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Most largeish workplaces are more racially diverse than most homes.

When everyone is forced to work or study from home, the overwhelming majority of us are surrounded by people like us. We’re in familiar surroundings, ideally with familiar people. A dispiriting number of people are in much worse situations, of course. Having a safe and supportive home can’t always be assumed and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Having a reliable, safe and familiar place to rest matters quite a bit. Resting and recovering there allows folks to venture forth into the unknown during the day, coming into contact with different people and different angles on the universe. That isn’t happening now.

For a couple of months, that may not matter much. But depending on how long this goes on, it could add up to a real social loss.

In scattering everyone from campus so quickly, we’ve done pretty well in bringing the direct instructional experience online. The student life folks have been creative and tireless in bringing a version of extracurricular activity online. But nonpurposive communication -- the five-minute spontaneous conversation in someone’s doorway, or the idle cafeteria chatter -- doesn’t happen. Zoom calls are prearranged, and for particular reasons. The serendipity of random discussions doesn’t have a chance. It’s the difference between hanging out in a park with a rotating cast of friends and acquaintances and a series of playdates.

Sometimes it’s the serendipitous moments that matter the most. That’s where I’ll hear the sideways comments I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of or discover that someone has a previously unsuspected talent or interest. That’s where I learn, in passing, that someone was at the same concert I was at in the early ’90s. (True example.)

Part of what makes campus life interesting -- for better and worse -- is the interaction between lots of different, smart, interesting people with decided opinions. From a student perspective, especially for students from small towns and/or tight-knit families, such lived diversity can be shocking. It’s one thing to see, say, your first same-sex couple holding hands in public; it’s quite another to see everybody else just going about their day while it happens. That’s a powerful social cue.

Those loose-limbed conversations are inefficient, if we define efficiency as achievement of a set goal with minimal cost in time or effort. But sometimes they help redefine goals, or add perspectives.

Zoom is great for conversations you know you need to have. But it doesn’t really work for conversations you didn’t know you needed until they happened. Campuses are great for those.

My family is great; I’m lucky that way. But it will be refreshing to run into people again who have entirely different ways of being in the world. It keeps the world from getting too small. It has been feeling a little too small lately.

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