Have We Forgotten Our Own Memory? Collective Memory on College Campus

Anna Mitchell ’22
Staff Writer

We don’t often think of a four year term when we think of college, as we do when we think of politics. Political terms are conceptually approachable. For example, you get elected, you do your duty for four years, you try again, maybe someone else prevails, you show them the ropes, box up the offices, and move on. [This is admittedly an oversimplification of a complex political system, but for our purposes, today, it suffices.]

With this framework of a rise, a plateau, and a descent in mind, let us turn to the four-year college. We are essentially elected from pools of applicants campaigning for themselves; we enter the community, orient ourselves, time goes by; we write culminating projects, turn to relinquish positions we have held or groups that we have founded; and then we leave, extracting our voice, commitments, and, in some cases, our memory.

But what does this mean? Our memory is individual and ingrained in our bodies, is it not? Thinking one dimensionally, this would be the only side to the equation. Yet, upon broadening the perspective, we can consider collective memory just as integral and just as pertinent as the individual’s memory.
What renders memory collective? What qualities must this entity possess or reflect in order to be deemed cumulative? I am far from a psychologist; the above query, in my eyes, is more theoretical and my argument purely grounded in my own experience. To me, collective memory represents the wealth of shared experience, energy, and formative events extending over a wide period of time. As a college student addressing the idea of collective memory on campus, specifically in activism, I am a stakeholder. So hear me out.

Stunting collective memory within specific groups – in our example, a college’s student population – is a method of controlling activists, denying darker moments of the past, and ultimately maintaining a certain level of stagnant balance, of gradual and sluggish progression.

Coming into college, we rely on infrastructure established by our predecessors and on information we can gather from them, until we, too, become familiar with the inner workings of the system. But at this point, we’re packing our bags and reminiscing and endowing what we can with the next “generation.” This inhibits notable advancement in activist projects and all other variants of initiatives for change on campus. Two steps forward, one step back. Two new leaders, one graduated. Both the severity and sincerity of the issue of disjointed collective memory seem to have gone unnoticed.
Taking the example of the multitude of non-performative and deeply motivated activist groups — and without naming names — I give you the task of picking one, reaching out, and speaking to the leaders. Ask them if there are archives for their group. Ask them if there are other groups fighting the same fight, or rather, if there have been in the past. Ask them what has worked, and what could stand for improvement. How about an archive?

Contemplating the above questions, I wonder: what can activism look like without constant group members or without preservation of past work? What can activism look like here? I watch a paper poster, damp and sagging, slip down lower, lower on a being stucco wall, finally falling into a murky puddle below. Four tabs of cobalt painters tape remain, a vacant frame. What will fill this frame next?
Some may raise their brows, purse their lips and rebut me with the quip, “Isn’t it the struggle that counts?” [I know this because “some” have.] On one level, I cannot disagree, as perpetual attention and effort devoted to an issue keeps it alive, like CPR, breathing life into questions and concerns constantly threatened by death. But this renders activism more self-serving than I believe it should be, as it suggests that a person’s learning how to struggle, how to act as an activist, takes holistic precedence over the ultimate goals of the organization.

The more we consider collective memory, the more complex the issue becomes. For example, most colleges maintain intensive, cared for, and extensive archives of the school’s history, a method of preservation and remembrance. Yet an institution is just as much defined by its student body as it is by its documented past, and so we ask what thread binds students, specifically student activists, through the years?
Is higher education engineered to create such an effect? For does it not benefit our administration, to have student groups slowed by time itself, losing members, losing leaders, losing purpose? Does it not place our school’s leadership in a position of perpetual indifference, under little pressure to consider deeply the demands or grievances of its many student activists?

And what about movements that seem to require that first-hand experience in order to mobilize around an issue? Remember the RA strike? Oh right, you weren’t here for that. I was not. There’s no denying it. Yet knowing my class is living in its wake, what can I do, what can we do, to understand? That is the task at hand: recognize the role of collective memory in our college lives, seek to identify how it impacts our experiences as students and as activists, and then set out to make lasting change.

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