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Remaining Optimistic

At a recent student-faculty discussion about diversity on campus a student, in reaction to another student saying I’m tired of having to say the same thing over and over again asked the faculty How, after fifteen or more years of trying to advocate for change, and seeing where we are, how can you keep trying? I thought about the question, and added it my list of prospective essays.

Today was not a particularly positive day. I have no idea how I can have my department staff enough classes to meet student demand. I’m way too far behind in grading. And, as always, I’m frustrated by a wide range of issues on campus. So, as I scanned the list of possible essay topics to write this evening, I decided that writing this one would be a good response to my negativity.

Things aren’t as good as we’d like them to be at Grinnell. That’s clear. Grinnell has a host of issues, from students who are insufficiently supported, to a problematic alcohol scene, to inconsistencies in shared governance, a complete misunderstanding of the Web, and more. All of these issues have existed at Grinnell for more-or-less as long as I’ve been at the College (nineteen years or so, if I count right). I regularly feel like I am raising each of these issues at faculty meetings; in conversations with colleagues, administrators, or students; in memos; or in public fora.

That should be disheartening. But it’s not. Here’s why. In part, I’ve watched Grinnell get better in many aspects. The original question had to do with issues of diversity, so I’ll start there. We certainly have a much more diverse student body than when I arrived, and I take that as a positive. I know many of our domestic students of color face challenges at Grinnell that I will never face as a large, white, male, and those challenges are significant. But the College is acknowledging the challenges (or starting to acknowledge the challenges), and I believe that well intentioned people are trying to make a difference.

Are there significant problems with support for student mental health on campus? Yes. Is it worse than it’s been? I don’t know. Support for mental health has always been problematic. I think it’s better than the crash of three years ago. I see some of the things I’ve complained about being addressed, such as support for students over the summer. Do I wish we moved faster on this issue (and do I think we need to move faster on this issue)? Yes.

Is faculty governance better? Well, we do have the chair of the faculty helping set the minutes for the faculty meeting, which I take as a positive. And I watch faculty make some big changes at the College. So, while I find huge numbers of things frustrating, I see some positive steps.

Is our alcohol culture getting better? Certainly, fewer students are ending up in the emergency room, which is good. And, once again, we’re talking about the issues and people are trying to change things. Perhaps most importantly, we have awesome people, like Jen Jacobsen, thinking hard about these issues.

Is our understanding of networked information better? Well, no, not as far as I can tell. It’s probably gotten worse. Amazingly, that doesn’t make me pessimistic. Why? Because I know that we have some smart and thoughtful people who seem to understand the issues, or at least understand that what we have is bad.

And maybe that really encompasses the reason that I’m optimistic about Grinnell. I see a place with wonderful people who listen (in general) and who are committed to making change. I also know that change is usually slow and difficult. I’ve also found that when I pause, wait, and listen, things sometimes get better; I can sometimes trust that those around me have listened, and are thinking about how best to approach things; it happens more often than I’d expect.

So when change doesn’t happen, and I have to argue something for the hundredth time, I look at past improvements (and the often-slow rate of past improvements), I acknowledge that my understanding is sometimes incomplete, I think about the people who make up Grinnell, and I take heart.

In short: I remain optimistic because I see positive change happen and because I see a community of people who I can trust to make change.

I also remain optimistic because I’m my mother’s son. I can’t find it right now, so I’ll have to paraphrase, but there’s a great story in which mom is talking to her doctor. He asks Freda, you spend your time advocating for peace, and there is still war. You spend your time advocating for justice for all, and we clearly don’t have justice. Why do you waste your time? Her response? Think about how much worse it might be if I wasn’t trying.

As seems to be the norm these days, I am not happy with this essay. But it’s what I got written today, and so it’s what I’m posting. As always, I appreciate any comments or corrections you may wish to provide.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-02.