Snow Day Adventures

Winter storm Stella hit the U.S. northeast last week. The Cornell area saw 1.5ft of snow in less than 30 hours. For the first time in my four years as a student here, we got a snow day (we got two actually!). It was the first full snow day since 2007. Tompkins county even closed all roads for a day. This is what it looked like near where I live:

Can you even see the gorge?

That’s what my collegetown street looked like.

Enroute to law school after the roads were cleared on day 2. 

On both days, there was high traffic in the arts quad and libe slope. A friend convinced me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go sledding at Cornell. There is a long history of winter/snow play at Cornell. I found these awesome images from 1920s-1950s as I was looking up that history:

Toboggan slide at Forest Home Drive, near Beebe lake. I can’t believe this existed. 

Sledding on Libe Slope is no new activity.

Ice Skating on Beebe lake. I don’t think Beebe lake even froze in the past three winters. Climate change? 

Sledding on libe slope has been illegal for several years due to safety concerns. The toboggan slide was discontinued a very long time ago, before my parents born. You can read all about this history at this Ezra Magazine article, from which I sourced those cool black and white photos. Well, even if they had color cameras, I’m sure it would have looked just as black-and-white. Anyway, current Cornellians contributed to this rich history of snow sports last week. Somewhere in all the fun, I lost my phone in the 1.5feet of snow.

My friends and I looked for it in the deep snow and we found a phone, but someone else’s. It was returned to its owner that night. I spent a whole day without a phone (what a millennial thing to say). I realized that I used my phone for all sorts of random things – setting an alarm, checking the weather, co-ordinating meetings with people and ofcourse, I just need to look at it every few minutes. Almost exactly after 24 hours from when I lost my phone, a friend received a text from my phone; someone had found it. My phone had survived the snowstorm and I was reunited with it.

Why Diversity Is a Hard Problem in the University

Any American university’s website contains a section on the virtues of diversity and the diversity of its students. We’ve all read the many arguments in favor of diversity in college. It broadens our understanding of the world and equips us with skills required in a global society. But none of this happens without serious engagement with the diverse people/viewpoints on campus.

In my four years here, I’ve been involved with a self-selective group of people who consciously seek diverse viewpoints; I’ve rarely had to interact at length with students who are not part of this bubble. In my European Philosophy class last week, I distinctly saw the bubbles we create here.

We had been reading Marx’s economic theory. In discussion, one student presented his observation that in modern capitalism, the working class is far better off than it was in Marx’s time. Blue collar jobs, he noted, pay more than a subsistence wage and exploitation does not occur as it did in early days of industrialization. No matter what class one belongs to, there is also opportunity for financial and social mobility, he added. Some American students in our class contested this claim with the argument that minimum wage is barely subsistence wage and that America offers equal opportunity to all more in rhetoric than in practice. A sensible discussion ensued, but was limited to the American national boundary.

I pointed out that nearly all production and manufacturing is outsourced to industrializing Asian countries. Capital is concentrated in post-industrial western nations, but labor is concentrated in the newly-industrializing global south. Marx’s portrayal continues to represent the condition of laborers in these countries.

The garment industry is frequently in the news for dismal working conditions and wages. In 2013, an 8-story garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a 1000 wage laborers. The building’s precarious condition had been ignored for months, despite repeated complaints from workers. Three years later, there is no evidence of improvement. Documentary film-makers and long-form journalists  continue to find substantial work in documenting these conditions. When capital and labor are geographically separated, a fair evaluation of the state of capitalism cannot be limited to national boundaries; the global nature of modern capitalism is essential to it.

What seemed like a simple and relevant argument to me, was completely ignored by my classmates. Without acknowledgement, they continued discussing whether the affordability of cars is a sign of progress, whether the working class in America wants some form of socialistic democracy and so on. In a discussion, mainly among students from developed nations, my “developing-world” contribution was unheard by classmates who were either unable to engage because of their ignorance, or consciously unwilling to engage with marginal viewpoints (marginal in that classroom).

It’s not enough to bring diverse students to campus, the University also needs to tackle the hard problem of facilitating meaningful engagement among these diverse groups. It’s hard because students will treat any mandatory or explicit “diversity activities” mechanically – to be checked off the graduation requirement list.

