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I love this story, and not only because it’s illustrated with a picture of my old dorm.

It’s about a minor trend of some residential colleges designating certain dorms as “quiet housing.”  The appeal should be obvious to anyone who remembers trying to sleep while someone in the room next door insisted on blasting the English Beat.  If memory serves.

The issue of quiet plays out very differently on a commuter campus.  We don’t have dorms, quiet or otherwise, and students mostly go home at night.  (We do have some homeless students, which complicates the picture a bit.)  Students are clever about finding places to study or relax quietly between classes, but with a few exceptions, they’re off busy hallways.  (One of the newer buildings has a window with a sill that seems to attract students.)  The campus is so full that almost any area that can be pressed into active service has been.

It’s easy to find quiet spaces when students aren’t around, of course, but that doesn’t help the students much.  They need space when they need it.

We’ve been experimenting here and there with “dedicated non-dedicated” space.  Last year, mostly to humor me, the library established one of its smaller rooms (that used to be used for periodicals) as a quiet study space.  So far, it seems pretty popular, and the noise restriction has been enforced largely by the denizens themselves.  The students in the music program have established their own de facto hangout space that they call the “veggie bin,” because it’s where they chill.  (They also have practice rooms for quiet, so the veggie bin tends to be a bit more social.)  The Foundation has even raised money for chairs at the ends of hallways, so students can camp out there comfortably.  I’ve been surprised at just how popular those have been.  But even there, ‘quiet’ is often a relative term.

Quiet competes with other needs, and frequently loses.  There’s an irreducible social aspect to a physical college, and socializing makes noise.  Most available office space has long been dedicated to some function or another, so free space to just hang out is hard to find.  In New England, the weather doesn’t always cooperate, so the outdoors isn’t always as inviting as one might like.   

The current trend in campus architecture is based on what Susan Cain calls the “new groupthink,” or the idea that students need to be free of the terror of solitude.  But sometimes solitude with an idea, or a paper, or a textbook, is what they need more than anything else.  That’s especially true when classes are followed by going to work, and then going home to kids or roommates or all manner of electronics.  

On an affluent residential campus, set-asides like quiet hours in dorms make sense.  At space-starved commuter colleges, quiet requires a bit more forethought.  But it’s worth it.

Program Note: The Big Reveal is on Tuesday.  To answer a frequently asked question, no, I won’t be using the real names of The Boy and The Girl.  To my mind, they have the right to make their own names in their own ways over time; when they get to early adulthood, I don’t want every internet search for them to wind up with stories I told about their childhood.  So The Boy and The Girl will remain The Boy and The Girl.  Their names will be their own to define for themselves.

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