This is a research paper by Anna Shortly, produced as part of the Ethnography of the University 2015: Focus on Power course.
Every year in the fall semester, the University of Toronto Students’ Union holds an Annual General Meeting where the students it represents—all undergraduate and professional faculty students across the St. George and Mississauga campuses—gather together and move motions, debate motions, vote on motions, and express their concerns with their current union. However, far from being a meeting that is efficient, orderly, and professional, Annual General Meetings often erupt into chaos with “procedural showboating,” loud audience members, drinking, Bingo, and impromptu musical performances. Drawing on Allen’s (2003) spatial theories of power and Durkheim’s (1912) theory of collective effervescence, this paper considers how power works through the construction of a space that is at once socially cohesive and incohesive. It argues that power is largely held by collectives who share similar beliefs and understandings of their own socially constructed rules of behaviour. Ultimately, the collective that has the largest number of individuals who adhere to its order will hold power over the meeting.
“When we adjourn, you can kazoo to your heart’s content. Just give me a few more minutes.” This was one of the chair’s last statements at the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s second Annual General Meeting in the 2015 fall semester. We had just voted to ratify the Zhuk-Singh board structure proposal, finally rendering the union legally compliant with new regulations under the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act after over a year of debate and frustration. The first proposal had not passed at last year’s meeting in 2014, and the union was given a year to implement a new board structure. This year, two board structures were up for debate, the Zhuk-Singh proposal and the Slobodian proposal. At the first meeting, the Zhuk-Singh proposal had more support but was not ratified, as it did not have a two-thirds majority. The union held this second Annual General Meeting—“Special General Meeting”— primarily to address the issue of legal compliance. This time, the Zhuk-Singh proposal passed with an overwhelming majority. The attendees cheered, clapped, and expressed relief despite the chair’s calls to settle down. And, somewhere in the audience, someone played a kazoo.
This moment captures my experience at these meetings: the chair attempts to control the direction of the meeting and the behaviour of its attendees. He explains the rules of order, he calls order, and he calls questions and statements out of order. He does not control through imposition, but rather by asking for compliance. He asks attendees to please settle down, to not clap or cheer, and to be respectful. Attendees, however, often do not comply, either by playing silly, unprofessional antics—like playing the kazoo—or by cheering for those who are playing these silly, unprofessional antics. They pass around pizza, they play “UTSU Bingo”, they clap and talk loudly, some even drink, and almost everyone cheers when the engineering students’ Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad (sic) storm into the meeting with hardhats, jerseys, and boisterous music.
In my field notes, I had written down, “What is happening?” three times. And, essentially, that is the question I ask. Why do these meetings—boring, bureaucratic procedures with the goal of accomplishing tasks—become such spectacles with booze, bingo, and a band? Surely, a meeting held by a form of government, even if run by students, would be more professional and efficient than this. There were rules, and members could be ejected from the meeting if they failed to conform. But power in this meeting, I quickly discovered, was not only in the hands of its facilitators. This is a democracy, after all; people vote, debate, and put motions forward. One student politician explained to me that AGMs are really the only big place where members are in complete control…of wider things…So, occasionally, if they want to do something different, or they don’t like what the UTSU is doing, the AGM is the place where they have the power to present that as an option legitimately.
But the people’s power is not only democratic. The student politician went on to describe the meeting as “an accumulation of culture,” which people expect to be “really rowdy.” Rowdiness is dissenting, as it refuses to conform to the rules. Collective rowdiness means collective, uncontainable dissent. If everyone booed the band instead of cheering for them, the facilitators could uphold their power more easily, and I doubt it would be called tradition. Yet rowdiness is also compliance: not to the rules of the meeting, but to the social rules: the established traditions that ensure these meetings will be entertaining and worth attending. Power operates through both institutional and socially established means. In both cases, the collective has and gives the license to rule.
