Inside the JHU Disorientation Guide, the student-penned publication poking holes in the Hopkins veneer

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Image via the JHU Disorientation Guide

Last week, a few dozen students, professors and community members with children in tow gathered in front of the Milton Eisenhower Library on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus as part of an “Anti-ICE Protest and Playdate,” to call attention to the university’s ongoing contract with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). Kids sat on the sidewalk coloring, playing and shaking noisemakers–just being kids–beneath a banner that read “Families Belong Together,” as speakers laid out their resolute demands.

“We demand Johns Hopkins University drop all of its contracts with the abusive and racist Immigrations and Customs Enforcement administration,” the organizer of the event, Aimee Pohl, declared, her child at her hip.

The group then marched to JHU president Ronald Daniels’ office with a “Petition to End JHU Partnership with ICE” signed by nearly 2,000 people. There, Stephanie Saxton, a JHU grad student and member of Students Against Private Police, unfurled a scroll of signatories’ names as a few jumpy JHU security guards looked on.

“We don’t study here and teach here so that we can swim neck-deep in the blood of the most marginal and most exposed people in our society—shame on you Johns Hopkins,” said Drew Daniel, a professor at JHU and member of electronic music duo Matmos, who created the petition back in July.

JHU’s connection with ICE is confusing if you’ve not already read up on it—essentially, JHU partners, via its School of Education, with ICE on training tied to “public safety”—and while there are some op-eds here and there explaining it, the most concise and incisive description of the school’s ICE connection comes from the JHU Disorientation Guide, a 44-page culture jam to the JHU official party line anonymously released by students earlier this month, not long after the fall semester began.

On page 15, stuck between a lengthy essay on JHU’s ongoing support of a private police force and a section titled “Militarization of the University,” there is a small sidebar about JHU and ICE’s relationship. It lays out the stakes loud and clear.

“Hopkins describes [its ICE contract] as a ‘cooperative relationship,’ intended to ‘support the ICE mission, strategic goals…and contribute to measurable outcomes and results.’ But when 60% of ICE’s budget funds Enforcement and Removal Operations—amounting to 2 billion dollars in the 2018 fiscal year—it becomes likelier and likelier that those ‘measurable outcomes and results’ are the number of families detained, deported, and separated from their children,” the Disorientation Guide reads. “Hopkins loves to portray itself as an ally to immigrants, releasing statements—3 in the past year—in favor of DACA and in opposition to Trump’s travel ban. But it’s almost as if supporting immigrants and entering into a financial exchange with the organization that endangers their livelihoods are, well, mutually exclusive. One has to wonder: does ‘support’ mean anything in the administration’s vocabulary?”

A contributor to the Disorientation Guide explained that the goal was “to make Hopkins students of all ages realize both that these problems exist, and that there are people passionate about untangling them.”

The guide was put together by eight current JHU students, many of whom are members of progressive groups on campus, and released anonymously. The students behind it have asked to remain anonymous for this piece.

“As things at Hopkins seem more PR-ish, we found it important to provide another narrative for incoming students to understand the institution they will be a part of,” another contributor said.

Sections mete out hard facts paired with strongly worded opinions on issues like the university’s screw-ups tied to city development, race, labor, sexual assault, disability rights and more. Students with passion, knowledge and experience for a given topic took charge of different sections and most of the group helped edit the guide, passing it back and forth to approve its overall voice and tone.

There were a number of reasons for publishing it anonymously. Namely, the guide isn’t intended to speak for any of the campus groups that some of the students who made it are active members of on campus. It is also a way of making the guide bigger than just the people who planned it and put the thing together.

“Including names could have easily shifted the conversation away from what Hopkins is doing and has done, to who the authors are,” one contributor explained.

Anonymity adds a power to the guide too—it is a fiery, funny cross between a college term paper, punk zine and a rousing lefty rag like Ramparts. From the introduction: “For every Hopkins medical discovery, there is a history of exploited test subjects who did not give their consent for experimentation. For every new shiny student startup space, there are black families whose homes were demolished to clear the way. For every FFC meal swipe, there is a dining worker laboring for less than a living wage…”

A JHU Disorientation Guide previously released in 2014 (students across the country regularly do disorientation guides for their schools) inspired the contributors. It was time to make a new one anyway, they thought–a whole group of undergraduates had passed through JHU since 2014.

