Don't Say Stepford

You probably know people who expect instant loyalty to their causes. Any hesitation suggests to them the work they’ll need to do to sell you or else to wheel their flanks and attack.


October 9, 2007

You probably know people who expect instant loyalty to their causes. Any hesitation suggests to them the work they’ll need to do to sell you or else to wheel their flanks and attack.

Hinterland University’s primacy is a given for many here, and skeptics—those who neither affirm nor deny until they’ve had a chance to think it through—are called cynics. I made the mistake recently of repeating what someone said to me about this school being a “Stepford campus.” I wasn’t endorsing the view, just holding it curiously in the palm of my hand, but my listener went on a 45-minute tirade that generalizations are wrong, ignorant, and mean-spirited. By way of illustration, he said that on September 11th he refused to get out of his desk chair to look at the TV in an outer office where everyone was gathering, because he wouldn’t be a part of the cultural presumption that New York was more significant than, say, Inner Station.

Down here, where I am, with the undergrads, I do see a lot of sameness. When I asked rhetoric students last semester to take photos of their rooms and explicate those visual texts, they all said the same thing: Here is my room. My room is wild, crazy, and out there. No one else has a room like it. It perfectly shows the individuality of me.

Every picture looked the same, had the same linens from Bed Bath & Beyond, the same consumer electronics, the same photos of family and friends, the same shapeless clutter. (Okay, there was a male version and a female version—differentiated mostly by color choices and which musician/actor was shown on posters—but that’s it.) From its consistent architectural style, to the students’ tanning-bed glow, to preoccupation with everything from “body image” to bottled water, Hinterland’s script is as uniform as anywhere I’ve been.

(My students know how things are supposed to go better than I do. When we began to discuss the midterm exam last week, some thought I should type up my lecture notes in detail and post them online for their perusal. It hadn’t occurred to me. They were mad, because they hadn’t taken notes during class, assuming I’d do my part.)

It may be a homogeneous campus, but it’s a big campus, and the layers of understanding pile up. Last week I had lunch with someone who wasn’t all that interested in the Stepford theory, not because it was threatening to self-esteem, but because, s/he said, the university is all but bankrupt. That was the real story of Hinterland, s/he said. The person should know, so I struggled to understand, since it meant something I wasn’t getting. Obviously the physical plant will still be here and the university open for business in 2020, and, barring asteroid impact, into the 22d century. For most people, this person’s view of Hinterland isn’t even visible. So how might one describe a big state university?

I had all this in mind as I walked through campus. There’s a major construction project on. There’s always construction, but this is impressive by any standard, and to my mostly untrained eye, it couldn’t be going up any more smoothly. With the self-assurance of expectations fulfilled, and at the speed of adequate funds, a hole has been excavated—it must be 100,000 cubic feet—with a neat road angling into the pit, and dump trucks emerging in a line. Cyclone fencing went up around the city block, and trailers and prefab buildings were deposited for the crews. Trusses, pre-sprayed for fire-resistancy, wait in rows, alongside mountains of new bricks and plains of sandstone slabs. Hardhatted workers in uniform jeans and unadorned t-shirts in muted colors do what’s needed—no waste of effort, or lack of labor. The cranes and other machines are new, well maintained, and sized for the job. Nothing will break down; plans will come to fruition. A certain competence looks like aggression.

I saw the site suddenly as part representing the whole of Hinterland. It’s orderly, predictable, sure of itself, and its destiny is manifest, despite hidden turmoil. The students are confidently and unconsciously the same. And what’s there to grouse about in this image? What more or less could I ask for?

I just wish I knew what we were building.


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