Context and Methods: Studying “The Event”
The University of Toronto Students’ Union is the political body that represents all full-time undergraduate students and professional faculty students at the University of Toronto’s St. George and Mississauga campuses. Every fall semester, they hold an Annual General Meeting, an open forum for union members to put forward motions that set the direction for the union, debate issues, express their grievances with the union, ask questions about the union, and vote on student matters. During my fieldwork, there were two Annual General Meetings, both of which were held in the auditorium at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). The first one took place on October 7th, 2015. The pressing issue of the first meeting was to ratify a board structure that was compliment with new laws under the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act. Two proposals were up for debate: the Zhuk-Singh proposal and the Slobodian proposal. Zhuk-Singh kept proportional representation for the University’s seven colleges, two campuses, and professional faculties while adding an additional six equity directors; Slobodian reduced the representation of colleges and professional faculties to about one seat each, added a seat to Mississauga campus, and reconfigured student representation largely along equity-based lines with directors for marginalized groups such as women, LGBTQ, and racialized students. After about five hours, we had covered only four out of the seventeen topics on the agenda, and no board structure had been ratified.
As a result, the University of Toronto Students’ Union held a second meeting, referred to as the Special General Meeting or Annual General Meeting Part 2 interchangeably, on November 18th 2015. With a much shorter agenda, all items were accomplished, including the ratification of a new board structure along with the approval of auditors, financial statements, and minutes that the union needed to pass in order to continue functioning. A third general meeting is to be held in January solely for motions that students have put forth. Henceforth, I will refer to the University of Toronto Students’ Union as “UTSU,” the first Annual General Meeting as “AGM,” and the second Annual General Meeting as “SGM” throughout this paper.
My analysis focuses on the meetings and the power dynamics that operate within that space. I am drawing mainly from my own experiences at both of the meetings as a participant and an observer. Additionally, I read articles on both past and current AGMs from various student newspapers and comments on social media (mainly Twitter) to enrich my analysis and gain access to student opinions that I would not otherwise have known. I have also formally interviewed a few student politicians and casually spoken to many other students involved in student politics.
I have chosen to stay “within a single, more or less bounded form and circle steadily within it” (Geertz 1972:29), as Geertz had done with his ethnographic account of the Balinese Cockfight. Just as in the cockfight “the Balinese forms and discovers his temperament and his society’s temper at the same time,” (Geertz 1972:28), the student forms and discovers his or her temperament and his or her union’s temper at the same time at AGMs. The event reflects the student political climate with its conflicts, controversies, relationships, and opinions at the same time as it builds the political climate.
Power: In Numbers and in Space
The AGM, as a democratic space, relies on the rule of the majority. As such, collective opinion is needed in order to pass any of the items on the agenda. Collective opinion also functions as the social licence to perform traditions and antics. If nobody cheered for the kazoo, the kazoo player would have been quickly silenced and condemned. He or she performed with the backing and encouragement of peers. I have mobilized Emile Durkheim’s observations on collective effervescence, developed in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) in order to understand social cohesion within the AGMs.
“Society,” Durkheim explains, “is to its members what a god is to its faithful” (208). It fosters dependence and cooperation by subjecting members to rules of action that are determined collectively by its members. Members come to act together through the internalization of society’s pressures: “The force of the collectivity is not wholly external; it does not move us entirely from outside. Indeed, because society can exist only in and by means of individual minds, it must enter into us and become organized within us” (211). Public opinion then consecrates certain ideas, people, and things. “When a belief is shared unanimously by a people,” he explains, “to touch it—that is, to deny or question it—is forbidden” (215). It is through commonality that members are bound to their society.
Durkheim explains that the force of society is felt especially in particular circumstances where everyone comes together. In these situations, it is a group incarnate that speaks, not individuals. This is what he calls collective effervescence: The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation. Every emotion expressed resonates without interference in consciousnesses that are wide open to external impressions, each one echoing the others (217-218).
The AGM is one such moment where collective action and opinion is especially felt. Attendees seem to laugh, cheer, and clap at the right time. They expect, and condone, behaviour that is unusual for a formal meeting. Rules of behaviour created by the collective social opinion are just as important and integral to the space as the formal rules determined by the meeting’s facilitators.
But collective effervescence and cohesion does not explain all aspects of the operation of power at the AGMs. The AGMs are just as, if not more, socially incohesive. It is a space divided across group lines—between colleges, between professional faculties, and between campuses. Each group attempts to dominate the space in a way that excludes and subordinates others. While intercollegiate, faculty, and campus boundaries exist outside of the AGM, they become especially pronounced at the meeting; additionally, new boundaries emerge.
