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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Tocqueville and Numa: A Weekly Column by Peter Fritz and Tommy Walker: Stimulating student discourse: what’s wrong and how to fix it

< the past few weeks we have been lamenting the lack of public discourse about governance at Carleton. Lack of a discourse across the student community may make it difficult, as we have illustrated, to express student goals and desires coherently and fairly.

How broad ought this discourse be is an important concern.. Certainly we can imagine a discourse of governance that is fairly restricted, with a small “elite” of students possessing the knowledge and expertise about Carleton’s governance and who are tasked with providing input on behalf of all students. This is similar to the status quo. Unfortunately, with this system we run the risks we have noted in other columns—passing over parts of the Carleton community and reaching unsatisfactory outcomes.

We recognize that more deliberate thinking about the College’s governance is difficult. For one thing, the idea of a public discourse is becoming stranger. In terms of national institutions, we are growing up in a time of segmented news sources, blogs catering to specific slices of the population, and highly customized digests of opinion and events. Nationally we see this in a diminishing broad public discourse about important issues.

For another, Carleton students, being Carleton students, are pressed for time. A substantive commitment to contributing to campus governance requires time to learn the many intricacies that are unnecessary for succeeding academically here. Time is also required to attend meetings. This is compounded by a significant degree of knowledge differentiation—it can be very hard to tell what is important or even most closely related to the critical functions of the college.

We do have some avenues for public discourse about Carleton’s governance including the Carletonian. Right now it does an admirable job reporting on noteworthy events on campus. We are in awe of any group of people who come together week in and week out regardless of other commitments to produce a publication. Still there a few limits to the discourse that occurs in the Carletonian. First, the paper is too small and there are too few reports to cover all of the stories that are newsworthy. Second, our reports do not have the time to fully research and interview all the interested parties. All too often, therefore, the stories focus more on facts and events with little reporting on the larger ideas and processes behind the news.

In addition to internal obstacles, the relationship of the Carletonian to the rest of the community is also a barrier to public discourse. The paper is completely student run and has no oversight from faculty or the administration. This set-up is desirable because it respects the autonomy of the student press but it also creates problems. To what extent should administrators, faculty, or staff inject themselves into what can be framed as a student discussion? There is a strong argument that students should be given the opportunity to develop their own collective conscious and norms without undue influence. Students can be suspicious of “authority” figures and there might well be pedagogical benefits to letting the student body regulate itself.

On particular issues, usually large scale, long term capital projects such as the new dorms or the arts center either the administrators leading the project or students involved as committee members will hold some sort of open forum to discuss the project. These have the advantages of bringing the people most knowledgeable about the given project on campus to the same place at the same time. Usually, though, they are poorly attended by students and tend to be more of an information session than dialogue.

We can do better. Two principles for governance mechanisms we are proposing: a) increase a sense of a community—not just for four years, but one that requires constant care and feeding and b) increase information, access, and clarity. Tuesday/Thursday Common Time was intended to provide for more and different faculty-student interaction. Students quite busy during this time, however. It would be tremendously beneficial for students to spend more time informally with professors and over lunch in the dining hall is a great way to do that. Many large “forum” type events related to campus governance are also scheduled during Common Time Doubtlessly contributing to their poor attendance.

Students also find it hard to tell how their impact will be felt. While it was excellent that the curriculum design teams’ presentations to students was later in the day (the forum was correspondingly better attended than others), not only were there very few faculty and administrators involved but also the Moodle site was not ready for students to use for feedback. Students must see how their efforts make a real difference if they are expected to continue to put effort into college governance.

We believe that there are plenty of opportunities to better provide the information that is necessary for active participation in College governance. W The governance web page that exists off of the Student Gateway is highly confusing and unhelpful to someone attempting to get a grasp on how decisions are made at Carleton. This page needs to be redesigned and rethought, not just to better point to documents that exist, but to help students better understand how decisions are made at Carleton. Perhaps some sort of “governance calendar” should show up next to the current calendar on the Student Gateway, with current links to newly posted meeting minutes, agendas, and upcoming meetings.

We propose these things not because we believe that every Carleton student must be actively and deeply engaged in Carleton’s governance, but because more of us need at least be aware of the issues and processes that shape Carleton as an institution.

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