“It might be fun to shake things up a bit, and watch old white male academics quiver with the thought of new ideas”Flickr: Silvia Maggi

I’ve spent a lot of time this term in forums, discussion rooms and holding workshops. When we deconstruct ideas and oppressive structures, there is always a recurring feeling that is present in the room. Well, we’ve spent an hour identifying the problem and thinking about how widespread and insidious it is; how can we possibly tackle it? Where do we begin? What is the point? I know I’ve felt this way about trying to address some of the structural problems at this university. In launching the petition to remove the ‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’ video featuring David Starkey, my initial thoughts about the practical changes that the campaign could actually have were cynical. It will be purely symbolic, I thought. They’ll just ignore us.

Turns out that when you embarrass an institution, they do respond quickly, as we have seen. Not only has launching the campaign put me and other members of the campaign executive in contact with radical, progressive academics, it has reminded me that they actually exist and want the same things as we do. They are battling against the same oppressive structures that keep academia boxed in and rigid. Listening to academics voice the same frustrations about the Eurocentric course structure, the gender attainment gap, how the way we work sometimes stops us actually engaging with the material we’re given, and so on, has made me realise that as students we’re not alone in wanting this place to be better.

Looking outwards to other elite institutions like Yale who are dealing with students using the power that they have to make noise and start trouble, I keep thinking that if we maintain strong solidarity links, support each other and share tactics, there are ways to reclaim Cambridge for ourselves. It’s collective action that scares any institution. If enough people sign a petition or write a particular criticism on a feedback form or protest, we demonstrate that we are aware that there are more of us than them and that we can use that power as leverage. The desire to keep your head down and chug through is understandable and, at times, admirable, but during a talk they gave at Selwyn Femsoc, Alex Da Costa argued that we should look at our time here and ask if we’ve existed in this space with integrity. Have we sacrificed our ideals to fit in? Have we resisted the urge to speak up about something we know is wrong because of the overwhelming pressure to maintain the status quo?

This idea is interesting to me because not only did Da Costa argue that academics ask themselves this same question; they implied that if we don’t attempt to tackle our degrees while maintaining our integrity and dignity, we reinforce the idea of changelessness because we remain compliant. If enough of us made the active decision to place pressure on the institution to apologise for its colonial past, or demanded at the very least that we think more critically before celebrating certain aspects of it in our halls and lecture theatres, we could scare them a little. As students, we are more than just consumers. University is the time where we are supposed to be challenged and encouraged to think beyond what is deemed ‘appropriate’ by an 800-year-old institution. It might be fun to shake things up a bit, and watch old white male academics quiver at the thought that new ideas and practices are replacing old ones.

Being at a university steeped in tradition can feel like more than just an uphill battle; it sometimes feels impossible or pointless to attempt to combat the problems because the impact that we can have doesn’t seem that great. It’s always helpful to think about change in small bite-sized chunks. In between essays and socialising and extracurricular activities, there isn’t really that much time to educate people or prompt huge structural shifts in the world. Yet what there always is time for is small everyday differences that, when added together, might make more of an impact than we think.

It can be as simple as addressing your own problematic thoughts and behaviour and investigating why you think in a certain way, challenging or correcting your friends, and ensuring that you uplift marginalised groups in spaces they can’t access. It might be as simple as reaching for a queer reading of a text or choosing to include in your essays and practicals ideas that challenges ‘acceptable’ modes of knowledge and thinking. The underestimation of our ability to change things is dangerous because it provides the mandate for doing nothing. It becomes a harmful self-perpetuating cycle – “Well, I’m only one person and I can’t change anything – so why should I try?” The more and more people who adopt this attitude, the less we achieve. Opposition to tradition is radical. A refusal to romanticise the past might just be the difference needed to make marginalised students feel safer in the halls of this university. Ultimately, I’m trying to leave here with a degree and integrity, those two things shouldn’t need to exist in opposition to one another.

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