• 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

Returning to Campus

Actual human interaction.

January 21, 2021
 
 

Wednesday was the start of the spring semester, and we’re running some on-site classes. The first week is always bumpy, so I went to the office and will continue to for a bit, just to be there when things happen that need immediate attention.

It was … different.

A quiet campus isn’t necessarily a shock. Anyone who has been on a campus on a Friday afternoon in July can attest to that. But this is a different kind of quiet.

Moving from fall to spring, the college added a temperature screening station in a new location. The new one is closer to my office, so I parked where I routinely parked in the Before Times. When I got out of my car, the first thought that popped into my head was “Oh yeah, I used to work here.” That was unnerving. Of course, old habits die hard, so I forgot to bring my mask when I got out of the car. A guard’s incredulous expression reminded me.

With a comparatively skeleton crew on campus, I’ve resisted breaking out the suits and ties. Honestly, after many months of working in a house with a stocked kitchen, and the gym having been closed, I’m sort of dragging my feet on that one. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

The campus itself looks amazing. Months of deep cleaning, with truly minimal pedestrian traffic, means that the floors are shinier than I’ve ever seen them. The whole place is clean. Yes, there are directional arrows everywhere in the name of regulating foot traffic, but otherwise, it looks new.

Several offices are staffed, at least partially, to ensure that classes get off to a good start. That meant running into people all over campus as I made my rounds. (I make rounds on the first day of class every semester.) I was struck by just how eager people were to chat. Zoom is great, as far as it goes, but it’s not like spontaneous real-life interaction. We’re all starved for actual human conversation. Chitchat is awkward with masks on, but we made the effort anyway. It matters.

The cultural damage from the loss of those hallway or door frame moments is glacial. Like a glacier, it builds slowly. But it’s powerful enough to change the landscape. I hope we get vaccinated quickly enough to get back to having those casual moments before the landscape is altered beyond recognition.

In the fall, we had students say loudly and clearly that they wanted to be back in person, so we ran more in-person classes for the spring in hopes that they would flock back. Many of those sections had to be canceled for low enrollment, and others are running small. It appears that when they said “in person,” what many of them meant was “like before.” We’re not there yet.

On the bright side, though, the people who did show up seemed genuinely happy, or relieved, to be there. I certainly was. Working at home has been great in many ways -- short commute, shoes optional, the aforementioned snacks -- but it’s undeniably isolating. Part of the appeal of working at a college is working on a college campus. When it’s in full swing, there’s a human energy to it that’s hard not to see. It’s a gathering place for smart people who are dedicated to helping other people develop their abilities to a high level. Yes, there can be friction, and spiky egos are not entirely unknown, but there’s an applied idealism underlying the whole enterprise that goes a long way. It’s sort of endearing, to the extent that institutions can be endearing.

Glimpses of “normal” are tightly rationed these days. I didn’t know how much I needed one.

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