John Allen (2003) provides a theorization of the spatial elements of power that is useful to contextualizing and understanding boundaries and boundary making in the AGM. For Allen, power is not a “thing” but a relational effect of social interaction that is experienced through people’s relationships with places. Rather than viewing power as an experience that is felt the same way everywhere and all the time, Allen invites us to see power as always constituted within a certain space and time. He argues:
In the entangled nature of people’s lives, places, on this account, take their shape
through dominant or controlling rhythms that seek to suppress the routine traces of
others. Exclusion in this context has less to do with closed doors and high walls, and rather more to do with spaces constructed by dominant groups in their own likeness—through a series of rituals and gestures, moods and attachments, as well as
accumulated styles and meanings (11).
Allen and Durkheim’s theories meet here: in the “rituals and gestures” that serve to construct power along group lines. Both the democratic and carnivalesque rituals of the AGMs serve a function in constructing collectives in a power struggle, as collectives seek to dominate the space through their votes and their traditions. Whoever has the largest number of people who all act and think together wins the AGM.
Power Through Institutional Means
The UTSU, a large political body representing and serving thousands of students, is a bureaucracy. Weber (1968) states that the modern bureaucracy has “the principle of official jurisdictional areas, which are generally ordered by rules, that is, by laws or administrative regulations” (49). In essence, a bureaucracy is formal, rational, rule-bound, and matter-of-fact. It has little room for emotions or anything deemed irrational (Weber 1968). The AGMs are structured according to these principles. Facilitators require attendees to register after waiting in a long line; they hand out agendas with a clear timeline and tasks to accomplish; and they make sure their attendees understand the rules of order. The meetings are rule-bound and rationally organized in order to ensure productivity and efficiency.
At the start of the SGM, the chair stated that he hoped it would run “smoothly, effectively, so that business can be done, and that is simply it.” The facilitators attempted to ensure this through a few means: Robert’s rules of order and the authority of the chair’s and anti-harassment officer. The chair explained the rules of order at the beginning of both the meetings. Attendees also always had access to a sheet that explained what they needed to say in order to do what they wanted to do. For example, the sheet states that in order to “object to incorrect procedure being used,” one must say, “point of order.” In order to “end debate on a motion,” one must say, “I call the question.” The sheet also explained whether one must be seconded in their motion, whether their motion is debatable or amendable, and what majority is needed to pass their motion. Attendees needed to follow these rules in order to speak at the meeting. Their ability to speak was also defined spatially; attendees had to line up at one of the microphones at the front of the room in order to speak, or request for a microphone to be brought to their seat if it was urgent or they could not get to the front.
The chair ensured that these rules were followed throughout the meetings. When an attendee at the SGM raised a point of order and asked what was quorum, the chair enforced the rules of order and told her she did not have the right to raise those points. Afterwards, many attendees clapped and one of them yelled at the woman asking the question to sit down. The chair quickly then enforced behavioural rules: he said, “No more clapping. Don’t be mean to the members. Just stop it.” Not only did the chair enforce the rules of order, but he also enforced respectful behaviour. His authority and control over behaviour was most apparent when during the president’s question period at the SGM, an attendee accused the executives of UTSU of drinking and smoking marijuana on the job. The chair stated that this was getting “fairly personal” and “unparliamentary,” later clarifying that questions should pertain to the UTSU, not to individuals. He deemed another two questions irrelevant or inappropriate during the SGM.
Like the chair, the anti-harassment officer held authority over attendees’ behaviour and enforced rules to constrain them. Her role was to make sure that attendees maintained respect and cooperation. Near the beginning of both the AGM and the SGM, she reminded attendees that it was their responsibility to be respectful. She said that no hate speech and rudeness were allowed in the meeting, and that they needed to create a safe, inclusive space. The anti-harassment officer put her phone number up on the projector so that attendees could contact her with concerns, as she had the authority to eject members from the meeting. During the AGM, she and the chair did eject one member, though they would not reveal why when an attendee asked. The reason was reveal at the SGM, when an attendee asked the president about the ejected member: the attendee had taken off his pants. Such an act defied the anti-harassment officer’s enforcement of an appropriate, respectful space, and so she and the chair had utilized their authority to eject him.
