College rankings are an audience-grab and a crapshoot, I know. They’re not scientific. Still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that Princeton was #7 on Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s list of Top Colleges for Activists. (ETA: Disappointed that we made it so high, that is.) I’ll get into this in a more sustained way later, but I actually think there’s a lot of resistance to activism on campus (particularly with regards to feminism and gender activism, see above), and that in some ways it’s been institutionalized out of existence. I’d rather not congratulate us just yet; there’s lot’s of work to be done.
What do Princeton people think?
I spent the first half of my Princeton career as an activist. I helped to organize two anarchic, eye-catching protests, one against Proposition 8 and one against the National Organization for Marriage; I helped get Princeton its first gender-neutral housing policy; I wrote about left-wingy and gay things for campus and national periodicals; I put eighty kids on a bus and got us all to D.C. to participate in the 2009 National Equality March. The <i>Tory</i> (a campus right-wing magazine) called me a “campus radical” as if it was a slur. Minor national far-right celebrities character-assassinated me. I was all set to become a minor celebrity too, for being loud and in-your-face and An Activist.
Then I stopped—thanks to Princeton. For one thing, as my academic obligations multiplied, I had no time to organize protests or take days off to go to D.C. or write for campus publications. In my junior fall, my JP took up every spare moment, and there has literally not been a day since then that I have done no academic work. Furthermore, Princeton—and its faculty—helped me to see myself as a historian, a scholar, and to see my academic work as something worthwhile. My mentors helped me to begin to shut off the voices in my head that tell me I am a terrible person, and so I threw myself into my academic work as the Thing I Am Going to Do With My Life. In light of that, I saw aggressive political stances as something antithetical to being a good teacher. I took the partisan bumper stickers off my computer and notebooks. As I started to become an expert in the history of sexual identity, I also began to doubt many of the core assumptions about the “LGBT rights movement” that had informed a lot of my previous activism, and to disagree with the goals of many of the activist projects I could have continued to be involved in.
It’s true that there is a culture at Princeton that punishes taking aggressive political stances on anything. One is supposed to be seen as too clever for partisanship, hence the “apathy” that is also said by those outside Princeton—and anyone inside it who has ever tried to get people to show up to a protest or demonstration—to characterize its students. Maybe this culture permeated my unconscious while I was strategizing about how to be taken seriously by my peers and mentors. But I’ve never really toned down my political views—to many readers, my Facebook page remains as “radical” as ever, and I’ve taken to my blog or the pages of the <i>Prince</i> when I’ve really felt as if I have something to say. Instead, I think I stopped organizing protests because I need to focus on my thesis; because I don’t want “campus radical”—or “queer”—to be the only thing people think of when they hear my name; and because Princeton has taught me that a Facebook post, a dining-hall conversation about my Victorian men who found identity in the writing of Plato and Whitman, or coming to class having done the reading and ready to engage with its and my classmates’ ideas are all forms of activism too.