By Sejal Jhawer
Crossing the Line is intended to bring together freshman dorm communities and engage students on a deeper level to learn more about aspects of their peers that may not necessarily come up in everyday conversation. During Crossing the Line, students aggregate on one side of the room, then “cross the line” to the agreement side if they agree with the broad, identity-related statements made by the two facilitators. There is no option to abstain from answering the question or to take a middle ground.
Once the program has begun, facilitators lock the doors to the room. No one can enter or exit. The room is silent except for the facilitators’ voices and the quiet shuffling of feet to and from each side. By the third question or so, the room’s atmosphere very visibly shifts in gravity, taking a sudden turn from lighthearted to serious.
Crossing the Line fosters a deeper sense of community by opening students up to their peers’ vulnerabilities. Its salient feature is that by simply moving in a physical space, students can convey a lot of personal information without the pressure of explanation usually associated with such revelations.
But this lack of nuance poses its own problems. Since students do not have the opportunity to immediately explain why they have or haven’t agreed with a statement, they are often seen at face value (somewhat ironically, since Crossing the Line attempts to dispel the myth of surface-level appearances). Underneath a blanket statement, there are subtleties that factor into a student’s assessment of it — backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, identities. Whether subconsciously or consciously, it’s easy for onlookers to make snap assumptions — maybe even judgments — as to what someone’s decision to agree or not says about them. As one student put it, “You can hide behind the ambiguity of each general statement, but this ambiguity leaves room for labeling.” It is the other side’s responsibility to acknowledge that students have a lot more to say about each statement than what’s on the surface, but it’s easy to forget this fact in the fast-paced process.
To the few, visibly uncomfortable people who did not move with the crowd in agreement with the statement “I am a feminist” (or similarly isolating statements): Regardless of our differences in opinion, kudos to you for having the courage to stand alone. I saw you receive many questioning and inadvertently judgmental looks. I’m genuinely curious to hear your perspective, but I’m not sure how to ask you after the fact. As mentioned in the program intro: “What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here.” The goal of Crossing the Line isn’t to single people out, or to take note of which specific people answered which question in what way — it’s to raise awareness about the diversity of our community.
Similarly, students cannot be boiled down into clear-cut identities. People are much more complicated than that. For some questions, I was unsure how I felt myself — and I definitely wasn’t ready to let others make assumptions about me based on a position I was forced to take under time pressure. My snap decision to move or stay doesn’t accurately reflect my views. I wonder how many people crossed the line solely due to mob mentality — the easier choice?
And what does staying back even mean? Does it mean “I disagree with the statement” or a more neutral “I don’t fully agree?” Even though theoretically we know people are responding differently, it’s inherent that we’ll lean more towards one of these meanings of staying back when attempting to interpret someone else’s position.
The formatting of Crossing the Line felt fundamentally flawed. By placing us all on the “not in agreement” side, choosing to agree with something felt like an active step to take — something risky. A better way to deal with the pressures of “moving to the other side” would have been to have everyone start off in a neutral zone and then filter out to two respective sides. Such a seemingly small logistical aspect subconsciously plays a huge role in your mentality of the status quo, and in how you compare the options available before moving to the side with which you actually identify. This formatting would have better prevented the discomfort associated with hesitating to cross the line, waiting to see if anyone else was also actively also moving to the other side with you.
While there was a discussion circle afterwards, by not allowing for intermediary positions or a sufficient opportunity for students to explain their positions, Crossing the Line in some ways reinforced the myths about surface-level appearances that it attempted to dispel. At best, we can hope that it facilitates an ongoing discussion in dorm communities throughout the rest of the year.
Contact Sejal Jhawer at sejalj ‘at’ stanford.edu.