While the chair and the anti-harassment officer had legitimate, institutionally recognized authority over the meeting, which they used to maintain the meeting’s efficiency and inclusivity, attendees subtly manipulated the bureaucratic structures to their benefit because they could be so easily manipulated. As Weber (1968) notes, “Under certain conditions, democracy creates palpable breaks in the bureaucratic pattern and impediments to bureaucratic organization” (63). The AGM was rife with such palpable breaks that impeded its efficiency and productivity. One frustrated attendee stated that students’ time was more valuable than “procedural showboating” in response to another member, who had just challenged the chair’s ruling because they had been “operating differently as a corporation for six months.” Some attendees before him had also challenged the chair based on procedural issues; some had asked for re-counts on votes that were unambiguous; and others were delaying debate and votes on motions through long speeches at the mic or points of order. As one attendee noted, the meeting was becoming “a procedural thing rather than a productive thing.”
A student politician I interviewed theorized that such procedural showboating was a performance of power on the part of those who supported the Slobodian proposal. He referred to a one-hour long delay to approve the agenda due to two attendees attempting to add illegal motions to the agenda as a symbolic show of power:
You saw the first two motions were motions that had already been blocked from being
passed onto the AGM. They know that they couldn’t get them on, like, and that it
wouldn’t even be legal if they were. Nothing they passed through those motions
would be binding. They also knew that they would vote to adjourn the second they
actually dealt with the board proposals, so it would be useless anyway. And then they went and they insisted on challenging the chair and going through that vote twice. The entire point of that was essentially to show us from the very beginning they had the power to outvote us. Both the chair and the anti-harassment officer recognized that rules and structures were liable to be used for the benefit of particular groups. The chair anticipated this, as he reminded attendees at the beginning of the AGM that the “rules of order are not weapons” that can be used to silence others; rather, “they are here to conduct business.”
But while the student politician I interviewed viewed the Slobodian camp as using rules as weapons, the anti-harassment officer criticized the Zhuk-Singh supporters, who were mostly from the St. George campus, for making the meeting inaccessible to those from the Mississauga campus, who were mainly supporters of the Slobodian proposal. After no board structure was ratified, some attendees wanted to extend the meeting for further discussion, despite the late hour. The anti-harassment officer asserted that not everyone has the privilege to live downtown and so people need to be aware of the ability of Mississauga students to participate in the meeting. Either way, some individuals were manipulating the bureaucratic rules and structures of the meeting to their favour. While the facilitators had institutionally recognized and explicit authority, attendees were able to acquire power through the lapses in these institutional structures.
Power Through Collective Effervescence
To speak solely of bureaucratic powers, however, does not come close to fully capturing power at the AGMs. The AGMs are unique in that they are chaotic, unprofessional, and rowdy. Attendees did not often yield to the authority of the chair or the anti-harassment officer. Many continued to laugh, clap, cheer, and talk loudly, even as the chair protested. Their professional authority was not respected because the UTSU is, in general, not respected. If there is no respect, an organization can have no hold over its people. Durkheim (1912) argues, “We defer to society’s orders not simply because it is equipped to overcome our resistance but, first and foremost, because it is the object of genuine respect” (209). Allen (2003) also concedes on this point: “Compliance is always conditional and anyone thinking that a rule book is all the legitimacy that is necessary is one day likely to be in for a rude awakening” (6).
A student politician I interviewed summarized the dominant negative opinion regarding the UTSU: “It’s just, like, ‘oh yeah they’re the big student organization that’s not, you know, doing their job. That’s corrupt and messed up.’” Newspaper articles across campus present and circulate these negative opinions. Enxhi Kondi in The Strand on October 20th, 2015, called UTSU “the union that we all love to hate.”AGMs, in particular, are criticized and not respected among students. Fraser Allan Best in an article in The Newspaper on October 9th 2015 referred to the AGM as “less of a forum for decision making and more of a stage for ideological posturing as a low-level performance art.” And the contempt for AGMs is not new: in The Canon on December 2nd 2013, Eric Norris writes, “well, these meetings have begun to have a bit of a bad reputation.” During my fieldwork, over and over again I would hear students call the AGM “a farce.”