“Fast forward four years to today, the first wave of ‘disoriented freshmen’ are ready to graduate, institutional memory is starting to fade and the cycle is beginning once again,” one contributor said. “If we want to combat this cycle which ultimately clips the lifespan of student organizing, we need to continually educate ourselves and others with records like the Disorientation Guide.”

A new version, they realized, could address issues such as the 2015 Baltimore Uprising (what it meant to students and how the campus’ response failed many of them), the series of on-campus sexual assaults that got attention in 2015, and labor struggles (in 2016 subcontracted security guards demanded health care coverage; in 2018, Hopkins nurses started a union campaign and battled an anti-union campaign from the hospital). Since 2016, organizing and activism have really reignited at JHU, they say, including this year’s strong and, for the time being, successful opposition to JHU’s private police force, floated with little warning to students and amid the Baltimore Police Department’s endless scandals.

“There has been a renewed sense of civic engagement at Hopkins and we wanted to provide the resources for socially minded students to get involved with campus movements,” a contributor said.

They began working on the Disorientation Guide at the end of July with the goal of getting it out as the fall semester began, when students return or arrive for the first time and the idyllic Johns Hopkins University presented during orientation tours sours quick, leaving many students angry and alienated and unsure of what to do about it. The guide offers solutions and provides pragmatic lists of resources on- and off-campus, student groups, and news and community organizations in the city.

“Had I known about the 2014 guide, or had there been a 2016 version when I came in as a freshman, I’m almost positive I would have found my place in the Hopkins activist community much sooner,” one contributor said.

“I hope in the two years that it has taken me to become ‘activated’ and ‘informed’ at Hopkins, it would take incoming freshmen one to two weeks after reading the guide,” a contributor said.

The Disorientation Guide comments on campus politics and problems with humor. It’s an entertaining read. The cover image is a vapor wave-ish remix of the campus’ famous Gilman Hall, here fractured and glitched-out. In a section titled “Power Mapping” that outlines those with the most control of the campus and, perhaps, how to get them on your side, a photo of JHU president Daniels is doctored with MS Paint-like graphics, including sunglasses hastily drawn on his face, some dollar bills and Blingy-style text that reads, “yasss daddy.” And the guide ends with a photo of an absolutely adorable and seemingly smiling dog and tells readers: “Sorry if this made you sad. Here’s a cute pup to cheer you up.”

“There’s a real grassroots movement of students growing to hold Johns Hopkins accountable. I think that that’s super important, but student organizing is hard because we graduate,” one contributor said. “In order to keep our momentum, we have to create a story of us, a narrative to tell new students so that they know what they’re a part of and what we’re fighting against.”

Though the guide critiques and occasionally eviscerates the policies of the institution, along the way it makes a strong case for how whip smart and engaged JHU’s students are about these issues. It’s the sort of document that could only come from students who care about the city, their community and their school.

“One prospective student messaged me on Facebook after seeing my post about the Disorientation Guide and asked me whether I regret going to Hopkins since there seem to be so many problems,” one contributor said. “I told her that most of these issues are not unique to Hopkins, but the student response is. I am proud to be part of a movement to hold our institution accountable and improve it for myself and future students. While my feelings towards Hopkins are complicated, I do not regret being here.”

When Baltimore Fishbowl reached out for comment on the Disorientation Guide, Dennis O’Shea, executive director of media relations and crisis communications for JHU wrote, “Thanks for asking, but no.”

When the students behind the guide heard about JHU’s “official” comment, they responded, “Lol. thanks Dennis.”



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1 COMMENT

  1. The irony here is that the authors are students who, presumably, are forking up $50k/year (on the low end) to sustain that which they’re rallying against. All this talk about a living wage and they could pay someone a living wage with the difference in tuition if they were to attend a state school.

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