in-comers might be trapped. We all deal with the frustration of time conflicts and sometimes end up places we don’t want to be, but those with the standing “first year, first semester” are most vulnerable. Polaris shipwrecks even the most prudent planners among us.
Amidst the wavy tumult are many tantalizing options. Look at Barker’s Math 3404. The class purports to cover the “transformational viewpoint of Klein’s Erlanger Program” and, time permitting, “quaternions in three dimensional geometry.” Scrumptious. We’re not sure what these words mean, but this class promises to tickle any tummy hungry for abstraction and especially mathematical theory. For those of us with no math experience since high school (Ben), it’s a dream and nothing more; for those who have the prerequisites, but lack the schedule space (Michael), it gestures toward a more perfect semester that is just out of reach. There are not only storms, but also sirens in the curricular seascape.
We’re not sure we want to be tied to the mast. This is the fun of Polaris. Registration encourages us to dream about what we could be as scholars, if only we could explore the geometry of four-dimensional spacetime in special relativity. Though it’s a romantic ritual, and somewhat whimsical, it’s also an important occasion for self-reflection. Mistakes we’ve made in the past will inform the decisions we make this round. As we fine-tune our interests, our ogling changes too. To refine our tastes in The Science of Food and Wine! (We don’t actually want to take that class.) The new Polaris cycle comes with new dreams and new conflicts: dynamic and chaotic.
Polaris is better conceived of as something to navigate, than something to navigate by. At once, it encourages romantic intellectual wandering and curbs it. To an extent, it alienates us from the hard work and stresses that go with courses, allowing us to indulge in titles and descriptions, while we ignore the real work they entail. There’s also an element of chance (fate?): sometimes you end up on the waitlist, and too often the “right” courses meet at the same time. In the end, we always compromise. We wash up somewhere we didn’t expect to land. Robert Peary, class of 1877, and supposedly the first man to reach the North Pole, declared “I shall find a way or make one.” The Bowdoin opportunity is to find order in the chaos of intellectual possibility. What we make is never perfect, but it is truly our own. We are our own stars: imperfect, but reliable guides.
Michael Butler and Ben Bristol are members of the class of 2017.
Talk of the Quad: The mythological existence of Bowdoin squirrels
I’m surprised no one’s beaten me up the tree on this topic: the nature of the sciurine sensation. At Bowdoin, the Yik Yak feed is replete with references to the campus squirrels. Posts or entries on the localized forum allow students to comment on their Bowdoin experience; the campus squirrels are a recurring and important aspect of that experience. Something about the small mammals makes them a fine occasion for campus commentary. They are endlessly fascinating to Bowdoin students and an excellent source of critical comic material. The mythology of squirrels on this campus depends heavily on Yik Yak.
Bowdoin squirrels as they appear on Yik Yak of course are based on a “real life,” material, squirrel phenomenon. Squirrels are an important and unique element in the campus landscape. They are a consistent presence and a campus staple for students. Their role in the landscape is entirely different from that of stationary campus elements, such as buildings and trees. Besides people, dogs and other occasional animals, squirrels are the only constant, mobile and lively element of the campus landscape.
Trees may be their opposite; static and predictable, the arboreal installations seldom draw the active attention of students (except for when they’re lit with fall color for that one or two month window). Community members interact passively with the trees, and if they do actively observe trees, it is never witty, sarcastic, ironic or self-reflexive, which are all characteristic of observations on Yik Yak and especially of squirrel-centric posts.
Squirrels draw active observation because they are dynamic and proximate. The campus squirrels are comfortable in the close company of students—they seem to have an intrepid indifference to students and their activity. Active observation is important to understanding the squirrels, since they represent a Yik Yak dependent symbol and since Yik Yak depends on active observation. (Yik Yak relevant observation is always active.) Squirrels’ close proximity draws in what is often otherwise a tranced audience.
Students’ ability to observe depends on squirrels’ close proximity, but the activity behind the observation depends on their dynamicity. Squirrels exist in a landscape of mostly static, contained, polite and predictable elements—such as trees. They make themselves quite conspicuous as an exception in the landscape and, indeed, the lives of their observers. In this case, the passive is made active by an unsettling, or defying of expectations, or probably both. The squirrels’ close proximity and apparent comfort in that proximity can be unsettling, even scary in a benign sort of way to students, who generally do not expect “wild,” undomesticated animals to ever breach a certain physical sphere. This excitement begets some reflection or judgment from the observer that lends itself well to Yik Yak humor.
Even when they are not dictated or characterized by fear, squirrel-student interactions provide opportunities for comedic observation. There is something inherently funny to Bowdoin students about squirrel behavior; they look frantic, wired, determined and, in all this, cute (like your typical Bowdoin student?). Observers readily perceive that squirrels have their own world of interests, concerns and conflicts that is strikingly different from that of Bowdoin students. That two radically different worlds of experience can occur in a single physical space makes the squirrel-human dynamic especially noteworthy or funny. This is fundamentally why and how campus squirrels have made it into the realm of Yik Yak. It wasn’t until the campus squirrels came into contact with this established campus forum that they acquired the meaning and significance that we ascribe to them today.
Yik Yak is a well attended and hallowed non-physical space, with its own unique symbolic power. A number of campus symbols depend on Yik-yak. It has that effect as a discursive forum that rewards original commentary; it is a well-attended, fractured narrative where campus life is actively constructed and deconstructed. Students articulate and discuss campus elements in relation to other campus elements, as well as in relation to themselves. The physical elements behind the symbols, like the “real life” squirrels, are just a part of the signs’ histories—not the signs themselves. Campus squirrels would not mean what they do without this discursive tool and the squirrel discourse it has facilitated.
