McKay: Obfuscating Orientation

by Katie McKay | 9/30/12 10:00pm

Upon returning to Hanover after DOC Trips, I saw my mother standing on the sidewalk. While I attempted to say goodbye to my trip and collect my cellphone and room key, she handed me a collection of fliers she had picked up at the Activities Fair. "I signed you up for some blitz lists!"

For many freshmen during Orientation, the process of becoming acclimated to this school and feeling constantly bombarded with numerous streams of information is already overwhelming. Adding to this chaos was a packed schedule of events designed to immediately introduce new students to Dartmouth's culture and to address perceived problems within that culture, including controversial social issues on campus. While the College's intentions in this programming were certainly honorable, the precautionary undertones of chastisement and judgment in the presentations did little to encourage honest discussion about these important topics.

The Sex Signals performance, which dealt with the often under-discussed topic of sexual assault, was educational and interesting and surprisingly entertaining given the topic, but it nonetheless failed to encourage constructive dialogue. The show presented a hypothetical situation in which a girl, Amy, had invited over her friend, David, and they did homework together while drinking a few beers. Amy then kissed David but also sent him several signals that she wanted to stop. David had sex with her despite her saying "stop" at the beginning. The performers then asked the audience whether or not the situation represented sexual assault and why the assault happened.

I overheard many of my classmates discussing their disagreement that incident presented was sexual assault. "Amy invited David over." "Well, Amy did kiss him first." "Why didn't she make him stop?" Yet these perspectives were not shared publicly. While the performers had attempted to make it easy for students to understand their message, it was almost too easy to know which answer was right. Questions were often phrased in the affirmative, and opposing perspectives were made to seem ridiculous, and, often, hilarious. Those that dissented were not compelled to speak, preventing honest discussion about important misconceptions about rape and rape culture, as well as gender stereotypes and myths. In my floor's follow-up meeting, not a single person expressed their concerns about the performance and implications. When asked why someone might think that the incident between Amy and David was consensual, these comments were offered as hypothetical remarks from an imaginary, ill-informed and mildly misogynistic '16. Not a single person actually presented these views as his or her own.

Similarly, many of the presentations that touched upon alcohol and drug-related topics often bore the same sermonizing tone. Rather than sparking a balanced discussion, they presented a point-of-view that they expected the students to absorb. We were told not to accept the "norm" here at Dartmouth a norm that allegedly consists of binge drinking and frat parties. However, by defining this as the "norm," the presenters expressed clear disdain for the mainstream social life at the College, undermining their message that "you don't have to drink... really!" in order to fit into the mainstream culture.

The speakers in both Sex Signals and the alcohol panel punctuated their presentations with questions directed at the audience. These questions were often simple yes-or-no questions that were worded in such a way that the correct answer was obvious; nobody in the audience was willing to shout out the "wrong" answer, or else they would be at risk for being singled out. Many of the questions asked were more straightforward: "Is there a way to have fun without drinking?" or, "Should you get consent for sex?"

By guiding students to the desired answer, if not actually stating it directly, the presenters prevented students from actually processing the information and arriving at the desired answer independently. This passive approach to education, focusing more on conveying a message than convincing the freshmen to believe it, will most likely result in little to no actual change in people's behavior or opinion. Instead, it comes across as preachy. Freshmen could simply nod their head "yes" while tuning out the actual message, ultimately undermining the goals of these events. Instead, the College should attempt to facilitate open dialogue and allow students to reason through the system's faults on their own. This format may make the process messier and more uncomfortable, but it will also help enable genuine reevaluation and effect more permanent change.