Jamil Smith

Invisible Man

Silent no longer

In general, we students are alarmingly apathetic when it comes to getting involved in our educations. One committed group is challenging the norm -- and creating change.

Some students here are oddly intrigued by the level of indifference among their peers concerning issues that affect the University at-large. They examine, study and talk about this indifference as if it were some strange sociological phenomenon. Unlike many of these students, I find no such mystery in student apathy, particularly in a collegiate environment like ours -- where the student government elections need to offer a chance to see Billy Joel t o boost voter turnout.

This lack of student activism and interest is closely related to our lack of available time. At a place where many student concerns cover a multiple of diverse interests, from the cultural to the sexual to the political, it could be asserted that th ere is "a lack of intellectualism" in the non-academic sphere on this campus. Along with tremendous scholastic demands and responsibilities, we all (supposedly) have little opportunity or time to engage ourselves in other activities, much less those that might affect the way we live here at our University of Pennsylvania. That would certainly be too overbearing.

Categorizing this uncaring attitude under the ambiguous heading of "apathy" is easy for many of us. And that's fine. To those people who feel as if their lives here are unalterably mired in the q uicksand of University bureaucracy, continue as you are. It's doubtful that there's much anyone can do to change your minds, anyway. However, the importance of realizing that your indifference exists cannot be overemphasized. This indifference indirectly harms the efforts of those of us trying to do something about it, or those who are stuck in the middle.

Statements (and quite recently, actions) coming from the powers that be at this university have conveyed the feeling that we undergraduates aren't really taken as seriously as we should be. In loco parentis has stretched into our adult years; many of us are made to feel like children when we voice our opinions on University issues. True, at times we deserve to be treated as such, but the fact of the matter is that this demeaning attitude is inappropriate in an environment where the door can s wing both ways in the learning process.

Looking at a bulletin board anywhere on campus shows that there are not very many opportunities -- forums and the like -- for interaction between undergraduate students and faculty and administrators. As a result, our ability to learn about each oth er's points of view is limited, and generalizations about both (like the one that students are "apathetic" and "powerless") are born.

One group in particular has been doing a remarkable job of changing this dynamic. Rather than remaining passive and letting the "apathetic" continue to create an incorrect image of all undergraduates, the English Undergraduate Advisory Board (UAB) has tak en a firm stand in advocating the importance of undergraduate voices. This group, which is steadfastly dedicated to improving academic life not only in the English Department but also campus-wide, has created connections with other majors and faculty that are not simply not present in many of the University's most prominent, well-funded sections.

The English UAB's successful activities have led to interest in UABs in departments like History and Women's Studies. A significant tool of the English UAB throughout its brief existence has been its annual forum on undergraduate life. In the past, this event has tackled issues ranging from the importance of teaching to breaking down the barriers between students and faculty to improve undergraduate education. This year, at its April 2 forum, the UAB turns its focus to strengthening the university's intellectual community. The diverse collection of panelists that we have invited, along with the encouragement of student attendance and participation, exhibits the English UAB's commitment to the realization of its ideals. By ensuring that students' voi ces will be heard by people like University President Judith Rodin and Provost Stanley Chodorow and vice versa, it becomes clear that the English UAB has made interaction the word of the day.

One particular question may be entering more than a few undergraduate heads right now, as you read this: Why would something like this forum even matter, especially when so many people don't care? When we as undergraduates form generalizations about faculty, we tend also to do the same about ourselves. Taught and told by the (other) adults at this university that we should and do have little say in academic life, many undergraduates dedicate themselves to causes that are worthwhile and beneficial, b ut have an alternative focus, such as community service or the performing arts. However, there is the danger that the efforts of students in organizations like the English UAB and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) will be overshadowe d by the "general indifference" perceived by those outside the undergraduate community.

This is a distressing paradox: since outsiders -- and even some insiders -- believe that undergraduates have a disappointing lack of success in making major decisions here, the faculty, administration and undergraduates themselves come to the genera lization that we are all apathetic. This assumption feeds the feelings of ineptitude among the student body, either creating skepticism about student activist organizations or making us withdraw completely from any type of activity. The cloud of apathy th en masks the efforts of those who sponsor unique events like the English UAB Forum. Once we realize how this polarizing circle works, we can begin to understand how everyone should and must take advantage of rare opportunities like this forum.

You may regard my statements as a challenge to your undergraduate conscience. And that's fine. We could reasonably assert that a challenge to our egos is what we sorely need if the image of undergraduates is to be changed and if our voices are to be honestly listened to -- and heard. In other words, if you have a reasonable idea about how things should be done in some aspect of Penn undergraduate life, wake up. Then speak up.

Jamil Smith is a junior English major from Cleveland, Ohio. Invisible Man appears alternate Fridays.