A Matter of Space

If students are to get the most out of Middlebury, they need to be given room to be creative.

As I write this column, the first month of the new academic year is drawing to an end. Despite the well-publicized financial challenges so many colleges and universities will face this coming year, there is remarkable energy on campus and so many good things happening.

During the month, I enjoyed 10 lunches with students: 5 in Proctor, 3 in Ross, and 2 at the president’s house. The lunches at Proctor and Ross are unplanned in that I simply show up, get my food, and roam the dining hall until I make eye contact with a group that looks at least mildly interested in having me join their conversation…or at least doesn’t look away and hope I move to the next table.

The lunches at 3 South Street are something my wife Jessica and I enjoy immensely.  We invite a group of students who share a common experience at Middlebury and then engage them over lunch, trying to learn more about what they do, what have been the best things about their education, and what the College should try to change or improve. We have learned much from these lunches, and appreciated the students’ candor and deep appreciation for their Middlebury education.

I want to focus on one of the South Street lunches we hosted early this semester, as it represents an important, but often overlooked, aspect of a liberal arts education: the importance for students to explore their interests and passions on their own terms and their own clock, outside the formalities of the academic program. The lunch was with those who make up the student board of the Old Stone Mill (OSM), the home base for the College’s donor-supported project on creativity and innovation (the PCI).

The PCI was started because, over the past five years, students have voiced concerns about their inability to find space to pursue creative endeavors outside their course work. I have heard this from a number of students during my office hours and at several lunches in the dining halls, where students have sought me out to engage this particular issue. As part of their commentary, they also reported feeling stifled in their attempt to break through the College’s formidable bureaucracy when seeking to secure space that goes often unused, but somehow is unavailable to them. They have come to believe that, intended or not, the College is unsupportive of their desire to learn outside the academic program.

I am sure you are asking yourself: how can space be an issue when the College added almost one million square feet to its infrastructure since 1990 (an increase of 68 percent in overall square footage)?  Much of that space—the center for the arts, the new science center, the new library, and the renovated Starr Library, which now houses the Axinn Center—was added to meet the needs of an academic program whose physical facilities lagged behind many peer institutions, and had aspirations to become the best among liberal arts colleges. The results have been striking: our academic program has flourished as a result of the new facilities.

But while the remainder of the increase in the campus footprint was to meet the demands of the new Commons residential system and our excellent athletics program, none of the new space, students point out today, was created “just to let individual students, or groups of students, pursue creative endeavors spontaneously.” And the impact is now being felt. Academic departments and other College offices tend to oversee spaces in ways that make it either very difficult to schedule their use, or the bureaucracy involved in reserving space has become so time-consuming for students that many simply give up and forego carrying out their hoped-for activities, since many of those activities come as impulses and can’t easily be planned months, weeks, or even days in advance.

Until this year, there was no space on campus in which students could do ceramics work, painting, or photography, or secure space with any regularity for the purposes of writing and performing a play, choreographing a dance performance, or practicing and performing music, unless the student was a studio art major, a theater major, a dance major, or music major. Official student organizations have an easier time of securing space, but it is still a bureaucratic process, and many students take issue with being forced to become “institutionalized,” given all that is required by the Student Government Association and College policies, which many students see as unnecessary “red tape.” They ask why they can’t gain access to space in a more spontaneous way.

Part of the reason that some facilities have become harder for students to use is due to the success of the very programs we were trying to improve. Several of our academic programs in the arts have become so vibrant that, even with the increase in spaces and renovation of others, the number of students who are majoring in those programs requires the full use of those spaces. Another reason is that the new and often sophisticated facilities require a kind of monitoring that the older, less specialized spaces did not.

When I first arrived at Middlebury in 1984, buildings were rarely locked. It was routine to come into Warner Science (where my first office was located) to find that students had been there during the night and into the early morning, leaving behind props from rehearsal sessions, videos they had just finished editing in the basement of Sunderland, or even mats that helped classrooms serve as temporary rehearsal space for dance groups. Today, many of our academic buildings are locked, and a formidable bureaucracy has grown up around the management of those spaces. As a result of the changes, we are failing to deliver on a major tenet of a liberal arts education.

In discussing this issue with some faculty, I was struck by what alumnus Peter Hamlin ’73, now the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music, said about his time as a student (from 1969-73). Peter recalled how there were few, if any, barriers to the use of spaces across campus. The infrastructure was much smaller, and less modern, but it was also available to students after hours, and, according to Peter, provided the outlet to experimentation in creative endeavors that he now sees being more difficult for current students to secure.

But what students now see as the difficult quest for space appears to have become part of a culture whose underlying premises must be challenged. When the College acquired the Old Stone Mill, the historic, four-story building located along the Otter Creek in town, it was obvious the College now had the place students had been looking for. It provided different-sized work areas in which a wide array of activities and projects could go on simultaneously.

It was the place students might finally be able to do ceramics…or photography…or any other creative endeavor that happened to be of interest to students outside their academic program.

The reactions to the OSM were both predictable and surprising. Students were at once interested in the space and 35 of them became tenants during the first semester that the building was available for their use. But several faculty colleagues expressed disappointment that the College would allocate such space outside the purview of the academic program. “Surely the OSM should be overseen by one or more academic departments,” colleagues told me. Other colleagues expressed disdain over what they saw as the College “encouraging” students to do what they called “bad art”—meaning art that did not benefit from first learning the fundamentals of what we teach in the academic program: drawing, painting, sculpting, (musical) composition, and creative writing.

What seemed to be missing from these initial faculty reactions is the crucial point that providing these kinds of independent creative pursuits redounds to the classroom—any and all classrooms—and should be celebrated and supported by our faculty. Students might not wish to major in art or music or theater or creative writing; however, by engaging in these pursuits as a physics, psychology, economics, or any major for that matter, students develop as individuals in ways that no doubt make them more interesting, more engaged, and more complete students.

Students shouldn’t have to major in any particular academic area to be given the opportunity to pursue a passion related to that major, even if they are beginners in the activity. In fact, as a faculty member in the performing arts who supports our students’ work at the OSM recently observed: unfettered student engagement with “big ideas” will lead those students to take formal in-class instruction much more seriously.

In times of financial challenge, when we are forced to revisit what among all we do is “core“ and “less core,” we must remind ourselves that the support of intellectual and creative pursuits beyond the academic program is something an exceptional liberal arts education must offer its students. Ensuring the opportunity and space to explore and pursue one’s passions, individually defined with self-imposed rigor and discipline, is essential if our students are to get the most out of their Middlebury education, and live a rich and rewarding life.

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