Yik Yak is a self-reflexive, highly self-referential system with a huge following. There is a sort of positive feedback loop for signs within Yik Yak. The Yik Yak discourse has the power to sever the symbol from its physical point of reference—to form self-sufficient signs. This is not so in the case for the campus squirrels sign, which depends on a give and take between the physical squirrels and the forum’s squirrel narrative. The squirrels themselves still (seem) to directly inspire many of the Yaks that reference them, while the Yik Yak squirrel discourse directly changes the way students observe the physical squirrels. The squirrels and the squirrel discourse according to Yik Yak work in tandem to shape a single sign. A change or variance in one necessarily changes the other, and the unified meaning abides by this give-and-take. A cultish student following drives the evolution of the symbol.
Eastern gray squirrels are sedentary in the zoological sense—that is, they stay put and do not migrate. The campus squirrels are always present on campus and relate to the same changes in outdoor physical environment (especially the weather) that students do. There’s a barometric quality to them. Sometimes this allows for squirrels, as the subject of yaks, to function as a means for students to comment—often ironically, with the wide trajectory of clever humor—on their own experiences of the Bowdoin campus. One of the most common “strategies” is to superimpose the Bowdoin students’ world onto the squirrels. For example: “I’m not for slut shaming but some of these squirrels must be having outrageous amounts of sex,” or “that squirrel is on so-pro” and countless more.
Though the squirrels appear as the object of the observations deployed on the anonymous forum, in many cases, they are but the means to students’ end of self-reflection (which may be the end of Yik Yak itself). The striking difference between the non-physical worlds of Bowdoin squirrels and Bowdoin students casts in relief many aspects of student life: their interests, concerns and self-proclaimed struggles. Incorporating squirrels into Yik Yak is a comedic way of exposing the world of Bowdoin students. You might say this world is eccentric or flighty—is there a word for that?
Embracing the Offer of the College through activism
I sat down in the Ladd House living room a couple of weeks ago to hear about student activism at Bowdoin. The four students speaking each represented different groups: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Radical Alternatives, the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA). The students spoke about what they do and why they do it. Three of us were there to listen, but their message addressed the whole community.
They represent a minority (likely larger than it appears) of Bowdoin students who are dissatisfied with the routine of campus life. Their message: the system we operate in is shallow and passive. The daily routine that we fall into keeps us from learning what we really need to learn (and doing the things we need to do). That sort of claim demands context and explanation.
Matt Goodrich ’15 and Christopher Wedeman ’15, from BCA and SJP respectively, were both very unhappy during their first year at Bowdoin. They felt inconsequential, “channeled and oppressed by the daily routine.” So they started clubs in which people could express feelings that were stifled by the campus culture.
SJP gave Wedeman a feeling of home at Bowdoin—the support and group dynamic excited him. Catalina Gallagher ’16—who has been a participant in SJP, BCA and Radical Alternatives—said it would be very hard to be at Bowdoin and not be a part of student activism.
But they did not found or join these groups just to make friends. Their involvement stems from a deeper dissatisfaction with Bowdoin.
Kaylee Wolfe ’15, the student director of the WRC, spoke to the challenge of “chipping away at a very real problem” through a club, which exists within a framework established by Bowdoin. “It’s a game of learning,” she said.
These groups focus on different issues and take different approaches to their work, but each wants the same thing.
As Gallagher put it, there’s a lot of talk, but no follow through. Students are taught to think critically about problems but not encouraged to force the issues in any real way. “Most of what we do is very shallow,” Goodrich said. “We have to look beyond the surface level of issues.”
Wedeman cited the example of Bowdoin’s commitment to the environment. It’s “greenwashing,” he said. The school sells an environmental image but deals with the problems in a very shallow way. Most of BCA’s work has focused on mobilizing students and the administration to support a real commitment to dealing with environmental issues, with mixed results.
The underlying problem? “Nobody feels any pressure to uphold ‘The Offer,’” Wolfe said. The Offer of the College invites students to use their time at Bowdoin to become leaders. These students condemned the school and administration, but they were really criticizing us, the students.
One can certainly make the argument that the school has a responsibility to encourage us to act on important issues, but that’s never been the role of the College. It’s always been the role of students to shape their own educations.
Every student has his or her own path to a true education, Wedeman said, but “there is a clash between what we really need...and what we’re told to do.”
We need the skills and perspectives necessary to effect positive change in the world, not just to get good grades.
To be “leaders in all walks of our lives,” our learning must be focused and reflective. Not to sound self-important, but the world needs us right now. Every day innocent people are denied rights and killed, species go extinct (at a terrifying rate), and more carbon crowds our atmosphere. The world is incredibly and increasingly unstable.
Our generation will need to respond with leadership, creativity and urgency. That urgency has to inform our learning now. We cannot be complacent about the state of our planet or indifferent to our role in changing it. We have tremendous resources behind us, but we do not live The Offer of the College just by going here. We have to hold ourselves accountable to the common good.
You don’t have to be a student activist at Bowdoin, but you have to take an active interest. We don’t all have the fire to start a club, petition and protest. But be urgent in what you do. Be aware of why you do it. Learn deliberately. More depends on it than you think. We should not talk about homework like it’s a job we do just to get by. It’s a privilege and a powerful advantage to go here. We have a responsibility not to be passive.
Ben Bristol is a member of the Class of 2017.