Hegemonic discourse and the darker side of Res Life

By Catherine Reagan and Sarah Halvorson-Fried

In light of the recent discussion in the Mac Weekly opinions section about the role of Residential Assistants, we would like to redirect attentions and address Residential Life as a whole.A friend recently underwent an experience with Residential Life that brings up questions surrounding the hegemonic nature of our community model. After smoking salvia in a dorm room in which other people were smoking marijuana, there was a knock at the door. She, in her dissociated state, was unable to flee the room while the others jumped out the window. As the only person left in the room when the Residential Hall Director and security entered the room, she was held accountable for the marijuana odor and paraphernalia found there despite the fact that it was not her room.

Since, presumably, our friend had been written up a few times the previous year for marijuana, Residential Life decided to send her off-campus to Jerry Peters for a “chemical health assessment.” Feeling there was no risk in honesty, she spoke with Peters about how she did not think marijuana usage or drinking were out of the ordinary. She discussed the legalization of marijuana and the more addictive aspects of our society – food binging, television, and compulsive shopping, for example – that are widely accepted while marijuana usage is condemned. Peters informed her that she was an abuser of alcohol and drugs since she said she drank every weekend and smoked a few times a week. This assessment, which took two hours, cost her $125.

It didn’t end there. Clearly Peters did not agree with our friend’s ideological differences, because he recommended her to 18 hours of further assessment and education at the River Ridge treatment center in Burnsville – a 60 to 90 minute bus ride from campus – to be completed within three weeks. This “recommendation” was in fact something that was required by Res Life. 18 hours is quite a bit of time to a college student. Our friend informed the Res Life official dealing with her case that she did not foresee being able to complete this “education” in the allotted time, that she would need until the end of the semester, that she would not be able to pay for it herself, and furthermore that it was absolutely unnecessary, as her unthreatening lifestyle was not going to change. The official’s response: “Drug use is not normal.”

Who is to say what’s normal? Who decides? The Macalester College Residential Life’s General Philosophy states, “In choosing to live on campus, a resident commits to participating in an educational community; a community characterized by respecting the rights of others, accepting personal responsibility and active relationships with others.” Chloe Mirzayi said in the March 27th Mac Weekly, “Every community agrees to certain limitations and rules on behavior in order to guarantee a safe, healthy environment and Macalester dorms are certainly no exception.” These two statements seem to indicate that we have a choice to live on campus and that we, as a community, have all agreed to something. But the rules by which Res Life dictates normalcy are not actually agreed upon by the majority of our community. Rather, we are effectively forced to agree to their demands by virtue of a two-year campus residency graduation requirement. And as Charlie Mokriski pointed out in the April 3rd Mac Weekly, referring to the drinking policy, “How can a behavior that 84 percent of Macalester students don’t adhere to be a community standard?”

Our friend’s experience with River Ridge was, as predicted, unenlightening. The majority of her time spent there was focused on the dangers of drunk driving and prolonged illegal chemical abuse. Most of the other people in attendance were there by order of the court for their DUI’s. She watched a movie meant to discuss marijuana that featured the testimonies of 20-year coke-addicts/weed-smokers. Relevant? No. This education cost her $409.

The process also included two drug tests administered a week apart to “make sure” she was not using at the time. She was made to miss class for a two-hour session on the dangers of marijuana. Upon expressing her desire not to miss an important class, she was told she should make this anti-drug education, as opposed to the Macalester education we are all here for, a priority.

When our friend asked what would happen if she did not comply with these unreasonable demands, she was told her case would be brought to a conduct board, after which she would most likely be put on Disciplinary Probation for failing to comply, putting her scholarships at risk.

The fact that the powers that be were able to administer drug tests, force her to miss class, and affect her financial situation indicates the unchallengeable authority of Residential Life. While operating under a facade of constructive community building, they are in fact functioning on the premise of fear. Indeed, many students go about their lives in the dorms hoping not to get written up, drinking quietly, and toweling the door.

Jacob Weindling said in the March 27th issue of the Mac Weekly, “We believe that the past year has been a fantastic one for the Residential Life program. Incident reports have plummeted in number from prior years, while Residential Assistant applications were up more than 50% from last year.” The drop in incident reports is clearly not an indication that residents are drinking or doing drugs any less; they simply aren’t getting caught. The force of the law has a capricious sovereignty. Some people are held accountable to it, others are not, and whether or not someone is in fact held accountable is no testimony to his or her actual actions. Why was our friend sent to a costly, out of the way treatment center while others get off with a slap on the wrist? This question is especially interesting when considering that salvia is legal and easily available.

The discourse of Res Life is completely disciplinary down to their vocabulary, which includes words such as “abuse”, “probation”, and “record”; maybe we should question whether “community member” actually fits into this discourse. Their touted goals of maintaining an “authentic community” is a thinly shrouded way of enforcing the daily cooperation of students who will begin to adhere to their standards and thus self-discipline. Again quoting from their General Philosophy, “Individuals who learn from these opportunities are better equipped to respond to the challenges of living on campus thus becoming effective members of the community.” As Foucault says, “Thus discipline produces subject and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.”

This is how hegemony works. Res Life hegemonically inculcates all students into their moralist ideology. Just as we are forced to sign a contract in order to graduate, we are forced into complacency by the fact that we exist within this framework of expected self-discipline. People who are victimized by Residential Life feel helpless because the status quo is unchallengeable; there is no way to effectively speak out against policy. Our friend appealed to the system several times throughout this process, and in none of these instances was she taken seriously.

The total amount paid out of pocket was $534.

Macalester prides itself on its alliance with the liberal arts ethos of being self-critical and forward thinking. In this context this breach of the promoted characteristics of our college is rather ironic.