Dissent 101

Unsanctioned student guides offer advice on the real college experience

| Utne Reader July / August 2007

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.

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