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Where O Where Have the Students’ Voices Gone?

Jai Katsuri, an eighth-year Ph.D. student in Columbia’s MEALAC department, wrote an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator today discussing the apparent silence of the majority of MEALAC students in the ongoing controversy surrounding their department. Katsuri adds to anthropology student Oguz Erdur’s previous op-ed, “Columbia Becoming,” which criticizes the use of dehumanizing power politics and “academic freedom” rhetoric in hiding what he believes is really happening on campus. Katsuri writes:

Ironically, the current defense of “free speech” at MEALAC has had a chilling effect on this conversation. Oguz’s “territorial” metaphor to describe Columbia as an occupied state is appropriate in a way that he perhaps didn’t intend. In cultivating a Fort Columbia mentality (not to mention Fort MEALAC), we may be reinforcing a “with us or against us” metaphysic of our own. It is undeniable that already in some quarters on campus—and MEALAC—dissent has been hysterically read as disloyalty. The conversation about pedagogical values has ground to a halt, a needless crisis of our own making.

And by reducing the pedagogical conversation to “Zionist!” vs. “Anti-Semite!” we seem to have forgotten that the students involved in this crisis hardly used terms like these. In fact, their published accounts are sprinkled with statements that are surprisingly apologetic and even generous. They liked the courses, they said; they liked the professors, respected them, and certainly didn’t want anyone to lose their jobs. They even liked MEALAC and learned a lot. And I don’t recall any of the students saying freedom of inquiry should be curtailed. In the context of what is going on, this is rather astonishing, and little noted. What, then, were the students saying? I’m not sure, but I think they were saying something a little more nuanced, and thus much more important, than the simplistic charge of bias. Unfortunately, we have chosen to respond to the external groups rather than to the students. In the process, we deliberately lost their voices. And I can’t help but wonder why we collectively allowed that. I also wonder if our deafness isn’t related to the silence of those 25 graduate students in MEALAC.

Like my last post about silence in the “marketplace of ideas,” Katsuri, too, wonders why certain individuals remain (publicly) silent, and what this silent expression signifies. In this case, it is the voices of students most impacted by the controversy that have been drowned out in the debate—the voices that are the most important ones we need to hear.

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