“Big Problems” at Barnard
First-Year Experience directors offer bandaids for 2020’s many bullet holes.
By Becky Miller
On September 16, 2020, cultural critic and writer Roxane Gay addressed the Barnard community as the first speaker in the College’s fall lecture and discussion series, “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020.” Required for first years and optional for all other students and alumnae, the lecture series focused on critically examining the current sociopolitical state of the world. Barnard community members old and young logged on to the livestream, eager to absorb whatever wisdom Gay had to offer about a year that had brought attention to rampant inequalities. When she appeared on screen in a black-and-white-striped turtleneck and salt and pepper hair, Gay radiated authority—it was instantly clear she is a veteran college guest speaker.
Gay has born continual witness to performative institutional promises of social change. Not ten minutes into her lecture, she declared, “Public intellectuals, writers, and other interesting thinkers are brought to college campuses as part of splashy initiatives that administrations hope will absolve them of any long-term responsibility for creating a genuinely inclusive institution.”
Gay’s words illuminate the irony of Barnard’s “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020.” As they left her lips, they turned against the very lecture in which they were delivered. Deftly demonstrating the weak praxis that many colleges and universities have masked with strong statements on equity and change, Gay’s talk was a highlight of the program for many first-years. The other sector of the program, a pass-fail, one-credit course made up of ten hour-long discussion sessions culminating in the making of a zine (a picture-heavy DIY subculture self-publication, short for “magazine”), was overall less enjoyable than the lectures for Barnard first-year students of color— Black students in particular.
One student, MS, BC ’24, felt discomfort with the “Big Problems” programming right away. She recalled her first discussion session, one of her first ever experiences in a college “classroom.” Her section had gathered to dive into two of Roxane Gay’s New York Times opinion pieces. Recalling the first session, she said, “We were having a discussion about Roxane Gay’s piece about racism in America. Yet somehow it took until the last ten minutes for us to talk about race. Everything else was being brought up in the article—sustainability, environmental issues—but not racism,” she said. In many ways, her experience was microcosmic of the nationwide discussion of race: ever-avoided, even when presented explicitly as necessary.
During the semester, MS and many others identified a disconnect between the goals of “Big Problems” as advertised by the College and the actual in-class experience. These conversations—designed by the First Year Experience department to teach students “how to make sense of the ‘big problems’ of 2020,”—dissolved quickly into a grid of blank, nonparticipatory Zoom screens. Furthermore, the structure of the course failed to take into account the pressure that discussion sections placed on BIPOC students. For some students, especially students of color, meeting with strangers once a week to discuss systemic racial inequity felt deeply uncomfortable.
Students of color “were put in a very vulnerable position where we had to actively talk about race,” MS said. “And we don’t know these people. I’ve never met them in my life. And it’s not that I can’t talk about race or be honest about it, but it’s awkward when you don’t know who you're talking to. I remember someone saying, ‘Oh, well, you don’t have to actually put your stuff out there.’ But you can’t have a conversation about race without bringing up your own experience with it. Otherwise, it’s very superficial. But also, you’re telling us, have very deep conversations about race with people we don’t know. So it's a bad position.”
MS dreaded her “Big Problems” meetings. When her section met to discuss writings by lecturer Linda Villarosa about the enormous racial discrimination in medical treatment—faced especially by Black women—her section either veered away from or failed to acknowledge the real-life trauma described in or thematically related to the text. “Very, very few people were talking, and if me or another person of color didn’t talk about the text, it either would not get talked about, or students would talk about it and they would say, ‘I was so surprised,’ which is so offensive in itself. If you’re talking about Black birthgiver mortality rates, it’s like almost every Black person in this room has, if they have a uterus, grown up with that: Knowing you might die if you give birth. And your peers are saying, ‘I'm so shocked, I never knew.’ It’s hurtful,” she said.
MW, BC ’24, felt that her section initially took a performative approach to talking about race. But after a while, students lost interest, and the number of people with cameras on in meetings dwindled. Superficiality hindered productive discussion by maintaining a focus on more visible, but less substantive forms of activism. “Instagram activism was really hot for the fall semester,” she said. “They were like, ‘Oh, [racism] is wrong. I’ve been to protests, you know. I donated.’ It wasn’t like we were addressing the issue. You had girls who were saying things like, ‘Oh, I donated to the George Floyd Foundation,’ and I was like, ‘Cool, but that’s not going to save the world.’” She noted that this type of behavior “was coming mostly from white girls.”
