Friday, June 6, 2008

The View from Inside the Bubble


Last weekend, I accompanied Interesting Development to his college reunion at a selective liberal arts college located in the middle of nowhere.

You have to understand something about ID's relationship to his alma mater: he loves this place. So I was excited to visit the place that had made such an impression on him. I thought I was more or less prepared, because I'd attended a SLAC myself – albeit an urban one, and as a sophomore-year transfer student.

Then we got there, and I experienced some pretty severe culture shock. Sure, it was superficially similar: Student population of under 2000; small classes; emphasis on academic excellence; all that. But this was different. For one thing, the place is located in a "town" of 1900 (that's including the students, mind you). It's a residential college, both by design, and because the college is the town (and the next nearest tiny hamlet is a ten-minute drive away), which means that if you're a student there, you live on campus for four years. You have a sandwich or a coffee at one of the three restaurants in town (a coffee shop with a small breakfast/lunch menu, a brew pub/restaurant, a deli). You buy beer and munchies at the local market, which is really a convenience store on steroids. No need for real groceries, because you take all your meals in the dining hall. You don't worry about juggling work and class schedules, because the only work to be had in town is at one of the aforementioned three restaurants, or work-study. Your life, in other words, is the college. Everyone knows the canonical college songs, and sings them.

It would be easy to make fun of the insularity of the place. But here's the thing (and this is very hard for someone with a longstanding and resolutely lower-middle-class identity to admit): I liked it there. I liked the ivory-tower-ness of it all. I liked the collegiate gothic buildings and the prettiness of the campus. I liked the idea of the centrality of the college to students' lives (as opposed to my own experience, where my job and my off-campus life were important counterweights, and to the experience of my own urban-commuter-uni students, for whom the university is the periphery of their lives, rather than the core). God help me, I even liked the college songs (well, not the songs themselves so much as the idea of them). This, to me, was like a dream of college, rather than anything I had ever seen in action.

It was a bubble, for sure. But after spending 72 hours there, I have to admit that the view from inside the bubble is pretty nice.

10 comments:

Dr. S said...

Yes, I can vouch for it: it's a nice bubble, if one's going to be in a bubble. In some ways, it's very difficult to be an *adult* in that bubble, and I intend all the ambiguity that that statement contains. But I love the quiet of that place, the fact that you can actually hear yourself thinking and moving, that it's possible to do a lot of things at a walking pace.

(Can you tell I'm starting to get a little homesick?)

Michael said...

Was the feeling while there a sort of simplicity and stereotypical white-ness? If so, I think we're supposed to rebel a bit against that since we were never the affluent family but I'm drawn to that kind of thing too.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

My kid brother (above) nails it on the head. This is what happens when class consciousness collides head-on with a real desire to have what the Haves have (hence the new "worlds in collision" tag -- this is something I may be blogging about more in the future).

Here's something along those same lines: early on in the year at Fellowship Institute, we had a discussion about the utility of the Humanities. Myself and one other participant were the only ones who stood in defense of an idea that the Humanities could be an end in themselves, an old-fashioned ennobling enterprise. I later learned that he was plucked out of a quite impoverished school system and sent off to a toney boarding school as a part of a government program to identify especially talented young students in horribly underprivileged circumstances. So here we have two people from less than ideal economic backgrounds who have attached very strongly to the idea of an ivory tower. My working theory is that it's just a culturally-sanctioned form of escapism.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And by the way, Michael, I'm already hatching plans to get T. into this place...

AnthroProf said...

I just visited friends who got tenure-track jobs at a SLAC in Iowa. Beautiful scenery, nice houses, great bakeries (they *love* their Dutch heritage! What Indians?) and a nice looking campus, but I got itchy just *being* there. I couldn't wrap my mind around the concept of being an "almost adult" with all the new and confusing and bewildering experiences that we should have when growing up and living there for 4 years. Doesn't seem like the students get *challenged* socially. Am I off base because I come from an urban, large, state university background (BA to PHD)?

Dr. S said...

I don't think you're off base in a bad way, Anthroprof, but you might literally be "off base" in the sense of not being able to imagine becoming an adult in a small, rural setting. Back in the day, I was a student at the particular SLAC Notorious visited, and I can say that my time there featured plenty of new and confusing and bewildering coming-to-adulthood experiences--just not necessarily the same ones you had at a large urban state university. And I don't know that it's about (or all about) wanting what the Haves have. When I was a student, the Haves (the Have-Mosts?) were some of the people least likely to give a shit about the humanities, or intellectual life in general. I hadn't gone there from a situation of poverty, but I was also definitely not one of the girls who turned up from private school looking for four more years of that. And you know? now that I think of it, the faculty to whom I was (and am still) closest tended to be people who had come to the college from working-class and/or Midwestern/rural backgrounds, and every one of them was imbued with a sense that the things they had come to know and love and teach were Important Things, in and of themselves.

Apparently I have many thoughts about this matter but need to process them more. Maybe I'll move this thinking over to my own place when my brain has an opening.

I do have a friend from college who can barely come back to our campus because it's so quiet and dark and homogenous--compared to Chicago, where he now lives.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

S, thank you for that thoughtful comment. I'm looking forward to reading your extended meditations, if you decide to do it. I only hope that you don't think I was dogging your Alma Mater. I'm just trying to work through my own... well, my reactions to my reactions. My brother nails it down pretty well, I think.

Dr. S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. S said...

Yeah, I totally had a subject-verb agreement error in my last attempt at this comment, and that's just not right.

What I meant to say:

The chances of my posting about class and my alma mater are, I have to say, kind of slim: I have made it a policy not to post about my workplace unless it's in a very, very general and generally very, very positive way. But I'd be happy to keep this conversation going off-blog...

Can I just say that I'm taking a "break" from the all-night ball and posting this comment? Yeah, there's blaring dance music off in the near distance. I can't do that scene anymore right now.

Anonymous said...

Let me guess, Sewanee?