Friday, October 28, 2011

"The Latest Lesson I learned at School" from TubaPlayingProf.

My spouse and I were in our hometown for a wedding—on the very weekend of Homecoming back at our alma mater. It’s been years since we were on campus.

The curse of age is nostalgia, yet confident that as college teachers we would not succumb to the pain one feels going “home,” we decided to spend a morning walking around the old place.

We couldn’t help ourselves, and we spent much of our time contrasting a place that we love to the place where we work. At least twice, I made the big mistake of wondering what it would be like to teach there.

We found worthwhile, clever, and interesting expansion—new buildings and renovations that reflect a campus with a thriving architecture department—that complements and enhances the old buildings we still love. Restaurants and cafes—one that promises “farm to table” meals—and coffee kiosks were busy. The parking solution that was implemented when we were in school is still in place, and although I hated it as a commuter, I see its value: all these people on campus, walking, sitting, etc, with no cars. On a campus in the middle of a small city, surrounded by busy streets, the quad was quiet except for the students sitting under the trees. We found students sitting and talking to each other everywhere, killing time outside the library and the massive student center. We checked out the library, and to our amazement, students were doing research, reading, and studying—in the freaking library—on a freaking Friday. The art building was old and funky as it has always seemed to be. Right next door and fitting in well, the new computer science building—a beautiful and impressive building—was filled with students working together; it looked like a picture on a college web page. And as we walked through, I counted at least four languages being spoken. I realized that I miss a truly diverse campus culture, with people of color and international students on campus—not merely in pictures on the web page of the sports teams. I must admit that I was overwhelmed by familiar accents and people who look like me. I could go on and on, but you understand my point.

Where we work, we knock buildings down; new is always better we seem to believe. Yet no one's here. Students are always moving from class to class, from class to car or dorm. This place is only slightly smaller than the alma mater, and the ratio of commuter-to-resident is identical; it shouldn’t be so noticeably different. Yet at this place, no one “hangs out.” The school spent nearly 400, 000 dollars recently on “common areas,” with steps, benches, landscaping, etc where teachers and students were to congregate and debate issues that people living the life of the mind wonder about. The one outside my building is on the other side of the building, the side no one uses: the squirrels have free range of the area. Traffic and parking are true nightmares; every few years, we try new patterns, pave new lots, but we can’t hide the busy and often dangerous highway that cuts through campus—because forty years ago no one here thought about the possible need to cross the street to add buildings. Fortunately, few people cross the street to go to the library, an empty, quiet place as no one is ever there—the feds should think about using our library as a hiding place for the witness-protection program. The only people hanging out and talking are the smokers who share a quick smoke then move on. Resident students evacuate every weekend—which for most of them begins early Thursday morning. The most impressive new building is the “university” bookstore—which is actually the latest store of a national chain that has a small section for university sweatshirts in the corner, but in all other aspects is just like every other store of that company. The most desirable dorm rooms are in structures that look like townhouses and hotels—as one student said, “it’s like you’re not on campus anymore.”

Where we work cannot buy or fashion or conjure what my alma mater has: 150 years of intelligent, deliberated planning and growth. It is a campus that invites. It is a school that knows what it is and what it wants to be. Most importantly it is a school that doesn’t want to be everything to everyone.

Here, for all our ambition, we’re still a young school desperate to be everything to everybody—and not doing that very well. Flagship University upstate will always be the measure, and we will never ever measure up. Hell, we can’t measure up to Flagship University—Big City Branch. No vague promises published on the web page can actually create a campus and a community. All the photos on the web page here are staged. I know most of the people in them; one snarky, grumbling bastard never smiled before or after taking the picture of him sitting under the one impressive tree on campus with his students who are strangely smiling back at him, clearly confused by his smile.

We shouldn’t highlight on our web page our bogus rankings in national publications that suggest we are good at what we do then promise that we’re working to be something different that we maintain is better. We shouldn’t argue that we must become a R1 school to receive more state money but work to become a state-assisted school, and no longer a state-supported one.

Where we teach we’re installing veneer on the fa├žade. Merely changing the campus doesn’t necessarily mean changing the culture.