As the semester continued, some discussion sections sat in silence while others actually engaged in conversation. Noa Fay, BC ’24, had a particularly participatory class, and remembers both Gay and Villarosa’s lectures leading to lively discussions. “A lot of people were very impressed by the fact that [Gay] pretty much called out Barnard,” Fay said. She interpreted Gay’s message to be, “I am here speaking for the school, but I’m not going to exempt you from the criticism that I have.”
With our first year occurring virtually, part of the goal of “Big Problems,” according to Barnard’s First Year Experience department, was to “provide a forum in which students could meet each other in small groups to discuss these issues and have some kind of interaction that was separate from their regular academic courses.” By combining a space to chat and mingle with an academic environment of mandatory discussions and readings about systemic racism in America, the “Big Problems” organizers jumbled a few first-year objectives into one. It was unclear whether “Big Problems” was supposed to be NSOP or an antiracist workshop, which, in large part, led to the confusion and disappointment that followed the class.
“I don’t think ‘Big Problems’ knew what it wanted to be,” said MS, indicating that the administration seemed at once to expect student “bonding” and serious antiracist growth. “You can’t do all of it at once,” she said. “Either you have to start the bonding before the antiracist work or you have to start the antiracist work in a separate vacuum.”
About three weeks into the semester, a group of students started to float the idea that BIPOC students should boycott the “Big Problems” final zine. After organizing through Instagram polls and DMs, a group of about fifty students met on Zoom to discuss the problems with the class and its structure. As the capstone project, the final zines, which were originally meant to “live on in Barnard’s digital archives,” represented the extent of student action sponsored by “Big Problems.” Boycotting the making of a zine meant standing up to the program’s empty promises of racial equity. Ultimately, the group of students behind the initiative also worked collectively to draft a letter to Barnard’s administration, to voice their frustration with the course directly to its creators.
“The harm produced by Barnard’s lack of intersectional consideration when creating and planning the ‘Big Problems’ course cannot be understated,” the letter reads. “It is evident that Barnard views diversity from a perspective that centers statistics and white comfort, rather than ensuring that BIPOC students and other minorities feel represented and supported at Barnard, especially within courses catered to discussing racism and other injustices.”
After the letter and the zine boycott, “Big Problems” discussions thinned and quieted even further. The zine became optional for some sections but remained mandatory for others, and turnout to classes dropped. Those who chose to make zines mostly memorialized “Big Problems” and 2020 with how-to recipes for justice and Spotify playlists of Black female artists. These zines, the most concrete output of “Big Problems,” missed their intended mark, but clearly demonstrated the incomplete and often superficial solutions such programs pose to address racial inequity.
“I think zines can be incredibly helpful, but there was a lot of unorganization with the zines, and there are some people who didn’t even make zines about the topics in the course. They were making zines about what they baked over quarantine. That right there is the epitome of ‘what the hell.’ We’re talking about racism, we’re talking about Black death. And you’re making your capstone project that. Zines done well can be amazing. Zines done incorrectly, not so much,” MS said.
The student-written letter to the administration articulated why zines, now a hallmark of liberal arts colleges across the country, were an insufficient supplement to a course focusing on “power structures, value systems, and the institutions that (re)produce them,” as Columbia’s registrar defines the “Big Problems” course. It reads, “Simply discussing systemic injustices without providing specific resources to support BIPOC communities or an antiracist agenda reinforces the idea that surface-level changes are sufficient to combat racism. ‘Big Problems’ should have provided resources to involve students in local grassroots organizations, mutual aid funds, online petitions, and other operations that are actively supporting marginalized communities, especially Harlem.”
Many students recognize Barnard’s positive intentions in at least attempting to bring discussions about social injustice to the foreground with this special programming. “I think they were doing their best,” said MS. “They’ve never done this before, so they were like, ‘Okay, let’s try it,’ and I respect them for that. I just don't think it was executed to the best of its ability.”
Indeed, the more valuable outcome of “Big Problems” was entirely unplanned. The course sparked independent talks among students about how hosting a forum for these discussions requires a level of organization and thought that the directors of Barnard’s first-year program—and other college-facilitated initiatives—lacked. “Even though I didn't have really good discussions in my discussion sections,” MS remarked, “having discussions about Roxane Gay and all this other stuff with other BIPOC students outside of the discussions—they were really, really nice.” Barnard students like her ultimately transformed institutional failure into an opportunity for collective reflection and independent action beyond the confines of credits, assignments, and seminars. In the end, she chuckled, “the purpose of ‘Big Problems’ happened outside the classroom,” among change-making students themselves.