What Is It We’re So Afraid Of? The Debate over Convocation

Evelyn Crunden ’13
Features Editor

Convocation at Smith College is something no one warned me about, prepared me for or even indicated would be occurring. My first-year introduction to Smith began quite literally with sporting a dress and a pair of heels to JMG with my house, the bulk of whom were clad in their underwear and little else. I was completely sober, slightly overwhelmed and a bit horrified. I remember feeling uncomfortable by the sight of nearly naked bodies everywhere, a bit condescending toward those who looked conventionally “unattractive” and above all, hell-bent on returning to the confines of my safe, white-walled room, where a stack of transfer applications had already begun to accumulate.

This year, at my last Convocation, I went in boxers, surrounded by my fellow Smith survivors of four years, happy to be at home after eight months abroad. I walked with my house, all sporting attire ranging from pasties to long-sleeved shirts, united by pride and the warmth of friendship. We marched to JMG, cheered loudly for Carol and went home to celebrate. Where once the sight of varying states of undress disgusted me, I now had a newfound appreciation for the power female-bodied people can physically express when given the opportunity. Unconstrained by social norms and expectations, my classmates dressed to their comfort level – regardless of shape, size, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender and the other identities that define us.

When I heard that the administration was looking into altering Convocation, I was more disappointed than I was shocked. Over the duration of my tenure at Smith, I have watched as the admissions process catered more and more toward upper-middle-class students who can afford the hefty bill delivered yearly by the college. I have watched as their rhetoric drift further and further away from the wishes of its students – incidents involving the rights of trans* Smithies and the visibility of queer culture on campus come to mind – as the administration continues to adopt policies that are less and less indicative of the population at large.

Convocation is perhaps the most significant marker of this. I’ve heard the arguments from the other side, and I think it’s fair to give them consideration. Some students are concerned that Convocation fails to offer a safe space, that it violates cultural boundaries, that it can be triggering and that it makes some students uncomfortable. I think parts of this are fair; an alcohol-fueled frenzy of bodies can be disconcerting for many, and overwhelming for others. The rowdiness is at times exhausting, especially as a first year, and whether present or not, the prospect of the pressure to fully participate can be anxiety inducing. We are talking about an occasion that offers the possibility of annual disaster and every year, at least one member of the faculty arches an eyebrow at the teeming masses, muttering about tradition and young ladies failing to behave themselves.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Convocation is an optional event. Many people do go sober and fully clothed. If pressure or discomfort is felt, the option of anonymously speaking to a member of Residence Life is always there. It’s worth noting that at other schools, where Convocation is full of pomp and circumstance, attendance is astronomically low and upperclassmen rarely attend.

Perhaps offering an alternative to Convocation for those who are uncomfortable should be considered, as my HCA hosted in my Quad house this year. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is there. Moreover, it leaves us open to ask other questions.

I remember thinking something my first year, which was echoed two years later by a friend of mine. When asked what she disliked about the event, she said, with some disgust, “I don’t want to see that.” At the time I registered consciously what I don’t think I ever fully acknowledged to myself four years ago: I knew what she didn’t want to see. She didn’t want to see a naked mass of people who were unashamed of bodies we consider shameful. The differences in sizes, in colors, the sheer variety of the female form. We didn’t want to see it.

As an Orthodox Jew growing up in Texas, I spent 18 years hiding my body and feeling apologetic about it – as if having large hips and possessing average-sized breasts, as if sporting an “unusual” amount of body hair, as if having acne, as if, as if, as if were all indicators that I should be embarrassed. At Smith, as I slowly learned and unlearned more things than I can count, I came to understand the power of the body as a tool for expression. The rage and the hurt and the strength that could be conveyed by using bodies – queer bodies, bodies of color, differently abled bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, othered bodies – as an assertion of control. When discussing the event with friends, I finally pinpointed some of the reasons why Convocation has meant so much to me. One alumna noted that people fear Convocation because they fear women being loud and assertive, where similar demonstrations from men would have been dismissed as “boys being boys.” Another observed that the only part of the event she found uncomfortable was the predominately male onlookers standing on the street, eager to jeer at and objectify the relatively unfazed students passing by. A first-year noted that she had gone in pants because she hadn’t felt comfortable initially, but that she plans on wearing a bra next year after having a positive experience overall and increasing her own comfort level. One of my fellow seniors shrugged and said she’d been fully covered and sober for four years, had never felt pressured and had enjoyed the event regardless.

In discussing the changing of Convocation, we seem to have missed several crucial factors. Many of the changes that ought to be considered should be based in the houses; peer pressure, drinking culture and comfort level all begin at home, and preparing students for the reality of the event is a necessity. But imposing a dress code and curtailing feminist expression are counter to the spirit of Smith, or at least, the Smith I know, and the only Smith I have any interest in supporting financially as an alumna. I came to this school to learn the art of power – of feminist power – and I have, in the classroom, in lectures, in clubs and in events ranging from the formal to the primal and naked, literally and metaphorically. We can discuss ways to be inclusive and keep Smith a safe space, but it ought to be a student-led conversation, and it ought to probe at some important and fundamental questions. What are we so afraid of? Maybe it’s time we asked.

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