After a long walk around campus, we headed to find the office of a former student now in graduate school at the alma mater. Awash with sentiment and longing, I recalled the sincere encouragement and support of the undergraduate faculty when I asked about graduate school; looking ahead, some favorite teachers wondered if I might not be the ideal replacement for the senior member in my chosen field, who was due to retire about the time I was to hit the job market. Unfortunately, he died before I was finished, and the department hired someone else.

Much to our delight, my student was in his office. It was great to catch up and talk about the school with some one attending it now.

And then I asked about the specialist in my field—a prominent scholar by most measures—the “someone else” who got the job that I once thought mine—the person that I must admit now remains the better choice for the position. My former student said, “He’s good; his new book is out, and it’s amazing. He’s disgruntled of course; he can’t get sabbatical, and he hasn’t gotten a raise in five years, but he’s good.”

So, yes, undeniably the alma mater isn’t perfect as we might want it to be. It has some of the same issues, problems, and I guess misery we all share here at CM, and it is struggling to fulfill its mission with less and less support from the state. But I can’t help feeling that it’s trying to remain true to itself despite all.

The recent posting here from the Tenured Racial blog has me thinking about the changes at the alma mater. Unlike the trend for “student recreation” and “luxury environment,” the old place seems to be designed for interaction. So much older than here, it seemed fresh and attractive—even though the money is going for academic buildings, not townhouse dorms and corporate bookstores. As we walked around, we kept feeling that the buildings and space were designed with the innovative notion that people would use them, want to be near them, and decades later want to return to take a look. It had changed as it should, yet not merely from trying to reinvent itself over and over.


  1. I loved this post. Thanks for sharing it--your alma mater sounds a bit like mine (minus the small city), and like you, it was once my dream to teach there.

  2. A while back I took a flying shot at the moon to land the position in my field back at the SLAC I did my undergrad work at. I hardly had a chance, but the place would be so awesome, I had to try. Much of this post has a bit of an echo of what I think when I think about my old school.

  3. It's true for so many of us that our idea of academic life, of what it would be like to be a prof, was based on our undergraduate experiences. But most of us who actually became profs had quite decent undergraduate experiences, at places like your alma mater, Tuba. Otherwise we would hardly have aspired to spend our lives like that.

    So it comes as a real shock to find that where you teach, and what you teach, and the students you teach, and the circumstances under which you work generally, can have so very little in common with the places where we trained.

    In the medieval world the priests would get serious scholastic training at one of the great centres of education, often enough. And then they would get shipped off to a village in the Black Forest, or a hamlet in the north of England, ministering to an illiterate population with an average vocabulary of 500 words (I'm not making this figure up). And that was their life; for the next 40 years, or however long it took them to die. It is not as bad as that, for us. Still, it is a shock to discover that our work institutions are, usually, not a whole lot like our intellectual homes.

  4. I love this post, too. Well chosen as POW, for sure.

    I've not been back to my undergrad school, yet I compare everything to my memory of it.

  5. I worked at my undergrad school for a year. It wasn't idyllic. The professors I'd worshiped turned out to be pettier and more short-sighted than I'd imagined, and I couldn't be friends with the excellent students anymore. I dunno, I just think that going to school someplace and working at that same place are very different experiences.

  6. Great post.

    @MA: "vocabulary of 500 words" Sheesh! I'd like to know more. Can you recommend a general-audience source?

    I've visited my alma mater many times because I have family nearby. I love strolling through campus. Most of the buildings and grounds are a mixture of historic exteriors and trees with contemporary facilities, and the library *always* has a crowd. And even though my friends and I weren't stellar students, we did know how and why to read a syllabus and write a paragraph. Many times in my former Job from Hell did I fantasize about teaching there.

    But a few years back, the alumni magazine featured a new building for what would be my department, touting its "excitingly open" design intended to make professors accessible to students and each other for the purpose of collaboration.

    The faculty offices have GLASS WALLS. Many of the spaces have no doors. I had to wonder where faculty and grad students were supposed to put their bookcases or pending exams. And the prospect of never having privacy to speak to a student or write a paper or just retreat from the demands of snowflakes for half an hour? Snapped me right out of my nostalgia.

    Then I realized that it shouldn't have been so surprising, this lack of foresight on the part of the architects or administration. In my day, a brand-new dorm won awards for its architecture but had no closets, and its many separate entrances with stairwells turned out to be excellent lurking spots for sexual predators.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.