My friend Stefan Hagemann has observed that so many students on a college campus seem to be elsewhere. As I walk around my university’s campus, I understand what he means: phone conversations, text-messaging, and iPod management can take precedence over attention to one’s surroundings. Even without the distractions of a gadget, the sidewalks and quads of a campus sometimes turn into nothing more than empty yardage to be traversed, as quickly as possible, on the way from one class to the next.
I like Marcel Proust’s words: N’allez pas trop vite. Don’t go too fast. It might not be practical to slow down when one has ten minutes to get from one end of a campus to the other. But a college student might benefit in numerous ways from slowing down and looking at and learning about her or his surroundings. Here are five suggestions:
1. Learn about a building, your residence hall perhaps, or a classroom building. How old is it? Who designed it? What style of architecture does it represent? For whom was it named? Did it serve another purpose in the past? What if anything once stood where it was built? A neighborhood? A cornfield? These kinds of questions might spark more general ones: What’s the oldest building on your campus? What buildings retain significant original elements? Noticing old light fixtures, old doorknobs, old signage (painted by hand on doors and walls), and old staircases (their steps worn from generations of shoes) can help you recognize the history that you’re walking through every day.
2. Give some attention to the monuments and portraits that most students (and faculty) walk past. Commemorative plaques, presidential portraits, class gifts (sometimes in the form of a fountain or gate), memorials to alumni in military service: all these can help you to recognize that as a college student, you’re a member of a community that spans generations of endeavor. I remember studying, as an undergraduate, a stained-glass library window with the university seal, and realizing that students could have been looking at the same seal in the same window fifty years before.
3. Learn some legends. Stories, natural and supernatural, abound on college campuses. Learning some local lore (perhaps through clippings or microfilm in the library) might brighten (or darken!) your experience of campus life. If you’re interested in historical research, looking into such stories might lead you to material for a paper, a thesis, or an article in a campus publication.
4. Browse through some old yearbooks. They’re likely to be available in the library, and they make for fascinating reading. Yearbooks offer an easy and sometimes poignant way to come close to the lives of earlier generations of college life. Those students who look so young, perhaps younger than you: how old are they now? What did professors (perhaps your professors) look like twenty years ago? Where did everyone go before Starbucks and Subway? A yearbook can help you begin to think about such things.
5. Journey into the unknown. Look into an unfamiliar part of the campus, an unfamiliar building, an unfamiliar part of the library. Academic buildings, especially older ones, are filled with nooks and crannies. You might find a great, unexpected place to study by exploring an unfamiliar part of your campus.
And by that time, it might be time to get back to work.
Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art. He is reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time for the second time.
[Note: Proust's remark N'allez pas trop vite was recorded by British diplomat Harold Nicolson, who met Proust at a party in 1919. Proust asked Nicolson to slow down and add detail to his account of the post-war peace conference. The story of this meeting may be found in Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997).]