This semester I’ve had a few opportunities to stop for a second and recognize how much I enjoy being on a college campus. I know that sounds trite and cliche. Fine. Whatever.
I do love college campuses and for some reasons the campus of the University of North Dakota has just made me super happy lately. The last week or so I’ve been boxing old issues of North Dakota Quarterly in an obscure storeroom in an old campus building slated to be demolished next year. The building is old and kind of decrepit and probably not suited for much in the way of modern university activities. The volumes of NDQ, like the old building, tell stories of the university that are both familiar and sepia toned. And like so many university traditions they are both oddly relevant and fairly easy to discard.
This week I also got a charming calendar from my alma mater, the University of Richmond. Each month features a beautiful college Gothic building from URs campus, but most of the buildings are more recent than my time there. And only two of the buildings date from the great early period of college Gothic construction on campus or were designed by the original campus architect, Ralph Adams Cram. In other words, the presentation of campus is traditional, but also entirely new.
Closer to home, what’s great about walking around a campus like UND’s is that, despite budget cuts and consistent lack of funding, they still try. In fact, I have often thought “we do try” was a kind of unofficial campus motto. As part of their efforts to try, they’ve created a bunch of new student gathering spaces in our building. They have a particular character that I just really groove on.
First off, they’re kind of gross. The furniture is all institutional, wrapped in garish, wear-resistant fabrics, and constructed out of hard plastic. The floor covering is this bizarre grey fake wood that does nothing to hide its plastic-ness or the dirt tracked across it by hundred of tired undergraduate (and faculty) feet. Despite being created only this semester, the spaces already look a bit world weary, out of date, and for lack of a better word, sad.
What keeps these spaces from being completely forlorn is that they are somehow also profoundly democratic. Their lack of pretension or even functionality. The furnishings exist simply to exist and represent a completely banal gesture toward something. As with so many older places on campus, these new student gathering spaces are destined to accumulate grime of thousands of hands, butts, and feet. Nick and marks of pens, tacky smudges left by snacks, and lost gloves, hats, and scarfs liter this student landscape. They’re used and slightly abused and mostly the spaces are disregarded as neither distinctive enough to be memorable or meaningful nor functional enough to be practically valued. In contract to the exaggerated contemporary college Gothic at the University of Richmond, the student gathering spaces on UND’s campus are unapologetically modern. They’re non-places and meaningless gestures that are consumed simply because they are available.
Walking through these spaces and watching students embrace them with utter ambivalence is among the highlights of my day. It reminds me of our task to inculcate our students with what it means to really be modern.