• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

If Ever I Wanted to Hear Hallway Conversations…

What would political chatter on campus be like now?

January 13, 2021
 
 

For years, I’ve lamented the lack of robust political talk among community college students. I don’t blame them; as Nina Eliasoph pointed out more than 20 years ago in her classic Avoiding Politics, political apathy has to be (and is) produced. But that didn’t make the lack of political talk among students any less frustrating. Yes, there were always a few activists, but I rarely overheard students in the hallway or the cafeteria talking about politics.

That wasn’t true at Williams. Yes, many students there professed apathy, but it wasn’t hard to find students who were eager to pronounce on the issues of the day, as they saw them. Some wouldn’t stop, no matter how politely you asked.

The contrast has gnawed at me. In politics, there’s an old saying: if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu. When the progeny of the (mostly) affluent feel entitled to political presence, and the progeny of the (mostly) working class don’t, you can foresee the direction of future politics. And, by and large, that has been true.

But that was during more normal times, when, say, the peaceful transition of power could simply be assumed, and we weren’t actively debating which amendment would be best suited to remove an impeached and defeated president in less than 10 days.

This is when I really wish we were back on campus. I’d love to hear what students are saying.

“But wait!” I hear you thinking. “How would you know what they’re saying?”

One of the consolations of middle age is the power of invisibility. At this point, I can pass seemingly undetected among large groups of young people. In hallways and cafeterias, and sometimes just in unguarded moments, you hear things. It’s even true when I’m driving groups of teenagers, oddly enough; I don’t know how they imagine the car knows where to go. That may be why the prospect of self-driving cars doesn’t bother them; as far as they’re concerned, those have been around for years.

Zoom works tolerably well for scheduled conversations, but it really falls flat at those serendipitous hallway moments. People don’t just bump into each other on Zoom. Purposive discussions can happen, and those can sometimes lead to unintended digressions, but the cast of characters was predetermined.

Those inadvertent conversations are among the best features of campus life. Each individual one may not mean much, but patterns say a lot.

If students were suddenly much more engaged, I’d love to know how they’re perceiving what’s happening. If they avoid the topic like the plague, that would be good to know, too. But right now, during a remarkable moment in our political history, an old and enduring venue for interaction -- the closest many of us come to a true public square -- has been shut down by COVID.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, it’s a small sacrifice; I’d much rather keep everyone safe than get people sick just to see what they talk about in the meantime. But this is such an extraordinary political moment that it would make a hell of an indicator. Has apathy (or fear of offense) hit levels that prevent discussion even of this? Or is this moment so preposterous and scary that it actually breaks through?

I miss campus for a bunch of reasons. Add this one to the list.

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