Category: Opinions

Webcams around campus are an invasion of privacy

On the St. Olaf campus, because of six publicly accessible live webcams, anyone may see students in their everyday lives. Walking through the Buntrock crossroads on the way to class, sitting in the Quad in the middle of the day and walking into their dorm at night, watched but unaware of the gaze.

St. Olaf is small and insular by design. The College’s architecture reinforces community with communal space. This idea isn’t controversial, and is widely marketed. The three dining options, most notably Stav Hall, are structured to prevent physical distance between students. Couched as being “intensely residential,” students are all but forced to live in dorms, where the furthest person either shares your room or is 20 feet away from you through a thin wall. Residential and academic lounges invite isolation only until another person comes by. Every moment is a performance, because there is no place where eyes may not be on you.

This social pressure and lack of privacy is troubling, but not unknown. Some see it as the price of the unique sense of community St. Olaf offers. The ability to always run into others is part of the College’s brand. However, this promise needs serious re-examination in light of its broadcast outside of the immediate physical space.

The panoptic system is one in which individuals are disciplined by being convinced they can always be seen, and regulated accordingly. This can lead them to regulate their own behavior. St. Olaf’s lack of architectural privacy privileges this kind of system, but the webcams amplify the problem and pose a true threat to privacy.

The webcams, plainly advertised on the St. Olaf website, include Alumni Hall West, facing towards Ytterboe and the wind turbine; Tomson East, including the wind chime memorial and much of the campus green; Tomson West, showing more of the campus green, Mellby Hall, and the Theater Building; Buntrock Plaza, showing the back entrance of the building and yet more of the campus green; the East Quad, showing Regents Hall of Natural Sciences, Holland Hall and Old Main and the “Hi, Mom!” camera, posted outside the Lion’s Pause in the Crossroads of Buntrock Commons.

The outdoor cameras offer a bird’s eye view of a large portion of campus, making their view inescapable for many students as they walk to and from their dorms and class. Individuals appear small, but are identifiable. If someone had the inclination, they could track these cameras and know exactly when another person is leaving or going to any building, making them an ideal tool for potential stalkers or others with malicious intent. Beyond that usage, they serve as a constant reminder that no behavior on the St. Olaf campus is truly private. Beyond the performance for other individuals within an actual physical space, these cameras offer a view to the world’s public.

Very few are actively aware of this level of exposure, as demonstrated by the aforementioned “Hi, Mom!” camera, situated at eye level and advertised as a way for family members to check in on students. When the school advertises the camera, it is suggested as a tool used consciously to directly acknowledge those watching. The suggested image is of a student looking into the camera and waving to their mother, watching on the other side. However, watching the webcam for only a few moments will demonstrate that very few who pass by know they are being watched.

Buntrock Commons’ Crossroads is aptly named. It is centrally located on campus, and a huge number of students pass through it every day. It is immediately outside the Pause and Viking Theater. It is directly underneath the Cage and Stav Hall. It is between many dorms and academic buildings. It is a very common location for political demonstration, including the night-long protest against racial discrimination and inequality that begun the Collective for Change on the Hill’s movement last year. Every time a student stands in this space or walks through it, their face and body are broadcasted live and very few acknowledge it physically when they do. 

The entrance to Viking Theater is in its view. A space where people may step out of a film to collect themselves. A space where people may share a private moment because it feels tucked away, unexposed. Lines to Pause events often stretch out the door, likely placing those waiting into the webcam’s view for some time. Exchanges thought to be confined to that space are projected outside its physical context. 

Physical context is the essential element lost when these webcams broadcast campus. The “Hi, Mom!” name underlies the justification for such a tool, and its ultimate failure. Those at St. Olaf are accustomed to being seen and it is an essential part of the collective understanding of “community” as it exists here. This camera is then constructed as proof of that community. “Mom” is a stand-in for whoever the investor may be: the person who likely, at least partially, subsidizes a student’s place here and likely played a role in choosing this school over others. If not, it is suggested the person on the other side has some level of investment in observing the school live, and taking in evidence the advertised “community” promise exists. St. Olaf College is a product, and these live webcams are a constant advertisement for it.

