Convocation, Representation, and the Future: What Tradition Means to You

Jocelyn Proietti ’16
Contributing Writer

Last Wednesday, students and SGA representatives gathered together in the Campus Center to conduct a series of discussions about Convocation, the traditions surrounding it and what it means to be an inclusionary campus. Coming out of the conversation, it appeared that many had a lot to talk about, both in defense and in critique of Convocation. Below is The Sophian’s interview of Wellness Education Director Emily Nagoski regarding the issue.

What do you believe are the pros and cons of a tradition such as Convocation, with regard to overall student wellness?

EN: Sure there are pros and cons – just as there are to pretty much everything in life – and what these are depends on what kind of “wellness” we’re talking about. In terms of individual personal health, alcohol is the primary risk factor; while survey data suggest that the majority of students either don’t drink at all or else drink in a way that doesn’t increase their risk of unwanted consequences, a very visible, audible and sometimes odoriferous minority of students do drink in a way that increases risk of, for example, blacking out, throwing up, or doing things they regret. In terms of social wellness, it’s a tricky situation because on the one hand, some students experience Convocation as a uniquely empowering and unifying event, while some students experience it as offensive, exclusionary or emotionally and physically unsafe.

Are there any reforms/changes you would like for Convocation to undergo that would aid in overall student wellness?

EN: This doesn’t require “reform” so much as it requires informed leadership in the houses. The research is showing more and more clearly each year that a key risk factor in college social settings is the feeling that being included in the community is contingent on alcohol consumption; so if I could wave a magic wand and have any change I wanted, I’d train all the house leaders in the power dynamics inherent in a house community, with skills for managing that dynamic so that everyone feels safe and included.

In your experience with students on this campus, how do you feel Convocation is generally regarded?

EN: I’ve heard every point of view imaginable about Convocation, from “Convocation is awesome and people who don’t like it should just not go,” to “I love convocation but it’s kind of embarrassing when people are rude to the speakers” to “Convocation is sexual harassment.” Rae-Anne Butera sent out a survey, to which well over 1,000 students responded, and she mentioned some of the results to me – for example, the majority of students would like to see something changed about Convocation, but precisely what varied a lot. Each of the arguments for and against the various aspects of Convocation resonates with a different foundation, so an “ideal” Convocation really depends on what your priorities are in terms of what the student body and the institution value most. I find the moral foundations approach to thinking about these issues, because it highlights that the controversies are not rational, intellectual controversies, but emotional.
In general, Smith students value the care and fairness foundations – hence the widespread emphasis on social justice and prioritization of diversity. The Convocation controversy, it seems to me, is a conflict between care and fairness on the one hand – creating a space where everyone can feel safe and welcome – and liberty and loyalty on the other – students feeling free to participate in whatever feels like their houses’ traditions, without being controlled by external authority.

I think the solution will lie in:

(a) Getting a really solid understanding about the origin of all the
various traditions, both in houses and at the college, so students can
make informed decisions about which traditions are most important and
which are less important; and:

(b) Thinking really clearly through the inherent conflict between
liberty (people having the freedom to celebrate Convocation in the way
that feels right to them, even if their choice feels uncomfortable for
other people) and harm/care (some people not having an opportunity to
celebrate Convocation with the rest of the institution because the
event in its current form feels unsafe and exclusionary).

Lastly, do you have any personal views you would like to state on the subject of Convocation? 

EN: Personally? I think it would be awesome if everyone came in academic gowns – wear anything you like (or nothing!) underneath, wear any hat you want, any shoes you want, cover it in glitter if you want, but everyone wear an academic gown. I should add that not once in the
handful of times I’ve suggested this idea has anyone been excited about it (it’s possible that I like this idea at least in part because my own academic regalia are hilariously, awesomely hideous). The challenge is that there is no solution where everyone gets 100 percent of what they want. So it’s a question of who compromises what; who is willing to give a piece of what they want in order to create space for what someone else wants.

I think Convocation says a lot about who we are as a community, about what we value most.  I think the fact that the community is talking about change is in itself a sign of what we value.

Solutions discussed at the CC event included special or increased training of house HONS members, the option of entering through the back door of JMG for students who were uncomfortable being seen by the public, including a discussion of body image in first-year orientation and the potential of simply informing students about the extent of Convocation and what it means in the context of Smith.

Ultimately, Nagoski’s point is clear. There is no one solution – instead, there are many solutions. For those who love the tradition and want to share it with others, the time has come to brainstorm ways to be more inclusive. Smith traditions reflect its campus – one that is growing increasingly diverse in opinions and beliefs. The time has now come to look over and review some of those traditions.

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