This piece is part of a series about student activism at Minerva Aspen Pflughoeft (M’22). You can also read the companion report here.
For the last few months, I have spent far more time than I care to admit thinking about history and archives, about activism and social change. I guess that’s what I get for taking all history courses. When I first had the idea to write a history of Minerva student activism for my History and Activism Tutorial final, I shied away from the project entirely. Where would I begin? What would I use as a primary source base? How could I possibly overcome the challenges of such a project? Was I an appropriate person to be writing that history in the first place? I didn’t know, but the project felt relevant and vital, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
And then, on October 30, a shooting happened outside of the San Francisco residence hall. The cross-class Telegram chat exploded with messages. A single text from an M’25 student whom I have never met caught my attention in the flurry of messages. The text called out for help from the upper classes for advice on getting the administration to change the residence hall.
Immediately, I thought back to the previous May, back to the first shooting outside of the San Francisco residence hall, and back to the petitions that called for something to change. Did this M’25 student know about that? Probably not. As I stood in my Berlin dorm room with a half-typed message of a half-told story of the May — or was it April? — shooting, I realized that someone needed to write — or at least attempt to write — a record of the various efforts earlier Minervans had made to try and improve our institution. And if no one else had done this yet, I guess that someone would be me.
This lengthy article developed from that conviction and the input of dozens of other students (and maybe a few too many cups of coffee).
In writing a history of student activism at Minerva, I grappled with those intimidating questions — Where would I begin? What would I use as a primary source base? How could I possibly overcome the challenges of such a project? Was I an appropriate person to be writing that history in the first place? — but I resolved to address them with radical transparency.
And that brings me to this article, an op-ed-styled companion to the historical report I wrote. The purpose of this article is for me to explain how I answered those intimidating questions and how my answers influenced the resulting historical account.
Answering the Intimidating Questions of Writing a History of Minerva Student Activism
Where would I begin?
The beginning of the Minerva student community seemed like the most appropriate place to start. I decided to focus on the pre-accreditation period to allow myself a slight temporal distance from my subject matter. In all honesty, accreditation did not seem to change much, if anything, for Minerva student activism. Perhaps a future student-historian will — and should — reject my periodization. Only time will tell.
What would I use as a primary source base?
The snippets of student activist history that I knew at the start of this project had come from either the stories friends in other cohorts told me or the Quest articles I had read. Inspired by this personal experience, I took a few steps to make Quest and my peers a more rigorous source base.
I scoured for all — or as many as I could find — Quest articles related to student change efforts using keyword searches and article tags.
Initially, I hoped to set up a series of interviews with students who had participated in various activism efforts. However, since this project was both a personal project and a final project for my tutorial class, time was not on my side. Rather than risk the sampling bias that would come from arbitrary factors of interview availability and time zone gymnastics, I decided to create a survey for students to share their activism experiences. I developed and refined the survey based on input from Ang Li-Lian (M’22) and Gabrielle Von Seggern (M’22). Due to the potentially sensitive nature of activism efforts, this survey gave respondents the choice of having their responses published with their full name, just their last, or anonymously.
To circulate this survey, I posted in a private Facebook group and Telegram chat for all Minerva students. I also posted on my Instagram story. I encouraged all students — whether or not they felt they had participated in student activism — to fill out the survey and asked for suggestions on who they thought should fill this out. Between these suggestions, my knowledge, and the names that appeared in relevant Quest articles, I collected a list of more than 80 students. And then I personally messaged them all. Yes, Facebook flagged my account as spam at one point.
These efforts, in my assessment, paid off. By the time of publication and only one week after initially releasing the survey, 52 students had responded to the survey. This response far surpassed the number of students I could have interviewed in the same time frame. These survey responses provided a rich, thoughtful collection of firsthand accounts of Minerva students that usefully complemented the information in Quest articles.
To everyone who took the time to fill out this survey, recommend other students, answer my follow-up questions, and write Quest articles, thank you so, so, so much! You were the heartbeat of this historical account in numerous ways.
How could I possibly overcome the challenges of such a project?
As I waded further into this project, I kept encountering the same challenges: what do I mean by “activism”? Having grappled with this question for my unrelated Capstone project and in discussions in my Tutorial class, I already knew the sort of definition I preferred. I preferred a simple, broad, and open-to-interpretation definition. I did not want to disqualify a topic or type of activism before the project began.
For these reasons, I settled on a relatively intuitive definition of activism, knowing full well that other students may disagree with me. In the survey and the resulting report, I wrote:” here, ‘student activism at Minerva’ or ‘Minerva student activism’ refers to efforts by Minerva students to enact change within Minerva.”
Was I an appropriate person to be writing that history in the first place?
Whether or not I was the absolute best person to write a history of Minerva student activism, I think I qualify as a reasonable person to write this history. I’m a Minerva student in the class of 2022. Notably, the class of 2022 was the last cohort to matriculate before there were Minerva graduates. My cohort is, at this moment, the middle child of all Minerva cohorts. Three classes have graduated before us, and three classes have matriculated after us. The centrality of M’22 coupled with my own Minerva journey means that I know Minervans from all seven classes. To strengthen my case, I have also been involved in Quest for over three years. Finally, by the end of this semester, I will have taken every history course Minerva currently offers (including an advanced History and Activism tutorial).
However, I have also been involved with numerous student activism efforts during my time at Minerva. I served on ASM, participated in the Day of Action, signed petitions to move the San Francisco residence hall, led a Quest series on Privileges and Prejudices at Minerva, and contributed — as a writer or an editor — to a significant number of the Quest articles that served as my source base. Even if I could, I would not undo these actions for the sake of supposedly ‘unbiasing’ my account of the history of Minerva student activism. Instead, I have attempted to resolve questions of bias with radical transparency, such as the ‘Disclaimer’ I included in the report and this companion article.
Questioning the dynamics between my positionality and my authorship questions whether I have spoken for, spoken of, or spoken with the Minerva student community. To the extent that I am able and to the extent that I know how to, I have made every effort to speak of the Minerva student community by speaking with Minerva students through my survey and this reflective article.
Were my efforts effective? I hope so, but I think that my classmates will have the final say on that question.
The Future of this History and Activism Project?
If I continue this project, my next step is to fill in the gaps on topics that were not covered in enough detail in the first version of this history. ‘Enough detail’ being that the historical account is helpful for another student trying to understand what happened and where their predecessors left off. Additionally, numerous students’ responses inspired me to consider writing a third more ‘how-to’ angled article that would provide future student activists some semblance of a roadmap. (I use the phrase “if” because I am a burnt-out student that needs a post-semester rest before she can imagine accepting another project).
As for the broader question of what’s next for Minerva student activism, I don’t know. Like numerous survey respondents, I also feel the significance of addressing housing concerns. After all, the resurgence of these concerns did spark this project in the first place.
If you are interested in sharing your experiences of student activism with the Quest, please reach out to Aspen Pflughoeft at [email protected].
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