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2012 Spring Issue 5 (May 4, 2012)

Johnson Responds to CANOE Controversy

May 4, 2012
By Griffin Johnson

Last week The Carletonian ran a long headliner about CANOE getting its house taken away, replete with photos of student testimonials about why the house was important to the campus community and a lot of what Wikipedia would call “weasel words,” all of which left little doubt about the editorial stance on the issue. I think it’s quite clear that the staff of the ‘Tonian disagrees with the disbarment, concurring with practically everybody else on campus except, probably, the residents of Fitness House, who I’m sure are feeling the heat. The general attitude is that we students are victims, and the members of the administration are like cruel Sumerian gods.

I think I get typecast as resident sacred cow-tipper some of the time, so before I go any further let me assure everyone: I’m on your side on CANOE House. CANOE has more pull than practically any other organization on campus and, frankly, I find the story that ResLife has been repeating—all that noise about “they just performed worse in their interview”—pretty flimsy. CANOE has a track record that says more about what they do for Carleton than any interview ever could, and requiring them to jump through an arbitrary hoop to get their house renewed is spiteful, bureaucratic sadism. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorem. Johnson out.

I’m not defending CANOE house this week, though, because Steve Wisener has made it clear not only that further discussion is useless and CANOE is just going to have to languish in Babylonian captivity for a year, but also that they’re committed to working with the student body to keep CANOE viable on campus and improve the house application process.

Except that’s not what they actually said. What Steve Wisener actually said about improving the house application process was this: “I really do hope to look into finding ways of improving the process for future years.”

I’d like to clarify that this isn’t an anti-ResLife article any more than it’s a pro-CANOE article. Steve Wisener and the Hall Directors shouldn’t burn in effigy on the Bald Spot every time the administration does something capricious. That’s simplistic and I’m sick of it. That said, let’s look at what Steve said again:

“I really do hope to look into finding ways of improving the process for future years.”

This sentence was probably written pretty quickly in response to what I assume was an emailed question from the ‘Tonian, because I can’t imagine anyone actually speaking it. Still, I think it’s notable, if only for the sheer volume of evasive, cloaked, colorless language it manages to pack into a printed line or two. Steve hopes to look into finding ways of improving the process for future years; that is to say, he hopes that he will be in a position to explore the possibility that there might be a way to look at the process that might, ultimately, make it fairer.    Maybe I’m being too trusting, but I think at the core of all those nested clauses is this kernel of this sentiment: “I’d like to improve the process.” That’s a pretty innocent thing to say. So why the obscurantism?

The obvious answer is that he’s afraid to admit that the process isn’t fair. After all, that’s really what underlies the idea of “improving the process,” right? The process wouldn’t have to be fixed if something about it weren’t broken. Falling back on all that colorless language is a way of disguising the fact that the house-application process is unfair and flawed on a deep level.

But as satisfying as that kind of finger-pointing, student-activist logic is, I think it’s grossly oversimplified. Steve Wisener, as I’ve said, isn’t an evil mastermind, crouched in his office and steepling his fingers like Montgomery Burns. He’s an administrator. That, I think, is the problem.

The root progenitor of that sentence is not so much that ResLife, as an agent in itself, uses listless, angular language to obscure its true intentions — it’s that that kind of language is par for the course in college administration. It’s accepted practice to use crutches like “hope to look into finding ways of” when you have to speak for an organization. It isn’t any individual’s fault, or even any individual’s decision, to write like that. It’s institutional.

This is true of administration at all levels across the country. You find the same PR crutches – “a process that is moving forward,” “a possibility that is being considered”— at all levels of administration across the country, from your high school secretary writing in the newsletter about vandalism, to Linda Katehi talking about pepper spray, to the press agents of the Secret Service talking about prostitution. There isn’t a species of administration in the world that’s free of them.

And in many cases it’s a sad but unavoidable truth. Corporations, large high schools, cities, professional organizations and research universities are big enough that requiring their bureaucrats to respond in a way that seems human is too tall an order.

Carleton is not that big, though, and that’s the important thing to take away from this whole CANOE house debacle. It’s easy to forget, as the floodwaters of emails and campus events lap around your waist, that Carleton is a small school, that all the offices are within walking distance, and that the barrier between you and the administration doesn’t actually exist, no matter how much discourse implies that it does. At a school as small as Carleton, the impersonality of the language that the administration uses—and, by extension, the impersonal way it treats the student body—aren’t so much the result of necessity or malice as the result of a very flimsy institutional convention, a lowest common denominator of communication that only exists because of a general atmosphere of apathy.

If you want to avoid another embarrassing instance of micromanagement by committee —if CANOE really matters as much to you as it seems to have after the fact—then you should expect reslife to communicate with you as humans, not a population to be calmed and propitiated. If we’re going to limit ourselves to “hoping to look into finding ways of improving the process in future years,” we might as well be reading bird entrails.

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