The Wesleyan Student Assembly hosted a forum on the chalking issue this evening, attended by Dean Mike Whaley and some twenty or so students. For the many of you that might have wanted to go but couldn’t, I, as the organizer of the event, am writing in to let you know what it was about and how it went. A summary description and probably some opinions after the jump.
Dean Whaley started off the conversation by providing some of the history of the chalking issue and the events surrounding the ban implemented by President Doug Bennett nearly ten years ago. My super-brief summary: chalking was long a prominent method for groups that felt oppressed (particularly the queer community) to express themselves and attempt to alter campus dialogue in a positive direction. Over time, these positive messages became more and more explicit as dialogue transitioned into sex-positive communication. Other groups and particular individuals began to be specifically targeted, referenced, or outed. At some point, some staff members filed a formal sexual harassment complaint to the University, claiming that the images and texts written on the sidewalks (over which they needed to walk in order to get to work) constituted a hostile work environment. In response, the University began extensive conversations with the WSA and the community to find a way to eliminate the problematic aspects of chalking but to also preserve the medium. A moratorium was put in place and numerous strategies were implemented, developed, and eventually abandoned in failure, leading to the total ban that stands today.
From here, the conversation shifted in the direction of building a campus dialogue and community standards that would solve the presented issues and demonstrate that chalking could return in a positive way. Below are some of the points that I think are worth noting:
- In many ways, this campus appears to be experiencing some difficulty with respect to maintaining positive and constructive campus communication. This is not specific to chalking, though in my opinion it is most readily evident in anonymous forms of media. Anyone who has traveled to the ACB knows that members of this community can often be quite vicious and mean-spirited, and this greatly impedes our ability to engage in constructive dialogue to solve the issues that divide our campus.
- Chalking, as a medium for communication, appears to be artificially targeted. Many of the problems associated with its history could (and occasionally do) arise through the use of flyers, the ACB, and other media. An argument can be made, however, that sidewalks (as a more involuntary space) provide a uniqueness that separates chalking from other types of dialogue.
- One student mentioned the community guidelines often used at Wes for group conversations (such as using ‘I’ statements rather than generalizations) that could and probably should also apply to all forms of campus dialogue, including chalking.
- If chalk and water are made widely available, and the campus community commits to policing itself, there may be an opportunity for ‘harmful chalk’ to be erased or crossed out and for ‘worthy chalk’ to remain, providing a positive chalking atmosphere.
- A student, representing a rarely-heard part of the student body, voiced strong support for the ban, remarking that ze should not be forced to encounter, on a daily basis, many of the messages present in both current and historical chalking environments.
- Another student suggested that a month-long trial period be instituted, with the clear stipulation that chalking will be banned once again if the trial period does not exhibit a productive and respectful campus culture.
- The WSA will continue to work towards developing guidelines that produce positive and constructive dialogue in all forms of communication, including chalking. If these guidelines can successfully hinder and prevent a return to the historically problematic chalking culture, then the administration may be amenable to offering a trial period and moving forward from there.
Hopefully we can keep this moving in a positive direction and allow for people of all inclinations to freely express their opinions on this issue and make an informed decision as a campus community. Feel free to give your thoughts in the comments.