“It momentarily punctured the Whitman bubble”: Assessing the Scholar Strike

Abby Malzewski, Staff Reporter

Several Whitman professors participated in the national Scholar Strike on Sept. 8 and 9 in an effort to educate the community and symbolically stand against police brutality and racial inequality. Teachers and students differed on the merit of the strike and on the question of whether or not to participate. 

Professors Lisa Uddin and Zahi Zalloua headed the strike at Whitman and urged their peers to participate. Zalloua, Professor and Director of Race and Ethnic Studies, discussed how the strike successfully politicized the Whitman community.

“[The strike] momentarily punctured the Whitman bubble, the illusion that Whitman can be separated from the outside world,” Zalloua said in an email to The Wire. “Both spaces are imbued with racial injustice, and this injustice makes a demand on us: to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other racialized communities.”

The strike reminded Whitman of this year’s community theme of Race, Violence and Health and how it should be integrated into our education. The theme’s coordinating committee is currently engaging with different departments and programs, as well as facilitating discussions with Whitman faculty, alumni and outside speakers.

Zalloua emphasized the importance of race education and how many students at Whitman are craving this type of education.  

“Students are hungry for interpretive nuance; they are tired of easy answers about race and racism,” Zalloua said. “This is a crucial moment for Whitman faculty and students.”

Zalloua’s enthusiasm for the outcome of the Scholar Strike was not a universal experience. Louis Moench, an undeclared sophomore from Southern California, said that two of his professors participated in the strike while the rest said in emails that taking the day off was not right for their class. 

“They just thought that it wasn’t right for their discipline,” Moench said. “My professor said, ‘we’re going to keep meeting. We’re going to meet on Wednesday because you have to practice Greek as often as possible.’”

Moench shared that the Scholar Strike did not impact him in a profound way, and overall, it just felt like class was canceled for a day.

“I feel like strikes are supposed to be used in a different way because this strike was really symbolic, but I feel like strikes originally were an actual form of power,” Moench said. “I don’t believe in symbolic politics; I believe in real politics.”

Scott Macdonald, a sophomore computer science major from the Silicon Valley, had a similar experience in which only half his professors participate in the strike. Most of his professors shared the Scholar Strike website and gave additional resources on how to be informed. Like some of Moench’s professors, two of Macdonald’s professors felt the strike wasn’t right for their class.

“The professors that didn’t participate didn’t see taking education away as a righteous form of protest, an angle which I can agree with,” Macdonald said. “Both supported the cause but did not feel like the strike was the best way to speak up.”

Macdonald wished professors used their class time to educate about race rather than cancel class altogether.

“I would’ve liked to have the classes that I didn’t meet with actually meet and discussed issues of race and inequality rather than just having a day off from going to class,” Macdonald said. 

Walker Orr, a senior BBMB major, noticed uneven participation across departments in the Scholar Strike. In a survey emailed to all students, Orr asked about professor involvement in the strike based on department. Orr categorized his data from about 75 responses into three blocks: the fine arts and humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Orr described his desire to engage in this personal experiment as a science major who often doesn’t get the opportunity to participate in this sort of work.

“It’s very frustrating being a scientist when most problems are political and social problems and not actually scientific problems,” Orr said. 

Orr had observed how some professors and students in different disciplines interact differently on campus.

“I have noticed that most of the people who participate in activist-oriented clubs on campus tend to be — just from informal observation — disproportionately from social sciences and humanities, and also disproportionately women,” Orr said. “I think that part of that culture is maintained by the [natural science] professors’ inflated sense of their importance or this idea that science is separate from society, which I think is just a huge problem with the culture of scientific institutions.” 

Orr said his survey’s findings supported his theory that participation varied by academic discipline. He intends to discuss his findings further in an op-ed for The Wire.