This is the fundamental difference between architecture that favors communal space and cameras that open that space up to anyone online who may observe it. Those in the space, even if coerced to be performative, are active participants. They are in it, and all others in it are conscious of their role. Those on the webcam can not be seen and they are not participants. They are voyeurs consuming a product: the ongoing moments of St. Olaf College commodified. And as long as students are within that camera, they are part of the product.

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P.O. Box mass fliers obnoxious and wasteful

I, like many Oles, dearly love my P.O. box. I love the little antiquated door knobs. I love contriving as many ways as possible to walk by and check for flowers on Friday afternoons. But most of all I love the little rush of endorphins and validation when I see a flash of color peeking out of those little P.O. box windows. What could it be? A postcard? A package slip? An anonymous bag of candy from an ardent admirer?

Usually, it’s a mass-produced flyer.

According to the St. Olaf Post Office’s website, only St. Olaf-sponsored items may be mass stuffed. They cannot be smaller than a ¼ sheet of paper. However I would add an additional stipulation: just don’t do it.

The most I have ever done after receiving a stuffed flyer was to think to myself, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting, I should look online for the details.” Then I either march the flyer across the hallway to the recycling bin, or more likely shove into my pocket or the depths of my backpack only to be discovered months later as an illegible wad of paper. It disappoints me then, too. That strange lump in my pocket could have been money. Instead, it’s a pamphlet about a blood drive that happened six months ago and that I attended after looking at the Facebook event like a normal millennial. 

There are a little over 3,000 students, and going to the trouble to print them each a flyer is a waste of resources, time and most importantly paper. According to sierraclub.com, a typical tree produces only 10,000 to 20,000 sheets of paper, meaning that we are using as much as 30 percent of a tree with every P.O. box announcement. 

A simple email, which you can’t lose and you can access anywhere, would be more than sufficient for getting the word out.

My complaint extends to this campus’ overloaded bulletin boards too. I was recently asked to hang up a stack of posters on the bulletin boards across campus, and as I searched for a bit of empty corkboard amid the flurries of advertisements, it occurred to me that I had almost never stopped to study these posters, many of which clearly had enormous effort poured into their design and production. 

Is it really the best of use of time and resources of the students and organizations involved to labor over largely ignored hard copies of information? Not to mention the printers themselves. They should be busy printing real relevant and timely pieces of print media, like student newspapers. Nobody has ever considered those to be obsolete.

Obviously, there are more pressing things to reform in our campus culture than P.O. box flyers. However, when a habit is expensive, wasteful and unproductive, it is worth reconsidering. And for the sake of both the environment and our changing cultural norms, I would strongly recommend against printing thousands of sheets of paper that will almost immediately, universally, be trashed. Then I can go back to skulking around the mailboxes in search of that elusive Friday flower in peace.

About Rebecca Carcaterra

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DiversityEdu is only a short term solution

“You are taking this course because your institution is committed to diversity and inclusion,” said the male narrator at the beginning of the DiversityEdu online training, making what the course has to offer sound very intriguing. 

St. Olaf is one of the institutions that pays for training from DiversityEdu, a for-profit company that creates an online module to teach diversity and acceptance to students. The College made it mandatory for St. Olaf students to the take the course prior to their Interim and Spring semester registrations. Like St. Olaf, more and more universities across the country are making this type of course mandatory for their students. 

On the surface level, DiversityEdu does provide essential tools and skills for students in order to create a more inclusive and safe environment for all. The course material is comprehensive: it acknowledges existing issues related to diversity and offers ways to respond to them. In a nutshell, DiversityEdu helps to smooth out conversations and social interactions between diverse groups of students and faculty at a typical American college. 

While these tools are helpful, they are very technical. DiversityEdu is more like “Do’s and Don’ts” when facing diversity: what to say, how to act around people, what not to do, what not to assume, skills for senders and recipients of microaggressions, etc. 

The course said things such as “to get the conversation going, we need to use accurate and current terminology,” or “educating yourself means being alert and responsive to change,” which are effective in the short term, but they do not necessarily respond to why people need to use accurate terminology, or why they need to be responsive to change. 

