Yes, “student” is an identity

We may or may not agree on our goals, but we do have a lot in common


A couple of recent posts here have got me very riled up. They point towards a suggestion that I find very disturbing. The idea, in a nutshell, is that being a student doesn’t mean anything.

I find this idea to be disturbing because any experience that takes years of your life and tens of thousands of your dollars and is often critically determinative of your future must be, by definition, meaningful. I consider it self-evident that this meaning extends to some shared identity with other people who have the same experience at the same time. The idea that this commonality doesn’t even exist in a tangible way – that education happens but “student” isn’t an identity – that’s just wrong.

My frustration started here. This was a post in which my fellow blogger, Robyn Urback, essentially defended her right to blog about any topic at all under the banner of campus issues. Not to put words in her mouth but the rationale seems to be that students care about stuff and therefore blogging on student issues includes blogging on anything students can conceivably care about – or in other words everything. I disagreed then and I disagree now.

More recently we have Erin Millar and Ben Coli blogging on the CFS. This is in response to a wider dialogue, but they seem to have raised the point that not all students agree with even the most basic stated goals of the CFS, such as lower tuition and universal access. This is doubtless true. They further emphasize that the student body is not homogeneous. Also doubtless true. But then they set the bar for justifying the CFS’s goals and agenda impossibly high – literally suggesting that until all students agree the CFS is wrong to advocate on a particular point or to present it as a student position. And that’s just ridiculous.

I am by no stretch of the imagination a supporter of the CFS. I disagree strenuously with their tactics and approach to advocacy. But I would never go so far as to suggest the essential idea of collective action is flawed. The standard for advocacy has never been and never could be that all members of an identity group must agree before an agenda can be put forth. Whatever my feelings about the CFS, and in particular some of their side projects, I have never doubted for an instant that their essential goals of lower tuition and universal access are widely shared and supported by students. No, there is not absolute consensus and never will be. But that also isn’t required.

I set these examples beside one another because I wish to demonstrate how these are flip sides of the same coin. Robyn suggests that being a student means everything – and therefore nothing. Erin and Ben suggest that we have no true issues in common at all. To my mind, either approach is incredibly damaging. To deny the reality of a shared student identity – and yes one that is distinct from the general population – is to undermine the hope that we will ever organize effectively to promote our concerns or even to give voice to them.

It isn’t always easy to walk the line between these two extremes. This is the very problem I tried to address when I wrote about the limits of an elected student’s mandate. Of course students have very real and shared concerns that are recognized, if not universally, then at least by the overwhelming majority of students. And we are as entitled as anyone to organize to express our shared concerns. But there is always the temptation to simply grab the ball and run with it, and to begin expressing more and more marginal positions that do not, in fact, represent students fairly as a group. Sometimes people miss that balance, even with the best of intentions. But it is there.

The surest way to disempower any group or position is to deny the existence of real, shared concerns. Yes, students are members of wider society and have a diverse array of interests, beliefs, and other aspects to their individual identities. But just as surely, students have a shared role and relationship to society that is important and meaningful. If pitbull owners and cyclists can organize to flex their political agendas, then surely students can do so legitimately and effectively.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


Yes, “student” is an identity

  1. Jeff Rybak, again, for the win.

  2. I believe Jeff speaks from actual experience in “student politics”, which might have something to do with his balanced, non-inflammatory take on the debate.

    In any case, I think it’s obvious that students share common challenges and concerns, and this is the basis of collective organization. Of course they won’t always agree about how to address these challenges and concerns, but that doesn’t mean collective organization is hopeless or pointless; indeed, the whole point of organizing is to have a dialogue. The proposed actions and solutions that result from this dialogue will change from time to time, and won’t be unanimous, but the same happens in every conceivable type of politics.

  3. Jeff, I think the issue that’s missing in your analysis of the issue, particularly as it pertains to the CFS, is that of voluntary membership: namely that a student at a CFS university is obliged to contributed materially to the goals of that organization whether or not they in fact agree with any of their positions. This is almost without precedent in terms of advocacy groups: a person can self-identify as LGBT, for example, without being compelled to materially support EGALE, or they may be Muslim without being forced to contribute to the Canadian Islamic Congress. Both of these organizations claim to advocate on behalf all members of their respective identity groups, and yet individuals within those identity groups are not required to self-identify with a particular advocacy group. Students have no such luxury unless they are prepared to changes schools–and even then, they may still be forced to fund a student union that advocates positions contrary to their beliefs.

