Liberal Education

Making the Familiar Campus Strange

On a day when I was supposed to be in Innsbruck, Austria, for a conference, I found myself quite unexpectedly back on my own campus in eastern North Carolina as the sun was coming up. Flight delays had forced me to cancel the trip the day before. Disappointment still clung to me; I had not been able to shake it with a good night’s sleep in my own bed at home, surely a more restful night than I would have endured on the transatlantic flight with its usual inconveniences. My mind, which for days had been anticipating the rhythms of travel and preparing for a temporary sojourn in an unfamiliar land, was still in a state of forward motion, as if programmed to complete the intercontinental mission even as I remained grounded.

The trip to Innsbruck was one I had looked forward to. I had mentally rehearsed not just the paper I would deliver but the postpresentation activities I might enjoy; I imagined that I would emerge triumphantly into the bright sunlight and crisp air of a glorious alpine day, adrenaline still surging from the presentation, and make out for the nearest beer garden with newfound friends. After heartily consuming schnitzels and a few rounds of the local brew, we might all meander along hiking trails or walk aimlessly on the cobblestone streets of the city center with our hands clasped behind our backs and our heads inclined toward one another, talking easily about conference topics and making plans for sightseeing excursions to historic castles and churches.

That’s how I envisioned my day, far from home. I certainly didn’t intend to be on familiar terra firma, at the same campus I stride across nearly every day. But here I was, having awakened in the predawn darkness and needing a good brisk walk in the fragrant morning to clear my head.

As I lit out toward the quad from my office building, I could feel myself gradually returning to my senses, my mind coming in for a landing. But I was still a bit disoriented; I had the strange sensation that I was not in an entirely familiar place after all, that somehow (as E. M. Forster wrote in Howards End) “the unseen had impacted on the seen” and enchanted everything slightly. Having expected to take in the panorama of my overseas destination by this time on my body clock, it was as if I was apprehending the univer­sity through Innsbruck-seeing eyes—fresh and new. The campus was beckoning me to pay closer attention, to be more awake and alert and alive to my environment.

This is what international travel does, after all. In a foreign land, with unfamiliar surroundings and customs and language, one is often in this state of heightened awareness and agitation. It’s partly a matter of survival, partly a fervent desire not to miss anything. At home, by contrast, the routines of daily life immunize us against much of deep noticing; we are conditioned to go about our business as usual until we are wrenched into consciousness by a sudden jolt or disturbance, and then we are inevitably surprised to detect a feature of the landscape that has been in front of us all along. “Hmm,” we marvel, “I never knew that was there.”

Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary

How often do we—or might we—have such a moment of revelation on our own campuses, an encounter that causes us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary? The fact of the matter is that we often don’t know our own universities as well as we should. We busy ourselves with the customary multitude of tasks, or we consciously choose not to commit to a place because we’re convinced that the stay will be temporary, or we consider ourselves more “cosmopolitan” (citizens of the world) than “local” (stewards of region), as the popular distinction goes. Some of us have drawn the old invidious comparisons to other places and found our home institutions lacking in certain respects, and instead of appreciating them on their own terms, we decide that their shortcomings give us permission to check out. We travel the same well-worn path from the car to the office, literally and figuratively, so that we miss a good deal of the rest of the campus. These are among the same explanations we all use, assuming we even give much thought to it. More likely, we treat the campus as a vast backdrop that we rarely even regard as we play out our individual parts. At some point, it’s worth asking what we might be missing when we do this.

The study I was to present in Innsbruck was one that took me to twelve institutions over a fifteen-month period. As part of that study, I spent several days on each campus, often eating my heart out at the splendor of these venerable old colleges and universities, details of which I dutifully recorded in my field notes. What I was trying to do was capture a bit of the reverence and awe that might be inspired in a rising high school senior coming to the campus for the first time as part of a summer enrichment program that was the focus of my research. I reckoned that students must show up and be completely taken by the gorges of Cornell, the Mission-style architecture of Stanford, Jefferson’s “academical village” at Virginia, and the majestic beauty of every school I visited. The physicality, of course, is a portal into even deeper and richer recesses, but buildings and spaces are more than mere ornamentation. They tell their own complex stories, and there’s no question that they have the capacity to make striking and lasting impressions.

We tend not to take these things for granted when we visit other campuses. On our own turf, however, we do it daily. Perhaps it took me twelve institutions and a canceled trip abroad to come to the realization of my own university’s aesthetic value. As I strolled across the grounds, I came to see my scuttled journey to Innsbruck as fated: Maybe I was meant to be shown how to make my own familiar surroundings delightfully strange, to see my campus as a repository of sights and sounds every bit as fascinating as the ones to be found far afield in exotic locations.

Campuses are, after all, ideal places for fostering such a spirit, for getting underneath layers and surfaces of all kinds. As if to present me with a metaphor for this, I capped off my walk by ascending the steps of our auditorium, something I’ve done many times over the years. This time, though, instead of filing into the building for an opening convocation or other ceremonial speech, I turned around to look out at the tableau before me—a quadrangle of lush green punctuated by patches of fresh mulch and assorted new plantings to herald the beginning of the academic year. It was then that I recognized the initials of the university cut subtly but unmistakably into a familiar shrub, easily missed, like Henry James’s figure in the carpet. I had just experienced one of those “Hmm, I never knew that was there” moments.

Framing matters

There are treasures for the uncovering—hidden in plain sight—if we but simply approach them from time to time with an archeologist’s mentality or the untutored eye of a visitor. We can resurrect something that dwells beneath the sedimentation of our own habitual way of regarding common objects in our midst. And what is the good of this? Making the familiar strange carries with it the potential to open up new interpretive possibilities that can be generative beyond measure. It can invigorate what has grown stale, causing us to be more generous in our assessment of the places we inhabit. It can remind us that we only ever have a partial and imperfect line of sight into the nature of things and the character of people—always a good lesson. And it can sharpen what has grown faint, like a slant of light that falls across a European fresco to illuminate a detail previously obscured.

Perhaps the most meaningful value to be extracted from this simple act, though, is the promise of an enlarged capacity to imagine our world—however we define its boundaries—differently. For all of these reasons, we might resolve to see and experience our campuses like freshmen or like tourists visiting for the first time, full of wide-eyed wonder and bewilderment, roaming and exploring, and occasionally suspending perpetual motion long enough to take in new vistas. By doing so, we will begin to notice formerly unseen filigreed buildings bathed in the golden hues of late afternoon, and we will stop dead in our tracks at such sights and understand that their existence stands for all sorts of other possibilities. In other words, we will become architects of strangeness, transforming the places where we work and live.

David J. Siegel is associate professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University.

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