|September 12, 2002
Volume 33 Number
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
How Free is the Free Speech Area?
Rhetoric students research the history of the FSA
In the fall 2000, I taught English 175, the rhetoric course required for English majors. Talking with students on the first day, I was struck by their skepticism over the impending presidential elections and their sense that studying "language use in action" offered paltry strategies for critical engagement in public culture. In response to distrust about the relation between the classroom and the larger world, I decided to experiment with pedagogy that countered this notion. I asked students to engage in a collaborative, semester-long research project on a space that came into being because of an ongoing conflict among the classroom, knowledge production, and larger society -- the Free Speech Area (FSA). The result is an archival history the students completed, donated this summer to Meriam Library's Special Collections.
The FSA is a wide, grassy expanse beside Kendall Hall. This space was apportioned in the late 1960s, when California state universities -- and campuses across the country -- responded to student teach-ins and demonstrations on antiwar and civil rights issues with space that purported to enable students' First Amendment rights while maintaining uninterrupted settings for learning.
As a new faculty member, I was fascinated by the FSA. I imagined it, in its heyday, a site for frothy declaimers railing against the status quo, or reasoned facilitators engaging in debate on matters of civic urgency. As it functions now, the FSA is a vexed site for passionate reactions to the events of Sept. 11, pamphleteering street-corner evangelists, informational tables of student organizations, and art sales.
Created by the state to centralize and manage speech, the FSA is that strange mixture of civil society that merges intimately with the locus of state power. Why it exists, how it functions, and for whose benefit were the questions I posed to my students. They did not have advanced research skills or familiarity with a library special collections room. While librarians such as Mary Ellen Bailey and Jim Dwyer were generous with their knowledge, we also learned by simply diving in and putting our heads together.
Students chose research groups and were responsible for providing the class with documents that give a history of the area since 1968.
One student group archived the CSU administrative rhetoric on the FSA, including a letter they received from former president Stanford Cazier; another group archived student rhetoric, documenting the conflicts over the closing of First Street and the Vietnam War; a third group traced local media coverage; a fourth group collected oral histories of long-time Chicoans who were involved in the FSA, such as Abe Bailey, Jane Dolan, and Tom Reed; and a fifth group observed how the area is used today. These documents became our class text for the remainder of the semester.
In writing about their experiences as researchers, students came to little consensus on the "why" and "how" questions. David Van Natten felt the FSA exists as a tenuous compromise between student need for free expression and university mandates to enable yet control student speech. Kendall Leon claimed it exists as an expression of historical tensions over knowledge production on campus. Buffy Lauer saw it as a panopticon, a way to contain and observe aberrant student speech. Katie Beebe saw the FSA as a democratic space that shows that the university values student speech.
My goal as a rhetoric professor was to invite students to generate interesting claims supported by primary documents, personal experience, and dialogue with each other. Along with the primary source material, these student essays are part of the library's collection. They represent everything from revelation to tedium, as well as the knowledge that critical participation in public culture can happen in the classroom. Keep an eye out for a Web page, linked to Special Collections, that houses these materials online.
Jill Swiencicki, Department of English
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