The rowdiness and antics are, thus, dissenting. The UTSU had not succeeded in causing its members to “submit to [its] rules of action” (Durkheim 1992: 209), and it had not been consecrated by public opinion. Rather, attendees consecrated their own rules of action that not only fall outside of the bureaucratic regime, but actively defy its authority. The chair continuously called for quiet among the attendees, but the interruption of one group of people in particular during the AGM loudly denied his requests and authority: the Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad (sic), the engineering students’ marching band. They came in from the back of the auditorium during the chair’s introductions. There were about twenty or so musicians playing a variety of instruments—drums, trumpets, saxophones, and so on. While the chair kept on calling order, some of the band members made it to the front of the room. Most attendees cheered, laughed, and videotaped the band on their phones. After the band had finally been ejected by security, the chair commented on getting “that tradition” out of the way, and condemned the act as it makes the meeting longer. Out in the hallway, however, the band continued to play for a little while longer. An attendee called to the chair from the back, “can you turn up your mic? I can’t hear over the bass drop.”
In an interview, I asked a student politician whether the band showed up at last year’s meeting as well. He replied, “they were on the bingo, and I only heard rumours of them coming. They didn’t come last year, and so I was disappointed. But we had other things. We had the vuvuzelas.” He went on to explain that the band, the vuvuzelas, and other disruptive actions are tradition: “at this point, it’s just become tradition. It’s like, it has to happen at least once, otherwise, it’s just not an AGM. It’s one thing that makes it worth going to.” These actions serve to construct an understanding of the AGM as a show rather than a meeting. In an article in The Varsity posted on October 19th 2015, Jacob Lorinc refers to the AGM as “the UTSU’s annual performance” and reports on it in the format of a theatre review because “the lengthy meeting was more of a theatre production than it was anything else.” Naturally, its performance qualities increase the lack of respect attendees have for their union. If students do not see the AGM as a meeting, they will not treat it as such. But these antics serve a purpose that is beyond merely disrupting the meeting and demonstrating a rejection of authority. The student politician above said that these traditions are what make the AGM worthwhile; they have become inherent to the experience of the AGM, and students attend them expecting traditions. Traditions that reject institutional authority are compliant with social desires for the chaos they create.
The UTSU online Bingo card, itself a tradition, also names previous events “traditions.” All Bingo squares refer to something that has happened at previous AGMs. When the tradition happens again, attendees select it on their card in hopes of eventually getting a Bingo. The traditions on my Bingo card at the AGM included: “Anti-Harper sentiment”; “Someone orders a pizza”; “Samosas run out before start of motions”; “Throwaway war on Twitter”; “Someone starts a frosh cheer”; “Vuvuzela”; “Tears”; “Mention of a lawsuit”; “Procedural showboating”; “Room is full; “Technical difficulties”; “Accusations of St. George superiority”; and “Abrupt adjournment.” Attendees consecrated these traditions; they are allowed and encouraged to happen due to social understandings that deem them to be inherent features of AGMs. Attendees actively watch out for the traditions and expect them. Society, in this sense, has given authority and respect not to the institution, but rather to the traditions.
The success and consecration of traditions depends on a simple fact: the sheer strength of numbers. Many attendees participated in these disturbances, or at the very least enjoyed them. The difference between a whole room laughing and an individual laughing is major: the former is in harmony with his or her surroundings, while the latter is not. Durkheim (1912) argues:
In all kinds of acts that express the understanding, esteem, and affection of his
neighbor, there is a lift that the man who does his duty feels, usually without being aware of it. But that lift sustains him; the feeling society has for him uplifts the feeling he has for himself. Because he is in moral harmony with this neighbor, he gains new confidence, courage, and boldness in action…Thus is produced what amounts to a perpetual uplift of our moral being (213).
Attendees felt more compelled to participate in traditions, to misbehave, and enjoy chaos because the person sitting next to them was doing it and because public opinion and the Bingo card told them to expect it. This is the power of collective effervescence: when the collective congregates together and operates under similar ideas and pressures, “every emotion expressed resonates without interference in consciousnesses that are wide open to external impressions, each one echoing the others” (Durkheim 1912: 218). The collective coheres socially, and their coherence gives them the power to define the space.
