Disoriented at Harvard

This fall saw a spate of “disorientation guides,” being published at mostly elite East Coast institutions of higher learning. A quick Google search brings up guides from Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and Wesleyan, as well as older ones written on Columbia, several University of California schools, Tufts, and others since the early 2000s. Though they occupy a range of purposes, from aggressively radical alternate histories of the university to insider student guides to life, what these disorientation guides have in common are the fact that they were written by students for students and address a gap in knowledge that their universities have not or will not fill. Here’s the tongue-in-cheek home panel of Cornell’s fabulously aggressive disorientation guide:

cornell disorientation

(Screenshot from cornell.disorientation.net)

I find the Said quote particularly interesting: “Every empire, however, it tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate” (Said, “Blind Imperial Arrogance”). Excerpted from a 2003 op-ed by Said on the stereotyping of Arabs in the United States, this statement evokes a sort of Biblical, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” sentiment that casts institutions like Cornell as unable to perceive their own realities. Except in this case, the students are not importuning God to show mercy, but calling out their university for its shortcomings an institution embedded in “American educational, governmental, and economic institutions” (Cornell Disorientation Guide”).

Hint: You don’t have to look like Sauron to be part of an exploitative system.

(via Google Images)

From the lens of standpoint theory, this movement to document both critical histories of universities and student knowledge is fascinating. Standpoint theory, which originated with Hegelian and Marxian thought, posits that individuals’ positions within hierarchies affect how people receive knowledge and experience power. Specifically, those most disadvantaged a given hierarchy will have the most accurate understanding of that system and the ways it operates. Standpoint theory has been taken by Marxist feminists like Nancy Hartsock and black feminist theorists like Patricia Hill Collins to confront patriarchal and racist systems, with Hartsock comparing women to the proletariat in Marxian theory such that women’s lives provide perspectives that can ground a powerful critique of patriarchy just as proletarians hold a particular and privileged vantage point on capitalism (316). In this case, the hierarchy in question is a private institution of higher learning, where students fall towards the lower middle level of its structure, above the workers but below administration, faculty, and donors. The disorientation guide serves the purpose of making available knowledge of the institution from student (and hopefully worker) standpoints.

For my final project, I hope to start the wheels turning for students activists at Harvard to develop a publically available, fact-checked disorientation guide of our own. I qualify disorientation guide with publically available and fact-checked because the First-Year Urban Program (FUP), which was started in 1984 as an alternative pre-orientation program focused on social justice and social service, has had a disorientation tour (and corresponding guide) for years.

It is unclear where the term disorientation originated, though adding “dis-,“ the Latin prefix meaning “apart” or “away,” to “orientation guide” seems like intuitive enough a rhetorical strategy to have originated in multiple locations. Harvard’s disorientation guide is used by FUP leaders, the upperclassmen who serve as mentors/pseudo camp counselors, to give our version of the Harvard tour, which until this FUP, was also called the disorientation tour. Sadly, the origins of our tour’s name hearkens to more morally dubious times in FUP history where leaders would deliberately tell lies throughout the tour and inform fuppies (the pre-frosh) at the end. This exercise served to encourage fuppies to always question authority, but obviously did not nurture the kind of trust that one would hope nervous first-years should be able to have in their mentors. That aside, the content of the guide highlights important resources for students on campus, histories of student activism, and sites of controversy at Harvard, such as final clubs. Our tour to Boston and Cambridge similarly includes histories of activism in various communities and Harvard’s fraught relationship with some of its neighbors.

Though we already have so much information documented through years of student activists serving as FUP leaders, our guides need to be fact-checked and expanded with knowledge from activist organizations and individuals not part of the FUP community. Hopefully this will include material written by workers who have been advocated for their rights as Harvard employees as well. Unfortunately, this is a project that will probably require a year at minimum to complete and significant collaboration, both of which are not in the scope of this project. My goal for this project would be to contribute a proposal of sorts for pursuing this project addressed to student activists and an example chapter on the university’s response to the recent email threats directed at Asian and American women. For this I will interview student activists and study media coverage and communications from the university. By cross-checking student knowledge with official records, I hope to craft a history of this specific incident and use it as a jumping off point to discuss some of the major issues that face Asian Americans at Harvard. This would be in the form of an expanded blog post with photos and screenshots of university communications as illustration.

Though it’s just a first step, I believe that consolidating Harvard’s hidden histories and student knowledge is a vitally important project. Standpoint theory aside, the corporate nature of Harvard means that its official histories and orientation guides are unlikely to include much of its more shady dealings. For students to think critically about their school, they have to know that there’s something to be critical about in the first place.

My girl Yuri knows what’s up.


“Cornell Disorientation Guide.” Accessed 10 October 2014. Web.

Hartsock, Nancy. “The Feminist Standpoint: Toward a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Ed. Carole R McCann & Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge, 2010. 316–331. Print.

Said, Edward. “Blind Imperial Arrogance.” Los Angeles Times. 20 Jul 2003. Web.

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