Here’s why: when talking about race, the convenient one-hour DiversityEdu training doesn’t include the bigger picture of the racial dynamic of the United States, such as the historical context of 200-year old racial problems in the United States. It doesn’t tell you about the fact that some people are born with an unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant group (read: privilege) and what it means to have it. It also doesn’t tell you the fact that racism has been institutionalized in the United States, evidenced by things like segregated neighborhoods, mass incarceration and the police shooting of black people and income disparity between white and black households, to name a few. 

The second problem with DiversityEdu is that it could be misinterpreted. The course is too “politically correct” and too generic. At some point during the section about microaggression, it says that “recipients of microaggressions are not always members of a minority identity group.” Some students from the majority group (read: white people) may get a false notion on whether they could receive a microaggression because of their skin color. Now, this is a little problematic, because the majority of the recipients of microaggressions are students of color and members of other minority groups like the LGBTQ community. This is because “white culture” is perceived as the norm, and everyone else is standardized based on how close they are to “white culture.” 

For instance, telling an Asian-American how good their English is and that they don’t have an accent or saying things like “you’re pretty for a black girl” reinforces the idea that “white culture” is the norm because it directly compares people to how well they match or uphold that norm. 

Now, let’s rewind, and try to look at it from a St. Olaf context. DiversityEdu was introduced in response to the campus protest last semester after several students of color received various racist notes. Let’s be honest, DiversityEdu is designed more to suit the majority of the student body than to students of color. The racial climate at St. Olaf gained national attention, but media outlets narrowly reported only on the racist notes, even though the protest was trying to address a larger problem than that: the fact that racism is institutionalized.

Ranging from the things like whitewashed curriculum and staff hiring to campus attitude, racism has long been embedded at St. Olaf, and it cannot be answered only with a one-hour diversity training. 

DiversityEdu was implemented this year, following the protests, and it is a first step. But a need to reform curriculum in the General Education requirement as demanded by The Collective, and to integrate race and ethnic studies and women’s and gender studies courses into General Education (GE) requirements, would have a long-term impact to dismantle institutional racism at St. Olaf. 

Having a semester-long course to talk about racial complexities in the US would expose students to a vast understanding and awareness of their racial identity, and why they do what they are being told to do, such as taking this course.

In conclusion, DiversityEdu helps students to be more cautious about what they say to students of color and minority group of students, and it’s effective in the short term. But understanding the larger and more complex problem is better than just holding one’s tongue. 

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Trigger warnings are important and necessary

This past weekend, someone made a snide comment about suicide in front of me. He then proceeded to mock the fact that people seem to be “triggered” by his words. Little did anyone know around me just how “triggered” I was. 

I will admit that before this experience, I really didn’t understand the seriousness and depth of a trigger warning. Older generations like to mock them, calling Generation X and millennials “liberal snowflakes” or overly sensitive leftists incapable of engaging in debate. 

But why should a victim of a trauma be expected to engage in a debate about it? No one should be forced to talk about something that causes distressing memories to pop up. This is why trigger warnings are extremely important and necessary. 

The problem seems to stem not with what a trigger warning really is, but with the stigmatization of mental illness in general. 

Our good friend Urban Dictionary defines a trigger warning as “a warning before showing something that could cause a PTSD reaction.” The website’s definition goes further to explain that “commonly used as a joke, its meaning has unfortunately depreciated, drawing more stigma to mental illness.” 

I don’t know many people who understand mental illness well that would have a problem with that definition, and why it is often necessary. 

Mental illness is real, and it is very scary. It’s the worst kind of pain; it’s a pain you cannot escape. Why our society still does not view a mental illness as the same as a physical one is beyond me. 

By making fun of trigger warnings, you are essentially saying someone’s mental illness is a joke. 

This past spring, the Political Awareness Committee (PAC) hosted one of their few conservative speakers, Christina Hoff Sommers. Her talk was about who stole feminism (spoiler: it was liberals) and proceeded to rip apart people who need trigger warnings. 

Many people were berated for leaving the talk after some of those comments. However, it is very unfair for someone to associate trigger warnings with extreme leftists. 

Trauma doesn’t affect just one political party, gender, race, etc. Sure, some marginalized groups are definitely more susceptible than others, but the fact is that anyone can be traumatized by an event in their life. 

Unfortunately, college students (who overall tend to be more liberal) are a group that seems especially affected by trauma. First years pick up everything in their lives and start over in a place they don’t know, with people they don’t know. Some have never lived away from home for an extended period of time before. You can’t expect everyone to be perfectly fine with that change. 