Granted, not everyone liked the chaos. After the ejection of the band, one attendee took to the mic to call the band’s disruption “stupid shit” and he did not care that it was tradition. Even attendees who enjoyed and promoted the traditions lamented the inefficiencies of the meetings. The traditions, though inherent to the AGM, are in tension with desires for a productive meeting as they further compound their lack of productivity. As Ben Coleman, current UTSU president, writes in an article in The Varsity on November 13th, 2015, a few days before the SGM: “The AGM has become an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy: meetings that should be an orderly discussion of student desires for the UTSU slide into chaos because it’s what people have come to expect.”
Nevertheless, attendees missed the chaos when it was not there. Compared to the AGM, the SGM was much more orderly, and productive: a board structure was adopted, there was no band, and we made it through the entire agenda by the meeting’s advertised end time. People still laughed, clapped, cheered, and were rude, but not to the same degree as the AGM. As the president during his opening statement stated, “this meeting is more about getting stuff done,” and attendees, for the most part, finally complied. But while attendees were pleased that the era of board structure proposals was over, some expressed disappointment. I overheard attendees complaining they were bored, that they were anxiously waiting for the band, that they deserved more entertainment, and that it was just not worth going if it was not a “shit show.” The collective during the SGM moved towards institutional compliance, but at the expense of compliance to the social rules and the traditions that make the AGM what it is.
Boundary Making in Space
The success of the SGM, however, did not only depend on the collective’s decision to uphold the authority of the UTSU instead of their traditions. Strangely, the SGM was actually more socially cohesive and collective effervescent than the AGM, even though it lacked much of its traditional chaos. The engineering students traded in their jerseys and instruments for loaded proxy cards. The Arts and Science colleges and other professional faculties also came with many proxy votes. Their collective boldness became centered on a common democratic goal: to vote in a new board structure proposal, the Zhuk-Singh proposal. And their major opponent, the Mississauga campus, was noticeably absent.
At the AGM, some Mississauga students identified themselves with “I [heart] UTM” t-shirts. Most of them sat together and the majority of them came with a lot of proxy votes. They were largely proponents of the Slobodian board structure proposal, whereas the majority of St. George students were proponents of the Zhuk-Singh proposal. The Zhuk-Singh proposal was elected for consideration as it had over 50% of the votes, but did not ratify; it required a two-thirds majority, and this was not met with 562 votes in favour and 455 against. Voter cards from the UTM section shot up to prevent the ratification of this proposal. A campus divide was clear.
At the SGM, there were hardly any UTM students in the audience. A student created a petition before the SGM calling to move the date given that it was close to the UTM’s own general meeting and it was during a busy time of the year. However, UTSU kept the original date, hence UTM’s absence. When asked by an attendee why there were so few UTM students in attendance during the SGM, the UTSU president responded that UTM requested to Skype in rather than bus in from Mississauga, but they were unable to do so because they could not book a room in time to do the Skype session. Consequently, the meeting was largely made up of St. George students. The results of the board structure vote were further proof of a campus divided: 2,076 votes in favour, 44 opposed, and one abstention.
Whether the bad relationship between UTM and St. George is felt everywhere and all the time, I am not sure. Personally, I rarely think about it or feel it. What is clear, though, is that the AGM brought the divide into sharp focus and exacerbated it. In an article in The Varsity, posted on November 1st 2015, Alex Verman comments on this divide and the role the AGM plays in revealing it:
If the AGM was any indication, many members at UTM and UTSG [St. George] hold
drastically different ideas about the purpose, interests, and applicability of items as basic as their organizational structure. These different ideas can have dramatic
spoiling effects on the future of the UTSU.
People “experience [power] at first hand through rhythms and relationships of particular places, not as some pre-packaged force from afar and not as a ubiquitous presence” (Allen 2003:2). In the case of the AGM, UTM and St. George students came to experience a contest for power over decisions regarding the UTSU. The space itself was involved in making boundaries between the two campuses more concrete and visible.
