I dreamed last night that we returned to Goodwell, Oklahoma, the town that is centered around Oklahoma Panhandle State University, where I had my first college teaching job for five years. We were trying to visit my dean, Sara Richter, but her office had been moved from its academic location to the backroom of a Big 12-themed store located on campus. Dr. Richter would have hated such a move, of course, and it seemed extremely unlikely, for Goodwell, by virtue of of its relative isolation, perhaps, has been spared the invasion of national chains and franchises common to so many colleges these days.
In the awful, awful Rocky and Bullwinkle movie from about 15 years ago, a running gag has Rocky exclaiming on a cross-country road trip, “There’s that same town again,” as they pass various towns, a comment that, compared to the 1960s, all of our towns are starting to look the same, offering the same amenities. Today this is nowhere more true than the college campus. Starbucks is prominently featured in the new student center at North Carolina’s High Point University, where I spent a weekend at a conference last spring. I haven’t been back to my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati in years, but the last time I was there, the dilapidated, but unique, strip of restaurants and businesses on Calhoun Street had been replaced by much taller, and much more expensive, retail and apartment housing, similar to the South Campus Gateway district that I found in Columbus during my time at Ohio State. Few campuses seem to be immune. The current master plan at Lakeland Community College, my current workplace, includes space for either a clinic operated by one of the major healthcare chains in the area or–as tantalizingly hinted by the architect in the presentation I attended last month–retail.
But OPSU, at least the OPSU of three years ago when we left it, existed in isolation. The town is served by a gas station, a convenience store (“Coldest Beer in Town”) and a restuarant that, in my five years there, changed hands twice without any noticeable change in menu. The only sign of homogenized, national-scale services was the Sodexo contract for food service on campus, and every hamburger I ate in the grill made my bowels revolt. It was a splendid isolation. The town of Guymon, ten miles up the road, offered a few, though not all, of the chains, and hosted a Wal-Mart, the only one for many miles in any direction.
Did it effect the lives of college students? In the age of Amazon, when anything in the world can be delivered to the doorstep, it didn’t. We yearned for a Chipotle or a Chili’s, or even a Starbucks at times, but there was a greater impact. At a 1200-student school, the Homecoming parade was still a big deal, with student organizations creating floats and local school bands participating. Students knew each other, and had copious time to spend together, because jobs were few and far-between, and tuition cheap enough that many could forego them. There was no Greek system, but there were parties, and it was possible to organize on-campus events–like the Art Club’s annual Dorm of Doom haunted house–that engendered lines around the block. There are lessons in leadership to be learned here–lessons in citizenship and persistence and determination and improvisation that one doesn’t find sitting in a fancy student union sipping Starbucks or eating Pizza Hut. The isolation induced mistakes, as well. Dr. Richter told the story of two football players who, wanting to head up to Guymon but lacking a car, hopped on a slow-moving freight train for the ten-mile trip only to find that the train sped up on the way out of town. By the time they were able to get off, they were in Nebraska, and the coach’s response to their long-distance phone call for help was, “You got there, you figure out how to get back in time for practice.” Is this the kind of lesson we are now afraid for our students to learn?
It figures into the current narrative about the college experience–students as customers, who are to receive some product that will enhance their adult lives (in the measurable financial sense, more often than not), all while living with the comforts of home that they have become accustomed to. OPSU had the sparkling Fitness Center, and a cluster of new dormitories where apartment-style living replaced the bathroom-at-the-end-of-the-hall model of the older units. I stayed in one of those old-style dorms for two years as an undergraduate, and did so again for a few days when I attended a conference at Western Illinois University. The experience was striking–after ten years of adulthood, I was astounded that I had once lived in such conditions. On the other hand, as a college freshman, I remember being excited about the dormitory–the proximity to friends, the little piece of space that I could make my own, the newness and wonder of the whole experience. Other than a winter quarter that involved phony fire alarms every night, my dorm experience was a good one, although I was glad to move to an apartment during my sophomore year (I did miss the mean plan, though!).
And then the furor over “trigger warnings.” My popular music class is one where such statements might be seen as appropriate from time to time, and I certainly have had students who seem to be the sensitive type to want to avoid frank discussions of certain topics. Trigger warnings seem to me more a symptom than a disease–in a time when “coddled” Millennials, backed up by their “helicopter parents” demand an easy, smooth transition to adulthood with no bumps or jars along the way; all in a political climate that the professoriate deems hostile to the purposes of higher education (or at least some of them). We fear for our jobs, on at least some level, thus, trigger warnings.
And then there’s the levy at Lakeland. I will vote for it, of course, but my first reaction to seeing the plans for the money was that, again, the sorely needed updates to the arts areas are passed over, completely. One hopes that a rising tide will lift all boats, and, frankly, there appears to be some hope that some of the needed purchases can begin to be made–chairs, piano lab–out of regular funds. A change in administration has promise, and a tenured music department chair is becoming less afraid to ask, and to continue asking. If the levy passes and the building continues as planned, Lakeland will continue its march toward the homogenized campus–more business brought in, more faux-monumental architecture, more conveniences for students, but we also cannot remain where we are.
A ramble, I suppose, like the dream that started it.