• 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.


Geography Pop Quizzes

"Where is the ATEC building?"

January 23, 2020

Classes started Wednesday, which meant that Wednesday morning featured new students wandering around campus, asking directions.

For most people who work here, that isn’t much of a challenge. But I’m not most people.

Many of us took a battery (accurate term!) of standardized tests in junior high that was supposed to offer career guidance. I scored well in several areas, but with a conspicuous and vertiginous drop in the spatial relations category. The report the test generated for me said something to the effect of “you can be anything you want, except an architect.” That was fine with me -- the very thought of blueprints caused chills -- and it was borne out a few years later when I fought a valiant, but mostly losing, battle with geometry. Even as a kid, I never saw the appeal of jigsaw puzzles. Still don’t.

Later, when I discovered syllogisms, I realized that my problem with geometry wasn’t a problem with logic. It was about visualizing spaces. Syllogisms were perfectly fine and even sort of fun. They were verbal rather than spatial. It was the “what would this box look like folded up?” style of question that threw me. Even now, I give my GPS a pretty aggressive workout whenever I’m in a new place. I have been known to get lost in hotel lobbies.

(The Boy and I still laugh about the time in Massachusetts when I was trying to get him to his basketball game in a neighboring town. As we came upon the “Welcome to Connecticut” sign, we knew something had gone wrong …)

All of which is to say that a seemingly innocent question -- “Where is the Advanced Technology building?” -- can send me into vapor lock. That’s not because I don’t know where it is; given the chance, and if the student agreed, I could easily walk them there. But putting that into words in ways that someone without landmarks would understand requires a really taxing bit of translation. For those who know the Brookdale campus, a student in the lot by the arena asked for directions to ATEC. After several awkward seconds of trying to figure out how to phrase it, I settled on getting her halfway there and hoping she’d see the sign. And even that took more energy than I care to admit. “Well, you make a left here and then a right. Then there will be a ramp on your right. Go up the ramp and, uh, look for the sign …” It wasn’t great.

The first week is filled with questions like those, asked by people in a hurry. I’m flattered by their naïve faith in my ability to answer the questions. Sometimes they’re easy, as when they’re only a couple of doors away from the office they want. And sometimes I have the option of just walking them there, which is fine. In my limited defense, I’ll submit that the main building on the main campus is one of the less intuitive structures you’ll ever see. A verbal description of the route from, say, the main-floor entrance of MAS to MAN 211 would be about as complicated as the infield fly rule. (MAS, MAC and MAN are all the same building; the S is for South, the C for Central and the N for North.) Even skilled translators sometimes have to resort to “it’s easier to show you than to tell you,” which makes me feel a little better.

Most campuses have some mind pretzels like that. At Holyoke, the bridge from the second floor of Frost connected to the third floor of Marieb, so you’d go up a floor without climbing a single stair. (The campus was built into the side of a hill.) A written instruction for how to get from the third floor of Frost to the old cafeteria without going outside would have required several pages. At Morris, my office, B256, was next to B209, on the same side of the hallway. The mathematical reasoning there was too subtle for me.

I’ve learned over time to be less self-conscious about those vapor-lock moments; they seem to bother me much more than they bother the students. And they can see that I’m trying, which conveys respect; once respect is obvious, many sins are forgiven. But I’m glad that plenty of people on campus are more spatially fluent than I am. And so far we haven’t discovered any students cowering in dark corners, shivering and disoriented from the bad directions I’ve given, so there’s that.

As long as I don’t see a “Welcome to Pennsylvania” sign, I’m willing to declare victory.


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