Art, Experience and Critical Thinking

Over the past couple years, my commitment to certain causes/ideas (for instance, the ethics of international development, sovereignty of a people and universal access to education,technology) have deepened. Now, I treat these matters analytically. I look for facts, data and coherent sets of concepts and policies. But when I reflect on what first prompted me to care about these issues, it certainly was not data or logical arguments.

My first encounter with social justice/ethics in college was during orientation week itself. All new students were required to attend a student directed theatrical performance on campus diversity and social justice. The performance had imperfections and the content could be objectively contested. If I had been there to examine the performance critically, enough of the content was in the unresolved, grey area that I would have would up cynical about the whole affair. But I was there as audience for art and I was moved by the art and its subjective content.So I joined that theater troupe, Ordinary People.

During my sophomore year, I took to reading 19th century Russian literature. In Anna Karenina, the character Konstantin Levin’s inner struggle with the feudal system, his faith, meaning and righteousness all seemed to afflict me, the reader, as much as it did the character. The Japanese film maker Akira Kurasawa’s Ikiru caused an upheaval in my thought, in the kind of impact I want to have on the world. These works of art evoked emotions and thoughts which would otherwise be inaccessible in my current environment and interactions.

The raw, evocative power of art is next only to that of experience. Although I’m currently immersed in readings about environmental ethics (PHIL2680) and the socio-political theses of Aristotle, Hegel and Marx, I do not find myself personally moved by their thought or writing. I attribute this to my training in critical thinking. When studying a work of Philosophy, it has now become habit to identify claims and evaluate the arguments. I first seek to understand and then perhaps poke holes (in a constructive manner that contributes to the discussion). This is what I do when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times, listen to a well-executed speech, come across astonishing data or see a bold headline. My education in the past four years has taught me to treat data and rhetoric as tools in knowledge building, but to never believe that data or rhetoric without carefully scrutiny.

On the other hand, powerful art is not someone’s thought or speculation; it’s an embodiment of someone’s experience and that cannot be fabricated. So art has an inherent honesty which lets me set aside my critical thinking hat and simply give in to the experience, to give in to emotions that I am unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with. My interaction with such art opened up unexplored worlds/ideas. After my first year with Ordinary People, I went back to Delhi and found summer work related to urban poverty, development and conflict. The art inspired me to experience the reality it drew from. After that summer, I took classes to understand these issues at a global level, in all their complexity, with more analytic sources and tools. Art was the first step of the process that will culminate in action, impact and change.

Academics@Last Semester

I look at sophomores in my class and wish I could be a sophomore again, but with the knowledge I have now. It doesn’t feel too long ago when I came to Cornell, when 2017 seemed to be out in the horizon. But somehow, it’s been 7 semesters already and every semester, I found a new reason to ignore the Physical and Biological Science requirement. Here’s what my current semester looks like:

Finally fulfilling that PBS requirement –

  • BIOMG 1290: Personal Genomics
  • EAS 2680: Climate and Global Warming

I currently have a Philosophy minor and need three more courses to finish the major, thus making this semester a bootcamp in Philosophy. This is going to be a lot of Hegel, Kant, Marx and Nietzsche. On the one hand, I’m very excited to read these texts which have a great influence on modern society, culture and politics. On the other, I’m worried about maintaining sanity through all the dense reading.

  • PHIL 2460: Ethics and Environment
  • PHIL 2240: 19th and 20th Century European Thought
  • PHIL 3252: Marx as Philosopher

If that’s not enough, my love for knowledge leads me to every course under the sun. It has been really hard to keep my number of courses manageable; this feels like my last chance to take any of these wonderful courses (though, hopefully, there will be grad school of some sort).

  • PMA 2830: The Expressive Voice
    This is a studio class and it’s all about voice, speech and dialect training. It was originally designed for actors who will need to assume different pitch/tone/quality of voice for different characters and have to project and perform for months at a time. But there are enough non/semi-actors taking the class that our professor is also teaching applications to public speaking of all varieties. So far, it’s made me very conscious of my speech habits and I’m awkwardly trying to unlearn the bad habits. Throw back to freshman year when I took an acting class and was part of a theatre troupe – this class is an absolute delight!

This is a reading and writing intensive semester. I’ve always had atleast two quant/technical courses, which gave me balance between the liberal arts and STEM. I need the add and drop deadlines to arrive soon, before I can change my mind about my courses.