I try to be open now about what happened to me my first year. For months, I would go to class and come back to my room and cry for hours. I was not okay. And for the first time in my life, my mind went to a very dark place. 

I try to talk about it now so people (especially first years) know that it’s okay to not be 100 percent okay in college. It is a huge change, and change affects everyone differently. 

It got a lot better, and I’m really happy with who I am and where I am now. But that doesn’t erase the painful memories. I guess I just have to be okay with being a “liberal snowflake” for being triggered by someone mocking suicide. 

It is not up for anyone to decide how a particular trauma impacts someone’s life. It is not okay to joke about things like sexual assault or suicide and then wonder why people are triggered. 

Trigger warnings, despite the negative connotation associated with them, are absolutely necessary and were invented so that everyone’s experiences and emotions can be accepted. 

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Free speech on campus is not under attack

The constitutional right to freedom of speech is often invoked in discussions of political dialogue on college campuses. Many students feel that free speech is somehow under attack in their communities and that speakers and students are being silenced, creating so-called “echo chambers,” specifically echo chambers of the political left. 

I take issue with the way free speech is often loosely tied to concepts of ideological balance. Last spring, some students were upset that our college brought in abolition-feminist scholar Angela Davis, claiming that Davis’s leftist politics only reinforce the already left-leaning campus culture. The claim was that the college rarely brings in “conservative speakers,” thereby not giving students understandings of “both sides.” This was considered, to some, a violation of free speech for the political right, an indication that a wider range of political ideology is repeatedly silenced at St. Olaf.

First, this understanding of political dialogue is patently reductive of the vast continuum of political leftism. Angela Davis’s particular mode of scholarship and specific focus on the prison system differs greatly from other leftist speakers. For example, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, a pro-choice lobby, gave a talk on campus recently. Although both can be considered agents of the political left, Hogue’s talk was quite politically liberal and discussed movement within the context of the United States government system, while Davis is a proponent of radically reimagining governmental possibilities and critiquing the failings of late capitalism.

Many students believe that leftist speakers, even as disparate as these two, reinforce some abstract, homogeneous left-wing ideology. This belief misunderstands the nature of political dialogue. It is not limiting or creating an “echo-chamber” to engage with these differing political ideologies – even if these ideologies are both considered left-of-center. This kind of complex engagement is still dialectical and intellectually productive, but is often uselessly reduced to being called “liberal,” a term that does not accurately apply to scholars like Davis.

Furthermore, the reduction of these scholars into one messy leftist grouping called “liberal” reinforces the false notion of “two sides” in politics. While there are two dominant political parties in this country, political beliefs within and outside these parties are hugely divergent – as evidenced by the Angela Davis and Ilyse Hogue example. 

To describe our politics as one side against another is simplistic and harmful, only making political dialogue across ideologies more difficult. This problem returns to the misconstruing of free speech with ideological balance; there is not really a way to “balance” ideologies when you begin to see the impossibly large spectrum of political possibility.

Additionally, to argue that students need speakers from all political backgrounds imagines all ideologies as equally valuable and worthy of scholarly discussion. This is plainly untrue. Simply because an ideology exists in this country and people have the right to believe it does not mean that we must uphold it or give it credence. Indeed, free speech legally allows people to hold any beliefs, even hateful or outright wrong beliefs, but colleges and individuals are not at all obligated to give platform to these ideologies. 

Freedom of speech does not imply freedom of speech amplified. For example, the increased visibility of Neo-Nazism as a political ideology in this country does not imply that we must now invite a Neo-Nazi speaker in order to better understand the “other side.” This may be an extreme example, but the logic by which students argue for unlimited and amplified free speech does not distinguish the politically conservative and the politically bigoted, the scholarly valuable and the needlessly provocative.

Conclusively, the concept of the “liberal echo chamber” on campus needs to be revisited with a broader and better understanding of what free speech means and to what we owe any particular political ideology. There is no specific obligation to give a platform to an ideology simply because it exists and is legally protected. 

Thus, as students, we ought to encourage our college to bring speakers that are intellectually challenging and engaged with scholarship, providing us a more complex understanding of political dialogue, not simply people with perspectives from “both sides.”

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