I heard whispers that said it would never work, that thereweren’t enough undergraduates who “were into it.” That “it” wasostensibly students’ undergraduate education at Portland StateUniversity. After attending several panels and presentations atPortland State University’s INQ Undergraduate Research Conference,co-sponsored by university studies and the McNair Scholars Program,on Thursday, those whispers must now be interpreted as anxiouswords hoping to assuage the disappointment from the mirror the INQheld. There was no whispering needed because the reflection wasinspiring.
Far too often, PSU has been marginalized as Northwest academia’sweakest link – a definite misrepresentation of the tenor and toneof this campus. Many still numbly refer to Portland State as theinstitution that happens upon its students, as if that is a badthing. It may be untrue that high school students fall asleep atnight dreaming of becoming a Viking, but it is also untrue thatsomehow the students of PSU are too busy, too diverse, too”nontraditional” to produce the collective energy for splendidscholastics.
In fact, nothing could be less true, because what emerges fromthe student voices of PSU is scholarship that overcomes what otheruniversities’ undergraduates find to be an insurmountable obstacle:relevance. And relevance is what PSU students know best. Add tothat a ferocious attack on insularity, empathetic negotiationsacross difference and lucid critiques of administrative andgovernmental pretension. We are not pretentious scholars.
At INQ, my peers seized my attention with finely nuancedinterpretations and critiques of our community and our world.Personal anecdotes and personal reflection formed the backdrop foreloquent ideas, searing appraisals and articulate demands forchange. During one panel discussion Joseph Oldham praised thestrength of his mother, whose battle with breast cancer shaped hiscommentary on the strength of motherhood and the feminine. Later inthe day Oldham lamented the loss of human contact in the world ofvirtual gaming, while Brad Frusted’s research delved into thekeystrokes and kisses of online dating communities. JessicaMullette presented a compelling portrait of life duringearly-century Midwest America as an evaluation of the real womenwho are lost in the rhetoric of theory. Kayla Zauner and AkberetZemede investigated NBC and Coors and then called them onto theproverbial queer carpet for aggressively marketing to the gay andlesbian community while secretly supporting contemptible right-wingorganizations like the Heritage Foundation. Sophomore inquirystudent David Radford evaluated the knowledge of cross-cultural”gayness” as a reflection on education’s illumination ofidentity.
bell hooks was once asked the difference between her students atan ivy-league school and at another state university. Theinterviewer was obviously intonating that somehow ivies had theintellectual edge. Sighing, hooks stated that there was no greatdifference in intellectual capacity between the students, it wasthat some students woke up every morning knowing that whatever theydid they would be successful. They woke up in the morning (as DavidBrooks recently said in a New York Times opinion column) believing,in all reality, that they could become president.
At the INQ conference, both hooks and Brooks’ notions wereupended: it is not that the students of PSU have been denied theirimaginings of possibility (to become president or anything else) itis that we are far too savvy for only that. We are critics, first -with the experience of “real life” grounding our critiques. Thestudents and organizers of INQ powerfully reminded our community ofthe necessity of this because, undeniably, the emperor still has noclothes.