Saturday, April 26, 2014

Atheist and skeptical student groups are such clusterfucks

I've heard of large, well-organized skeptical or atheist student groups.  This mythological creature is most often sited in the midwest, where they act as rationalist oases in a religious desert.  And I've seen their activities constantly described in atheist blogs, especially Friendly Atheist.  But of course the news stories will focus on groups that are successful, in their moments of success.

What I've never seen, in eight years of reading blogs, is any representation of my lived experience.  I was in a skeptical student group at UCLA, and an atheist student group at UC Berkeley.  The combined total is seven years of participation, a length that has been unnaturally extended by my PhD.  Despite the many people who have tried leadership (including myself), these groups have always been horribly disorganized, and come nowhere near the successful groups I read about.

To truly understand the depths of disorganization, I need to go into specifics.  The groups are always discussion-based, because this only requires the time to think up a topic every week.  (The next level of organization is getting a student to present on a specific topic.)  Discussions are completely chaotic, dominated by only the loudest members, who can never seem to stay on topic.  On good years, you might have twenty people attending, on bad years five.  It always starts higher and decreases throughout the year.  The vast majority of the people who stick around are men.

Aside from discussions, leaders always promise lots of events at the beginning of the year--big-name speakers, outings, social events, etc.--but few ever happen.  I consider it a modest success if they have two speakers in a year.

I'm inclined to blame the ineffective leaders, but I ran the student group for a year myself.  By my own low standards, it was a success: I got two people to speak (and encouraged many students to present as well), I organized two "protests" of sorts, and if I recall there were a couple parties and an outing to a Scientology museum.  But everything was always going wrong.  I too promised many events that I did not deliver.  The events I did deliver were executed poorly, and attended poorly, since I never figured out how to do advertising.


Here I identify the major problems:

1. Leaders never stick around for very long before they graduate.  Ideally, they should pass on their leadership experience to the next leader, but often they don't have enough experience to know that's what they should do.

One of the worst years I ever saw, I later learned it's because it was run by the vice-president.  The president, who had some experience, got grounded immediately after he was promoted to presidency.  Despite his perpetual absence, he still clung to power for years, most of which he spent telling people not to do things because he was doing them (but he wasn't).

Anyway, nobody told the vice-president how to do anything.  Nobody told me how to do anything either.  By then, I had recognized the problem, and tried to pass on all my experience to the next leader.  I think the group was more successful after I graduated.

2. The university is a bureaucratic nightmare.  I think it's not objectively hard to get through the bureaucracy, but it requires experience that we didn't have.  I had such problems just reserving rooms and getting projectors.  Advertising was a mystery we never cracked.  As for funding--Ha.  Haha.  One time I invited a speaker--Hemant Mehta--and it cost us a large chunk of our legacy funds because some technicality in the student union funding prevented reimbursement for travel.  And that was a good year.

I had friends who lead queer student groups, which always seemed vastly better-organized.  They told me it was chaotic behind the scenes, but they were also organizing events every two weeks so fuck their higher standards.  I was always asking them how they were so successful at navigating bureaucracy and getting funding, but I never got the specifics.  It involved lots of tricks passed down between leaders over the years.  (I found out the way to get the travel reimbursement in this situation was to make a particular lie to the student union.  My friend acted like this was obvious.)

3. Students are extremely flaky.  It's because they're overworked.  And unlike later in life, there are no hard boundaries between work time and free time for a student.

This affects who has time to attend events and stuff, but mostly impacts the leaders and officers.  One of the things that made me moderately successful as a leader was that I got As effortlessly.  So I had the free time to spend.  My officers, on the other hand...

4. The kind of people who stick around are not the kind of people who encourage more people to join.  It's always the loudest people, the people who talk over everyone else.  It's always the eccentrics--I love them, but let's face it, they're not very charismatic.  Oh, and it's almost always men.

I've never seen this done effectively, so I don't know if it would work, but I think groups should implement some strong moderation.  Someone needs to enforce taking turns, to cut off people who talk too long or off-topic.  When a group is larger, they need alternate discussion structures, like breaking into small groups.  I also think that the meeting facilitator should be separate from the president.  Trouble is, no one has the experience to do this right, or to even know that it's needed.  It always comes back to inexperience.

