I Hate Bucky Dent

Todd Diacon wonders what today's students -- behind their closed doors -- don't know about their dormmates and how that lack of interaction is changing the nature of the college experience.

September 30, 2008

In the fall of 1978 Bucky Dent hit his famous three-run homer to help lift the New York Yankees over the Boston Red Sox in the one game American League East divisional playoff. I’ve never been a Red Sox fan, but have always disliked the Yankees. Perhaps this is because I grew up in Kansas, and watched fine Royals’ teams lose two straight league playoffs to the Bronx Bombers. In fact, I watched this particular game in Kansas, in the television lounge of Broadhurst Hall at Southwestern College, where I was a student at the time.

Back then Southwestern College, located in the small town of Winfield, Kansas, enrolled a curiously large number of students from Long Island. A half a dozen or so Long Island students arrived in each freshmen class, and I’m sure Winfield seemed as odd and small and inconsequential to them as they seemed odd and vaguely threatening to us natives. But mostly they were great folks, except that too many of them rooted for the Yankees. The night of the Dent homer the Long Islanders whooped and hollered while we Royals fans (and Yankee haters) grimaced and sank lower in our chairs. Needless to say the residence hall television lounge was a noisy place that night.

Ah, the television lounge. What a quaint reminder of a by-gone era of the college experience. In my memory not one single resident of Broadhurst Hall had a television set in his room. Mostly we congregated together in the lounge to watch key sporting events, and even election returns. Lots of silly chatter went on, and looking back on it so too were good friendships formed there, even with the Long Islanders. I remember as well that the ping-pong table at Broadhurst was an active place, where likewise much banter was exchanged, studies were avoided, and life gained some meaning.

Today I see fewer such interactions happening in communal living arrangements on my campus, and I suspect that we are not unusual, nor unique, in this regard. This worries me.

At Tennessee our “House Calls” program sends university staff, faculty, and administrators out to the residence halls on an evening in September to check on how our students are doing, to welcome them to campus, and to let them know that we are concerned about their well-being. In groups of two, accompanied by residence hall assistants, we roam up and down the floors of each residence hall, and knock on each door.

Here are my impressions.

Every door on every floor is closed, whether or not students are present. This seems so different from my days as a student, when you always left your door open if you were in, I suppose to signal your willingness to talk and to avoid homework if you could just find the smallest pretext to do so. It helped with circulation as well, also a crucial matter in our un-air conditioned rooms.

These days you could launch a flare and not harm a single student. The students who answer their doors invite us in kindly, and seem generally pleased with the attention. Some of them have maintenance complaints, which we address. All of them have television sets connected to cable (cable TV had not yet hit Southwestern in my era), and of course each student has a computer, and an Ipod, and usually video games. Each room seems so self-contained, so independent, and seemingly so isolated from any group activity.

Please note that I am not criticizing our students. Instead, I am worrying about them. Do they interact with residence hall mates as we did? How do they form lasting friendships? How many fellow hall mates do they get to know? How does this shape their college experience?

Like our students, I too am wired, and it is a wonderful thing. I still marvel at my ability to read Brazilian newspapers on line (the study of Brazil being my academic specialty), when back as a graduate student I had to wait eagerly the arrival of the print copy of such a periodical, even though it arrived a month after publication.

But can Twitter and Facebook replace face to face interactions? Are such individual and virtual connections good for residence hall life? And, if we decided they are not, how would we change this? It seems silly to contemplate banning televisions in individual rooms, but how else to draw out students into the communal life of their college home?

Perhaps officials on other campuses have addressed this matter. To find out I’ll consult my computer.


Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.


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