    And considering that participation in these organizations is involuntary, how can it reasonably said that any position they advance is in fact the will of their membership? The average student does not have the opportunity to vote in a CFS executive election, nor to express their wishes on any particular issue that the organization my wish to advance. The undemocratic structure completely undermines the legitimacy of the exercise–nevermind consensus, how can they even claim they support a majority of students if they’ve never given them the choice to voice their opinion?

  4. In reply to ABarlow, that particular issue is missing from my analysis because I don’t think it’s related to the question of whether or not there is a real student identity that presents in the form of shared goals, concerns, issues, etc. I view that topic as much more fundamental than the membership policies of the CFS. I have addressed the later topic in the past (and I’ll comment again in a moment) but I still view the other issue as far more pertinent. You may disagree with everything else I’m about to say (which is one of the reasons I avoided it) but I don’t believe that means we must disagree about the more fundamental issue.

    Now then, conflating a student identity with cultural, religious, or sexual identities is a bit misleading. I almost made the leap myself, so I very much understand. It isn’t as ingrained as that – it’s locational. Labour unionism is a far better analogy. Workers have issues in common so long as they are workers. One might join management and leave the union as a result. The union still persists. And yes, union dues are often mandatory. Similarly, parents who pay dues to their school boards (though there’s a choice of two) are involuntarily members of an organization. I could continue with further examples.

    Let me be clear – more than anything else I think the CFS’s policies around membership are flawed, damaging, and counter-productive. I won’t defend them. But the mere concept of an organization that you pay dues towards because you have no choice – that is not fundamentally undemocratic as you put it.

    I won’t participate further in a CFS vs. anti-CFS debate. That horse was beaten to death long ago and there’s no motive to revive it. But “Guest” hit the nail in his comment on the other thread. Objections to the CFS must not be allowed to become objections to organized advocacy entirely. There are some very legitimate forms of organized advocacy that do not rely on individually voluntary membership. I agree that holding entire member locals hostage is illegitimate, but the fact that students pay their dues to the CFS like it or not…

    You do the same to your local union as well. You do the same for your athletics association. You do the same for your residence council (if you live on campus). You do the same for your student press. Are all of those illegitimate as well? You see how easily a criticism against the CFS can spin into a view that undermines collective action altogether. That must not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

  5. Great post, Jeff.

    Probably due to a lack of clarity in my writing, I think I’ve been misunderstood. I want to be clear that I never intended to imply students don’t share common interests and that organized advocacy is fundamentally flawed.

    The CFS is not wrong to advocate on what the organization deems “students issues”, even if not all students agree. (And I know you don’t want to debate the CFS, so I’ll try to generalize this idea.) What I believe is wrong is to attempt to shut down debate and criticism because it hurts the overall movement. Does solidarity necessitate silence from dissidents? I don’t think so. In fact, I think you would agree that healthy organized advocacy requires democracy, which requires open debate.

    What I intended to do with my post was promote a more nuanced discussion of the student identity. I mentioned the tuition debate because I think it is a specific issue that needs to be rethought. Affordability and accessibility are surely both issues students have in common. But I know more and more students who disagree with the CFS on the solutions to those problems. I think all student advocacy groups need to rethink what the student identity means and be inclusive of all identities and perspectives while nailing down what the issues are that all students have in common.

    I think we need to be careful in this discussion (and those dealing with these issues as well) in mixing up “issues” with “identity”.

  6. Let me be clear: I consider free association a fundamental right. That groups of students (or dog owners, cyclists, what have you) are free to advance causes that are important to them is a natural product of a free and democratic society. My argument is not one can reasonably undermine free association by denying the existence of a student identity, but rather that free association is undermined by coercion. Coercing individuals to join an advocacy group* through involuntary membership is antithetical to freedom of association because it imposes the identity and values of the advocacy group on the individual, rather than the individual associating their interests and values with a group that advocates for their beliefs. It also avoids situations where an individual’s involuntary dues are directly in opposition to their value system: for example, under the current regime, students who self-identify as opposed to the CFS and are campaigning to leave the organization are simultaneously providing the funds that the CFS will use to counter their campaign.

    *Here, I will distinguish that athletics associations, student press, school boards, etc. are not fundamentally advocacy groups–their existence is not primarily to advance a cause–but rather are services; although the libertarian in me is entirely tempted to argue that such fees should also be voluntary, that is outside the scope of this discussion. I can see some benefits to voluntary unionization to the local union, particularly in that it would help focus the union leadership on issues that pertain to campus life. The experience of Australia would suggest that the transition period would be very difficult, however.

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