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The Resident Assistants in the dorms at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are, they say, unique in the country — they’re the only RA’s in the country who are represented by a union.

The Resident Assisants union at U Mass Amherst dates back to 2002, when an RA was fired for missing a single staff meeting, but there have been bumps in the road since then. Most recently Residential Life, the administrative department that oversees the RAs, eliminated 19 Apartment Living Assistant positions and attempted to cut the jobs of another 54 peer mentors.

Right now the Amherst RAs are in the middle of contract negotiations with the university, seeking minimum wage pay and protection against termination without just cause. Those negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year, and last week week fifty Amherst students marched on the contract negotiations, lining the halls outside the meeting room for four hours in support of the RAs’ union representatives.

More on this story as it develops.

December 6 Update | I’ll have more details in a later post, but I’ve just learned that the RAs approved the new contract last night. It provides for a 30% pay increase, and was ratified in an overwhelming vote.

I’m a big fan of Jay Smooth’s take on why telling people they’re racist is often counter-productive, but there are moments when not calling people racist is indefensible.

I just got a heads-up that the student who’s trying to start a White Student Union at Towson University is planning on bringing a guy named Jared Taylor to campus next month. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Taylor:

Taylor believes that white people have their own racial interests, and that it is intellectually valid for them to protect these interests; he sees it as anomalous that whites have allowed people of other ethnicities to organize themselves politically while not doing so themselves. His journal American Renaissance was founded to provide such a voice for white interests, as well as to convince whites that this enterprise is a legitimate one. … Taylor’s views have been described as racist by some academics, political commentators, journalists, and various other organizations. Taylor himself rejects any accusation of racism; he claims that his views are reasonable and moderate, and that they were considered normal by most key figures in American history.

And for context, let’s look at something Taylor wrote a few years ago:

“Our rulers and media executives will try to turn the story of Hurricane Katrina into yet another morality tale of downtrodden blacks and heartless whites, but pandering of this kind fools fewer and fewer people. Many whites will realize — some for the first time — that we have Africa in our midst, that utterly alien Africa of road-side corpses, cruelty, and anarchy that they thought could never wash up on these shores.

“To be sure, the story of Hurricane Katrina does have a moral for anyone not deliberately blind. The races are different. Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western Civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears. And in a crisis, it disappears overnight.”

To call this claim racist isn’t pejorative, or even argumentative. It’s straightforwardly descriptive. And to say that Taylor’s views “have been described as racist” instead of saying that they’re racist is silly. It’s pointless. It’s absurd. If this passage isn’t racist, if its author isn’t racist, then literally nothing and nobody is.

March 2013 update | Hi, all! I just tweeted a link to this post because Matthew Heimbach, the Towson White Student Union founder who was looking to bring Jared Taylor to campus last year, was right in the middle of today’s horrible racist brouhaha at CPAC.

After a stint heading up a group called Youth for Western Civilization, a student at Maryland’s Towson University is looking to start a White Student Union on campus.

I wrote about the White Student Union phenomenon a few years ago, saying that I’d never heard anyone make a sincere argument for the creation of such groups:

When someone asks me [why white students can’t have WSUs], my response is always pretty much the same: “Do you actually want to have a White Student Union on campus? Would you be active in a WSU there was one? Is there stuff you’d like to be doing that the absence of a WSU is keeping you from doing?”

So far, nobody has ever answered any of these questions with a yes.

The guy I’ve been talking to on Twitter says he wanted “to make a point about the wrongness of segregation, regardless of purpose.” But you don’t demonstrate that something is bad “regardless of purpose” by showing that it’s bad if it has no purpose, you demonstrate it by showing that it’s bad even if it has a great purpose.

That’s the first fundamental problem with the WSU thought experiment — it doesn’t engage with the reasons that BSUs exist.

While I stand by everything I wrote back then, this case is a little different than the ones I’d seen before.

Matthew Heimbach, the flag-bearer for Towson’s WSU, is an active neo-Confederate who attended a white supremacist conference earlier this year, and paraphrased a notorious neo-Nazi slogan in a recent letter to the Towson student newspaper. He believes that the 69% white Towson campus is “hostile toward white students,” and that white students, who “share a bond that is far deeper than skin color,” must “take a stand for our people before it is too late.”

So yeah, let me rephrase. I’ve never encountered anyone who actually wanted to have a WSU on their campus who wasn’t an aggressively paranoid racist.

Harvard University announced yesterday that it is investigating more than a hundred students in a single section of an introductory Poli Sci course on suspicion of cheating on an open-book final exam. When the news broke I tweeted my suspicion that the structure of the final might have contributed to the temptation to cheat, and a new article in the Harvard Crimson appears to confirm my suspicion.

The final exam in professor Matthew Platt’s “Introduction to Congress” course was designated as “completely open-book, open-notes, open internet,” but students were warned “not [to] discuss the exam with others,” including their fellow students, tutors or anybody else.

The test included what the Crimson describes as “three multi-part short answer questions,” questions that one anonymous student — who is not suspected of cheating — described as “find the answer and basically say why this is the way it is.” Students were apparently confused by at least two of these questions, with one writing in a course evaluation that more than a dozen had descended en masse on a teaching assistant’s office on the day the assignment was due:

“Almost all of [us] had been awake the entire night, and none of us could figure out what an entire question (worth 20% of the grade) was asking,” that student said. “On top of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF had to give us a definition to use for the question.”

The professor’s own office hours that day were canceled on minimal notice.

Students have an ethical obligation not to cheat, of course. But faculty also have an obligation not to create situations in which cheating is likely to occur. To give an “open internet” take-home exam in which any conversation with your classmates is defined as “cheating” is — even in the best of circumstances — to establish a context in which some cheating is all but inevitable, and virtually impossible to detect. When you declare behavior that you can’t police, behavior that may be entirely benign, to be cheating, you erase the bright-line distinction between proper and improper behavior that is essential to academic integrity. And when you craft a take-home test that’s potentially confusing and deny students any licit mechanism for resolving their confusion, you place students in an entirely untenable position.

 

“The University of California was a young, comparatively small institution when I entered there in 1885 as a freshman. … My class numbered about one hundred boys and girls, mostly boys, who came from all parts of the State and represented all sorts of people and occupations. … We found already formed at Berkeley the typical undergraduate customs, rights, and privileged vices which we had to respect ourselves and defend against the faculty, regents, and the State government.

“One evening, before I had matriculated, I was taken out by some upper classmen to teach the president a lesson. He had been the head of a private preparatory school and was trying to govern the private lives and the public morals of university “men” as he had those of his schoolboys. Fetching a long ladder, the upper classmen thrust it through a front window of Prexy’s house and, to the chant of obscene songs, swung it back and forth, up and down, round and round, till everything breakable within sounded broken and the drunken indignation outside was satisfied or tired.

“This turned out to be one of the last battles in the war for liberty against that president. He was allowed to resign soon thereafter and I noticed that not only the students but many of the faculty and regents rejoiced in his downfall and turned with us to face and fight the new president when, after a lot of politics, he was appointed and presented. We learned somehow a good deal about the considerations that governed our college government. They were not only academic. The government of a university was — like the State government and horse-racing and so many other things — not what I had been led to expect. And a college education wasn’t either, nor the student mind.”

—The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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