Here’s the thing about direct democracy: it’s messy, it’s long, it involves us being slightly uncomfortable for a couple of hours. It’s also the most meaningful way for students to directly challenge and create a society that is relevant to them, and in doing so, to form a real community. Departments, the ideal small-scale unit for representative participation, are currently limited to being fora for social events and academic dialogue – but this is not an intrinsic state of affairs. If we want to actually have departments exist in a way that will best reflect the way students want to be represented, we need to implement department-level general assemblies (GAs).
Here’s what (often) exists now: students in each department have a mini exercise in democracy on the day that they vote for their representatives. Afterwards, executives are only held accountable to students insofar as the executives want to be. There is no forum for students to actually mandate anything. There is also an understanding that departments are not a place for politics, but rather social and academic spaces. Other forums like SSMU (or the more recent AUS and SUS) GAs are seen as appropriate places to wrestle over stances on environmental practices, or war, or the student movement, while they at the same time receive constant criticism for not being representative or relevant enough to actually matter.
Let’s first establish that a lack of direct political participation is not an implicit characteristic of departments, but rather the system that exists now at McGill. You only need to look at our Quebec neighbours to see that departments serve both social and political functions, and in fact have developed a culture in which students actually prioritize this decision-making process in their academic experience (and still manage to do their midterms!). You can also see it in the way that some departments at McGill, like Philosophy and Gender, Sexual Diversity, and Feminist Studies, are actively building a culture of participation. The argument that we shouldn’t have general assemblies because they are not explicitly outlined in department constitutions, or just aren’t what departments have “traditionally” existed for, ignores that the department is what we make of it. Actually, the choice is most often up to the discretion of the executive whether or not to hold a general assembly, because it’s often up to the (absolute) discretion of execs to define the department structure.
GAs themselves are important in a few instrumental ways. At a political level, it’s important (if I’ve learned anything from McGill Political Science) to have a system of checks and balances in a government (our executives). This isn’t an abstract judgment on a distant club; this is a body that has a constitutional mandate to represent students, using students’ money. We have a right to determine the direction of these resources, in a way that goes beyond the arbitrary selection of the exec to decide which proposal they are interested in.
Another reason to have GAs is for departments to take stances on political issues, after a real engagement and discussion with their students. This part is important: the absence of political stances does not mean that the department is able to better represent its students. Every decision made by an executive is bound to exclude some part of its constituency, and this is even more the case with the absence of GAs. More importantly, the decision to not take political stances is in itself a political stance: it both implicitly accepts the world around us, and limits our role as students to rumination and passive dialogue. It denies our role as the people who are going to be most affected by the decisions that are being made today.
But we also need to be clear that general assemblies only are successful – or even occur – when there is political will to make it an integral part of students’ experience. Pointing to the lack of student participation in general meetings does not mean that students are inherently apathetic, but rather that these forums are currently meaningless. Open discussions are often poorly advertised and hold no weight anyway precisely because of their consultative, unaccountable nature. In a similar vein, creating a political culture is something that requires practice and a real community of familiar people. If you are unsatisfied with the way SSMU’s decisions represent such a large number of people, then surely taking decisions in smaller forums with the people you see every day would be a better way to facilitate decision making among students.
Ultimately, here’s why departments should have GAs: communities are best formed when its members are actively participating in the creation of something. While social events are important in providing informal spaces for people to meet new people and maybe even make friends, they will never result in a truly unifying experience. The largest community you can form over free beer is the amount of people who can squeeze around a table, but the active wrestling and compromise over issues – real issues, which do affect all of us – demand students to see themselves as stakeholders in a larger collective. And that is something that can best be accomplished in department GAs.
If the department execs really do want to represent their members and connect people across their fields of study, they need to create spaces for people to actually build the department that is collectively desired.
Lily Schwarzbaum is a U3 Political Science and International Development Studies Student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.