• 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.



Even when closed, well-funded spaces are different.

October 13, 2020

This weekend we drove to Charlottesville to visit The Boy. We stopped near D.C. along the way, where my brother lives with his wife and daughters, and they came with us to UVA.

The visit itself was lovely, other than incessant rain. But for present purposes, what really struck me was the use of space.

Most classes are being held online, and most campus events didn’t happen. (This was originally supposed to be parents’ weekend, but the festivities were canceled.) Both the town and the campus were somewhat quieter than normal, although a quick walk along Main Street on Saturday night still required a sort of slalom maneuvering among groups of tightly packed young people along the sidewalk. Social distancing inside led to close crowding outside; whether that’s a good trade, I’ll leave to the epidemiologists.

Both The Boy and The Girl had significant homework to do, though, so on Sunday we went to campus and found tables under tents. The university had set up wedding-size tents at various spots on campus, including the great lawn, and even provided Wi-Fi within the tents. Under the tents were circular tables with several seats each. When we got there, most of the tables were empty. We spent a few hours there reading, letting the kids do homework and just enjoying the atmosphere of the campus.

Each tent was staffed by a few attendants. They made sure that everyone was complying with the mask mandate and stood ready to enforce reasonable quiet. At least while we were there, though, the quiet seemed pretty self-enforcing.

The Girl was particularly enthusiastic about the tent. TB brought a friend along, so the three of them picked a table, set up their laptops and got to work. TG was thrilled to be doing work on a real college campus, alongside real college students. Although she didn’t use this word, and I didn’t press, I think she found it validating. She didn’t stand out among college students; a passing observer would have assumed she was one.

That’s powerful when you’re 16.

I remember something similar at that age. Every so often, usually for research projects, my friends and I would venture into the library at the U of Rochester. We felt both clandestine and terribly important. The fact that we were able to pass as college students counted for something.

Back at my own college, and at many community colleges, we don’t have the resources for something like a wedding tent with Wi-Fi. Even if we had something like a great lawn, we wouldn’t be able to staff the tents. We’re looking at parking lot Wi-Fi, which would allow students to park in certain parts of certain lots and do homework on their laptops in their cars.

It’s something -- we’ve identified consistent Wi-Fi access as a major barrier for many students -- but the contrast is striking. Even if we’re able to make parking lot Wi-Fi happen -- mostly a financial question at this point -- it still relies on students having cars, and it utterly lacks the sense of validation that the wedding tents offered The Girl.

Even when both spaces are officially vacated, affluence makes a difference.

The difference goes beyond that. Most UVA students have good Wi-Fi already; that’s probably why the tents were mostly empty. TB has perfectly good Wi-Fi in his apartment. We went to campus mostly for the feel of it. But many community college students don’t have good or consistent Wi-Fi anywhere. Even if they do, they may have to share the one family laptop with several family members, reducing its usefulness. We’ve provided loaner laptops on request, as well as lists of places offering free Wi-Fi, but it’s not the same.

I’m glad that the visit went well, and that TG had the shock of being seen as a college student. I only wish that community colleges could afford to offer the same.


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