As the AGM made boundaries clearer, it simultaneously blurred boundaries. A cohesive St. George identity is, it seems, a product unique to this space. Elsewhere, the campus is divided along faculty and college lines. Granted, these divisions were still present within the AGM. Before the AGM, my college’s union, the Victoria University Student Administrative Council (VUSAC), held an information session. The purpose of this was to tell Victoria College students what to expect at the AGM, and to have us walk over together as a unified college. While VUSAC executives constantly told us to “vote with our conscience,” they openly endorsed the Zhuk-Singh proposal and encouraged us to vote for what is best for our college (i.e., for the Zhuk-Singh proposal). They also warned us that other colleges may portray us as elitist, and that we should not “give them the ammunition” by acting elitist. This was a form of crafting social cohesion and collectivity. I was expected to identify with and represent my college. Once we got to the AGM, VUSAC executives asked me to save the seats next to me for other Victoria students. Likewise, most other colleges and faculties sat together in a group, affirming group boundaries.
Boundaries between colleges and faculties persisted at the SGM. In the line-up, a Victoria college student made a joke that he was “breaking intercollegiate barriers” by talking to a University College student. A Victoria College student who was passing out timbits turned back once she got to the part of the line with University College students. I most felt my identification with my college when I entered the SGM. Since I was one of the first to enter the auditorium, I did not have any clear idea of where I should sit because no one from my college was there yet. I sat in the same section as last time and, to my relief, it became the Victoria College section. When I was not sure how to vote, I just looked at those around me and knew what I should do. When I voted out of harmony with my fellow college members, I felt ashamed. Successfully, my college’s rules of action organized within me and, usually, I acted in unison with my collective.
Colleges and faculties, thus, were their own clumps of social cohesion. Group identification entered into the space of the AGMs and was clearly apparent. However, while these boundaries existed, they also collapsed in favour of a broader, more holistic collective identity: the St. George campus. The formation of this new collective was, like the boundary making between UTM and St. George, a product of the AGM. But this cohesion has not merely stayed within the AGM; it has had lasting effects and consequences outside the space as well. A student politician I interviewed told me about the St. George round table, a direct product of the political climate fostered by UTSU and its AGMs:
…there’s a lot more productive collaboration where you see a lot more of different
political heads of different colleges coordinating with different professional faculties, without that necessarily being coordinated through the U of T student union. More, almost, in some ways, it’s facilitated by that, but also in some ways being approached independently because- well, last year when they didn’t have a friendly relationship with the former slate, they had no avenue to go through the student union. So all these different relationships tend to be built, and there’s the St. George round table, which is- it doesn’t have any binding power or anything, but it’s sort of an organization that meets and discusses St. George issues, and it’s where different heads of different colleges and professional faculties come and they meet, and they discuss these things.
Social cohesion and collectivity, created through the breaking down of barriers on the St. George campus, is what allowed them “to superimpose their presence on others” (Allen 2003: 11) in the AGM. This social cohesion is then maintained outside the space, despite the simultaneous perpetuation of original college and faculty boundaries in other contexts (for instance, during Frosh Week). If they strictly maintained their fragmentation, their presence would not have been as powerful. A successful collective with power requires as many individuals as possible thinking and feeling the same way.
“Strength in Numbers”
Draped over the front table where the president, chair, and minute takers sat, the UTSU’s banner declared their slogan: “Strength in Numbers.” More or less, their slogan aptly describes how power works within the UTSU’s Annual General Meetings. As a democracy, the majority rules through its votes. As a performance, or a “farce,” the majority rules through its dissent, its antics, and its ability to define the space in their own rules of action. While the UTSU and the meeting’s facilitators may assert their institutionally recognized power at times, ultimately, it is the attendees that collectively give, or withhold, the right to rule because, simply, there are more of them. In order to understand power at the AGM, one must understand its attendees and their relationships with the union, the space, and each other.
By conceiving power spatially, as Allen (2003) had done, we can see that the AGM creates relationships and dynamics of power that are unique to its space. It is the special kind of congregation that Durkheim (1912) described, where collective effervescence takes hold and individuals come to be a group incarnate. It is through social cohesion that attendees maintain power over the space: they play, they laugh, and they vote together. It is the strength of their similarities that allow them to do these acts confidently. But the AGM’s social cohesion is in tension with its simultaneous social incoherence: it creates boundaries, at the same time as it dissipates others. One collective, St. George, ultimately won over a different collective with its own internal, cohesive rules of action, Mississauga, in this round of AGMs. But this could easily change in the future: whoever has the strongest, most coherent collective with the will to sway the auditorium can reshape and redefine what the AGM means and how power works within it.
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