The Daily Northwestern

Schwalb: We need to generate more than just discussion

Jessica Schwalb, Columnist

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Columns, when done well, are fabulously important: They spark conversation, provoke controversy and perhaps even inspire change. But to achieve that often-missing third element, Northwestern students must continue conversations beyond the page and with students who occupy radically different spaces on campus from their own.

Language undoubtedly shapes our perception of campus politics, but tends to stop at just that. It rarely pushes the conversation from words to action. The buzz around a column (or Letter to the Editor) often falls by the wayside after a few days of contentious Facebook arguments. Anger, though perhaps exciting to read in a heated comment threat, does not improve much. It is far easier to search for a piece’s tension or most controversial aspect instead of using it as a jumping-off point to think about concrete solutions. This is not exclusively the fault of readers: Columnists, including and especially myself, have a far easier time pointing out a problem than offering a solution. Both writers and readers can do better about discussing both complex issues and complex answers.

To provoke dialogue is a primary goal of writing. However, more often than not, this dialogue — if it happens at all — occurs within largely homogenous groups, usually occupying distinct and isolated pockets of campus. We rarely talk among those who disagree with us on a column’s meaning — understandably so, as it’s far more comfortable to debate in groups where all, or most, already agree. But these conversations are less productive: They don’t force us to wrestle with the merits of opposing viewpoints. They don’t help us think critically about our own beliefs. A more salient expression of a column’s success is the ability to generate conversation between disparate corners of campus.

But calling for an end to self-segregation within campus conversations requires that we take a hard look in the mirror. All students gravitate toward spaces that make us feel comfortable, whether settling into a space of political, religious or ethnic homogeneity. I often hear fellow white students decry “self-segregation” of students of color on campus, seemingly unaware of our own self-segregation and occupation of white spaces on a largely white campus. Instead of blaming others for separation and division, we must be critical and honest in self-reflection. Am I seeking to surround myself with people who look, feel, act and think differently? Am I pushing myself to think critically about my own beliefs? The answers to these questions are often uncomfortable. Conversations across lines of difference are often uncomfortable. This discomfort reveals the very space where action and progress is most needed.

Part of the reason so many NU students enroll in Medill each year is the belief that their words and stories will have real-world impact. Far more important than getting clicks on an article or provoking an argument is enacting tangible change. Mere dialogue across campus’ visible and invisible lines is rarely sufficient. It fizzles out quickly, with few spaces on campus where students can gather to continue those conversations started in the comments. We should not rest satisfied with the constant rise and fall in campus attention toward social issues that affect fellow students. In response to a column, both apathy and anger are easy. Though difficult, taking action is far more rewarding.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at jessicaschwalb2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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