Dissent 101

Unsanctioned student guides offer advice on the real college experience

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When it was slipped under doors in a freshman dorm at Boston College, it was pronounced a fire hazard--never mind the glut of menus and invitations routinely crammed under the same doors throughout the school year. When it was handed directly to freshmen, a resident adviser called the cops. Twice.

The object of controversy is Freshman Disorientation, a free 32-page publication sponsored by Boston College activists in the campus' Global Justice Project. It is packed with opinionated articles, essays, class recommendations, resource lists, and a peek into progressive activism on campus. Typical headlines include 'The Problem with Tolerance: 'But I Have Three Black Friends . . .'' and 'Gender at Boston College: Sex(ism) in the University.'

Compare that to the fare served up at the college's official summer orientation session. Discussions about sexual orientation and gender equality make nary a ripple in the three-day schedule, and race issues are crammed into an hour-and-a-half session titled 'Reflections on Multiculturalism.'

Freshman Disorientation is intended to fill in the cavernous gaps. The guide challenges the saccharinely harmonious message delivered at the orientation and undercuts assumptions held by many at the private school. And administrators aren't happy about it. This is why members of the Global Justice Project distribute their 500 copies to incoming students guerrilla style: speeding through dorms, evading cops, and dodging resident advisers.

'It comes down to the college's paternalistic attitude,' says Katherine Adam, who was part of the distribution team as a Boston College senior. 'They want to protect freshmen from hearing dissenting voices.'

Summer orientation for new college students is typically a three-day affair that attempts to provide class planning, placement tests, campus tours, and a taste of college life via skits and testimony by juniors and seniors. Most official orientations promote the local sexual assault hotline and crisis center, and many give a nod to the diversity of sexual orientations. But the discussion rarely goes deep enough to help incoming students negotiate the complexities of their new social realities. How does a young woman with curvy hips flourish in a community populated by rail-thin classmates? How does a gay student come out to his roommate? How should a student of color respond to the assumption that she's only on campus because of affirmative action? How can one have a social life while one is working two jobs in order to pay for school? Enter the disorientation guide.

These guides, also called disguides, have emerged at more than a dozen campuses around the United States and Canada. The publications may be printed, posted online, or both. Some appear annually; most are published irregularly. It's typical for writers to remain anonymous. In addition to race and gender, disguides often discuss topics such as campus corporatization, militarism, hate crimes, queer issues, labor and fair trade activism, environmentalism, and students' rights in relation to the campus police.

Each disguide also adapts to its specific community. At Boston College, a Jesuit school, Freshman Disorientation featured an article on the religious left. The University of Texas at Austin's disguide article 'Divide and Conquer: Asian Americans, Women, and Affirmative Action' was particularly notable at a campus shaped by its state's 1996 ban on affirmative action. Disguides focus on feminism and the experiences of marginalized students in a way that is wholly unpalatable to the official campus-orientation structure, which is obliged to stay on point with the college's message.

The regular orientation does not prepare you for being a woman in Boston College culture,' says Katrina Quisumbing King, a senior at the college and an editor of the school's current disguide. 'I don't feel comfortable, for example, on game days, when groups of men are yelling at you.'

Facts about sexually transmitted diseases, safe sex, and area resources for sexually active students are trademarks of disguides--and they're of particular importance at an institution like Boston College, where students are not given access to condoms or birth control prescriptions.

So the disguides are getting information out there. But amid the slew of parties, classes, symposia, and other to-dos scheduled during the first week of college, are freshmen getting the message?

Harvard freshman Jessica Ranucci thinks so. 'It is very easy to see Harvard as Harvard, the institution that has so much clout in everyone's minds,' she says. It is important to see that though it's a great place, it has its faults.'

The editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper, was nonplussed by the debut of a disguide on its campus. 'Perhaps its creators aim to recruit a revolutionary army from the ranks of incoming freshmen,' read one Crimson editorial. 'Or maybe its goal is to spark debate at any cost. . . . Often, the guide presents a legitimate topic of debate, but it quickly offers a biased view without even the slightest counterargument, confusing naive readers and infuriating more knowledgeable ones.'

Kelly Lee, who penned an article for the Harvard Disguide titled Rage: I'm a Working-Class Queer Black Woman, confirms that the guide met with mixed opinions--proof that it hit a nerve.

It should come as little surprise that the Harvard students who are most excited about building on this year's disguide template are women, queer folks, and people of color. Says Lee: 'These are the groups who have particular experiences on campus that they want to share with the student body.'


Excerpted from Bitch (Spring 2007). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues) from 4930 29th Ave. NE, Portland, OR 97211; www.bitchmagazine.com.