The lack of women is a related problem.  This is something I didn't notice at first, but is now really obvious: women get cut off much more than men do.  It's not intentional, it's something we were all socialized to do.  It is unimaginable to me that this does not contribute to the loss of women from the group.

In all the years I've observed these groups, there was only one year where there was a decent proportion of women.  That was also the one year the group was led by women.  Just having women facilitating discussions was effective beyond my imagining.  When I was president I tried to talk about women and sexism at meetings, but this was not effective.


Since that one year as president, I have not helped the leadership at all.  I have less infuriating things to do with my time.  Here's what I have to say to all past, present, and future leaders of these groups: You all suck and are doing everything wrong.  But I understand.

Update: I posted some of people's reactions to this post here.


miller said...

A facebook friend identifies another major problem. Any proposed idea led to endless arguing, which caused leaders to lose confidence, and nothing got done. One particular example were the t-shirts, which were discussed many years in both groups, but only actually produced once. But the same applied to every single event and decision.

miller said...

I've experienced all of these frustrations (so much!!) in organising a university LGBT group. I think it's almost inevitable when you've got a whole load of people with no managerial experience doing their first role part-time (often in their final year). I also got the strong impression that the system was deliberately heavily weighted *against* us doing things- our university was shocked and slightly horrified when we actually organised several successful things, and I can imagine it being even worse for American atheist groups.

In case it's helpful to anyone reading this, some things that I found worked:
-In terms of navigating university bureaucracy, always talk (friendlily) to the person at the desk or the office underling or the lowest person in the hierarchy who can still do the thing you want. If they start throwing things in your way, smoothly extract yourself and then ask the same thing of someone else later on.
-Having said that, don't ask the university for any more help than you can possibly get away with. Figure out how to book rooms, but be prepared to do mostly your own fundraising, marketing, etc. if you want anything to happen to any kind of deadline (oh, and big events take a semester to comfortably plan, even with minimum 'help' from the university).
-DO. SOMETHING. SOCIAL. I would personally be so unattracted by a group that met up once a week to have earnest discussions, however good the discussions are. We added meeting in the pub (after the discussion) and meeting in a coffee house once a week, which is a less male-skewed activity, and once people turned up and thought 'Hey, I actually *like* these people! I could hang around with them more!' we a) got a much bigger volunteer force and b) got a lot of impetus from people who were genuinely interested in the group as a social circle, even their main social circle. Soon, the group was running weekly film nights, weekly anime nights, regular club nights, regular gaming nights, theatre trips, shopping trips, all organised by different people, some of the organisers not being committee members. Not many people turned up to every different type of event, but a lot of people turned up to most of them, because an enjoyable social circle feeds back into itself in a way that a worthy cause just doesn't.

miller said...

Discussion-based meetings were social, basically. Certainly no actions came of them, it was just about ideas and friends. There's a designated topic though, that's different from a social.

One of the most successful years, in terms of numbers, was when one member decided to host a party in her apartment every week after meetings. The problem is that this requires a very generous benefactor, and it does not scale.

miller said...

Hey there! Your group was/is pretty similar to most student groups nationwide. When I worked with the Secular Student Alliance, we knew these were the obstacles everyone had (getting funding, getting meeting ideas, identifying leaders) -- and all current groups get constant reminders of the (financial and other) resources available to them, ideas for meetings, and reminded that they should know next year's president when this year begins. But, despite all of that, you still need at least one leader willing to figure out the school's tricks (because every school is different) and learn how to run the group effectively. The groups that tend to do the most either have very effective leadership or they've just passed down information over the years. More importantly, their biggest events are planned many, many months in advance, sometimes even the previous year. That gives them time to request funding from the school, get the meeting space, publicize the events, etc. On my blog, I tend to highlight the cool things that people send me, but that's obviously a small fraction of the several hundred college atheist groups out there. My hope is that they can see other ideas and get inspired.