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We criticize because we care

| Thursday, August 27, 2020

I’m taking my first poetry writing class this semester. Aside from our discussions of avant-garde free-verse that go way over my head, we’ve been talking a lot about attention — what commands our attention, what other poets attend to in their writing and, most importantly, how we allocate our attention within the writing process. 

One of our first assignments had us composing an hour-by-hour ode over the course of a single day, with each of twelve lines written during each waking hour. At the top of each hour, I began my ritual — earbuds in, world out, ambient music on. I took a deep, steady breath. I opened my notebook. I entered a deep state of mindful meditation, attempting to channel the eloquent, attentive poetics of Ross Gay and Robert Frost. I reached my poet’s mind deep into my heart of hearts and found … absolutely nothing. My mind was preoccupied with more pressing, less poetic matters. My attention was elsewhere.

I got more than an uninspired poem out of this exercise: I learned that certain sorts of attention are very hard to come by right now. And I don’t think I’m the only one — this semester, our campus community’s collective consciousness appears to have shifted towards one issue: the University’s coronavirus response. 

Every day at noon, like clockwork, we bash our browsers’ refresh buttons, eager for the University’s daily dashboard update. We take in the day’s new numbers. We calculate percentages, crunch numbers, track trend lines.

And every day, we hear the disheartening stories behind those numbers: silence and miscommunication from University Health Services, scarce and inaccessible testing resources, glaring hospitality oversights for students in quarantine housing. We take in the day’s new stories. We listen, empathize, commiserate. 

But we don’t stop there. We speak out — through social media, student journalism, the signing of petitions — and call for accountability. We write, email and create mutual aid spreadsheets. My faith in the University’s administration might be at an all-time low, but I have never been prouder to be a part of our student body — caught in the midst of a pandemic and an unprepared world, we are picking up the slack of institutions that are meant to protect us. We are paying more attention than ever.

But there are critics of our undivided attention. They don’t appreciate our hyperfixations on the University’s inadequacies, our tendency towards criticism. They see The Observer’s reporting of the University’s coronavirus response and call it “fear-mongering.” They see our repeated calls for reform and call it “entitled college students finding something to be angry about.” Their problem lies not in the University’s shortcomings, but in the students brave enough to bring these shortcomings to light. “Snowflakes,” reads one tweet in response to the latest Observer editorial. “A real Notre Dame student should want to win not suck their thumb.” Clearly, we are paying too much attention.

But when our attention is met with dissension, I can’t help but think of my favorite piece of dialogue from one of my favorite films: Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” The scene is simple: Our titular character sits across from Sister Sara Joan, a nun who doubles as her high school counselor, as the two discuss Lady Bird’s college essay: 

“Well, you write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care,” says Sister Sara Joan.

Lady Bird deflects. “I was just describing it,” she says, stone-cold and stoic. 

But Sister Sara Joan stands firm. “It comes across as love.” 

“Sure, I guess I pay attention.”

“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” 

I love Notre Dame — that’s why I’m here — and that is why I pay so much attention. That is why I criticize our administration. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many of us have loved Notre Dame for as long as we can remember. For years, we have seen the University excel as an academic institution and a force for good — so now, we know very well that Notre Dame can do better. As real Notre Dame students, we do want to win — that is why we stand up, that is why we speak out, that is why we push our administration to do better. 

We pay attention because we want to stay here. We criticize because we care.

You can contact Evan at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Evan McKenna

Evan is a senior at Notre Dame from Morristown, Tennessee majoring in psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing. He is currently serving as the Managing Editor of The Observer and believes in the immutable power of a well-placed em dash. Reach him at [email protected] or @evanjmckenna on Twitter.

Contact Evan