Friday, February 26, 2021

At Smith College and elsewhere

The New York Times tells the story of an encounter in a Smith College dorm lounge, the campus history that preceded the encounter, and the aftermath:

This is a tale of how race, class and power collided at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the school’s elegant wrought iron gates. The story highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.
This story reminded me of two incidents from my teaching career. For many years, I went into my office on Sunday mornings to get work done. The building was always locked, and empty aside from another faculty member here or there. One morning I noticed two young men rounding the corner at the far end of the hallway. They were wearing black trench coats. Whenever this happened, I know that it was post-Columbine — that’s why I noticed the trench coats.

I closed my office door as quietly as I could and listened as they came down the hallway. They weren’t talking, just walking. Several minutes later, they were back. They seemed to be making a circuit of the third floor (a large square). I called the campus police and explained, as quietly as I could, what was happening. Someone came to check it out, and as I later learned, the walkers were part of a gamer group that was meeting in the building. Yes, on a Sunday morning. Maybe they were walking to burn off nervous energy — who knows?

On another Sunday morning, I cut through a study lounge on my way to the men’s room. The lounge lights came on automatically, and I saw a young woman asleep on a sofa. I let her sleep and went about my business, baffled as to how someone might be sleeping on a Sunday morning in a locked-all-weekend classroom building. I did though send an e-mail to campus police about the need for outside doors that really locked.

There are indeed many circumstances in which students and faculty of color are made to feel that a college campus isn’t really their place. I remember telling one young woman of color, unhappy about a grade on an essay, “Don’t you think I know that you’re a good student?” No, she had no reason to assume that I knew that. She had learned to feel that teachers always already assumed that her abilities were marginal. But she worked on her writing and saw her grade soar. Yes, an A.

The Smith College scenario seems to admit of no such pleasant ending.

If you’ve been wondering, the walkers, presumably students, were white, which did nothing to make them appear, to my eyes, anyway, less “out of place.” The sleeper was a woman of color. Like any other student in a presumably locked classroom building on a Sunday morning, she too appeared to be “out of place.” Not because of color — just because the building was supposed to be locked.

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