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Celebrating physical campuses and those who keep them up (essay)

Every Nook and Cranny
June 8, 2012

“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” 
--George Sand

Noticing.

Our sense of space – on campus and anywhere – might extend ever-outward, or at least beyond the rectangular screens stuck to our desks. I am reminded of the wisdom of my mom – “we love nature because we are part of nature” -- as temperatures climb. So I get out a little more, I linger on my campuses, I stop to talk with people, and I notice the relationship of spaces to behavior.

Since childhood, I have liked designated spaces in which to play and pretend, and on any campus at any given time perhaps some of us are playing and, certainly, others are pretending. Great campus spaces can be found outdoors and others are indoors, protected by a crew of people often given short shrift. Since beginning A Kinder Campus last summer, I have tried to make a practice, at least intermittently, of looking at the campuses where I teach with kind scrutiny, on the lookout for those who go above and beyond anyone’s expectations of kindness coupled with competence.

Of course, crassness stands out like a sore thumb, too.

Some busy people may counter that campus spaces themselves don’t beckon to them: that a campus is a place to work, that’s all. A friend who is a higher education consultant surprised me by saying that as she is so focused on what she is doing that the grounds of any campus barely register in her mind. For me, such work would bring the perks of discovery – campus layout and all – and even very subtle differences would be of interest.

 




The word temenos, sacred space, is from Greek, and I am using it loosely here. I discovered it in Carl Jung’s expression of places where conscious and unconscious mind converge. Readers know I’m enamored of libraries, and wonderful as they are in connecting known and unknown, temenos is elsewhere, too.

 

I used to like to watch busy Euclid Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Cleveland, from different perches at Cleveland State University, for example, when I both worked and studied there. It wasn’t just having the city so close; it was being able to reflect on it through a window. Lake Erie beckons from that campus, too, and the songs of gulls are part of the campus music, for me. The St. Francis garden at John Carroll University is a quiet place I return to, seeking to recharge. Several months ago, as I read Stephen Bloom’s piece in The Atlantic, I considered that place and climate are things we both carry within and experience from without. One person’s haven is another’s hell.

Are there spots on your campus where you recharge because the combination of color and light and shadow and sound invite relaxation? I suspect there are. Notice.

Rests in music and pauses between inhale and exhale are important moments in our lives. People get restless and crabby and even sick without requisite rest. I have an aesthetic sense, which anyone who sees the back of my car might deny. But because I am inundated with words and papers and books, nothing impresses me more than a clear span of grass, as on a campus quad. And yet, a random book sale in a campus library also beckon to me. Notice what’s around you, then take the next step.

Navigating.

Remembering vulnerability can help one reach out to the temporarily lost. I bit my tongue last summer when a very anxious student asked me where a certain campus building was; she looked like a freshman to me and it would have been too easy to make an assumption:  “are you a new student, right out of high school?” I was taking a summer class, and few people were around to help. After I told her where that building was, she shared that she was a new student – a graduate student in mathematics. I offered a few more navigational tips: graduate student lounge, coffee shop. It was practice for me. I can be a kinder introvert (and the world won’t know), if I choose, or I can strive to come out of my shell and be a kinder extrovert.

The ice broke, and she smiled. She said it was her first day scoping things out. My inner mantra is of my choice: I can adhere to: “I have no power here. I am invisible.” (The latter is what my Gmail status line says at the moment.) Or I can counter: “I have my own sphere of influence, however limited. I am visible to some.” It’s a conscious choice.

It can be easy to get stuck in negative talk, and research has suggested that a three to one ratio of positive to negative thoughts can lead to increased well-being. Many people are starving emotionally, so to speak, with less of a buffer zone – a self-cultivated one.

Seeing that relief in a random student’s eyes increased my own sense of well being that day. Kindness is partly fueled by altruism but also enlightened self-interest. One does feel more connected to any campus while extending a hand to help.

Nurturing.

Seeking those who work hard behind the scenes at various colleges, I connected last summer with Tom Meeks, who has served Notre Dame College in the grounds’ department for 32 years.  Meeks knows trees, shrubs and flowers … geology and topography … architecture and budgets … human relations and problem solving. He and his staff support a complex infrastructure on a campus that has tripled its enrollment in recent years.

“Football is coming in today,” Tom began, sneaking in a few minutes at a small table overlooking campus to talk to me as parents walked the grounds with scrutinizing eyes. “130 football players are moving in from 10 to 3.” He paused to take a call, apologizing for the interruption, which really wasn’t one; it revealed the many problems he is constantly solving.

“Cut the field but don’t cut it too low,” he instructed someone who doesn’t usually mow. And a problem I could only vaguely imagine surfaced in another call, with Meeks replying: “Mike, do you have any light PVC?” I squeezed in a question about his busy schedule, and he responded: “Activity-wise, we’re using every bit of space.”

Meeks shared his ongoing quest to balance the fate of the trees and the face of the building. The intermittent trimming of the vintage oaks must be done with care; without such trimming, though, they might obscure the college’s classic view from the south. “How do you protect the six trees? Once you have a building, you can’t move it,” he said. And those six trees add shade and shelter soft grass and define the campus’s character in a residential neighborhood.

There is both art and science to assembling pieces of a campus puzzle. Expansions to campus, including facilities to support growing athletic programs, have needed skillful fire crew access. And indeed,  a fire at the college in 1999 might have been worse had it not been for a warning heeded years before.

“We talked the sisters [of Notre Dame] into blown-in insulation,” he said. “The flames would have shot up into the attic [of the Administration Building] if that insulation wasn’t there. We probably would have lost that building.”

* * *

I hope those protecting your campuses are doing it well, and in summer as always, perhaps remember the three “n’s.”  

  • Notice your campus space.
  • Help others navigate it.
  • And honor the nurturers who work tirelessly and often unheralded.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.  -- H.H. The Dalai Lama

 

 

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