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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Institutional Assault on Student Space

I would like to preface this post by stating outright that I am angry and frustrated. I have wanted to write on this topic, in which I am emotionally invested, for a long time but have been unable articulate my concerns ‘objectively’. So, what follows are my opinions, drawn from my experiences as a student volunteer in The Gamut Room.

What is student space? In one way or another, virtually every component of Middlebury College’s campus could be qualified as student space. I do not deny that all of our buildings, infrastructure and open spaces serve students, no matter how removed they appear to be. However, to equate space used to serve students with student space grossly undervalues the spatial dynamics at play. When examined critically these dynamics demonstrate that our campus is in fact more or less devoid of student spaces.

But space, and more significantly place, is important to human experience. Shouldn’t student space be important to ours as students? Humans are territorial beings. Look around and you will see that the way we organize our world is deeply connected to social, political and economic factors (to name but a few). Everywhere we go we participate in a complex and dynamic relationship with our physical environment. We relate to place, and depending on the nature of that relationship, we act in place.

Surely our institution understands the ways in which space and place shape and define our small community of intellectuals, artists, athletes, activists etc. Look no further than Old Chapel and you will find a geographer sitting in the president’s office. We live in a built environment crafted over hundreds of years to meet a specific set of criteria, to help us students achieve the ideals of liberal arts education espoused by our college on the hill. Certainly someone (in the administration?) must be thinking critically about how spatial relationships shape our community. This is not about marble floored libraries, state of the art athletics centers or a megalomaniacle science facility that dominates the rural landscape in ways those who dwell inside cannot comprehend. This is about how our institution structures students’ spatial relationships with campus places.

I define student space as space for which students are responsible. Ask yourself, was the person who vandalized your social house or dormitory last Saturday night responsible for the space they damaged? Were you? Am I responsible for my dirty dishes in the dining hall? Sure, the costs of irresponsible behaviors get passed on monetarily through tuition and fees but is that the only way to quantify their costs? Unfortunately, those are the only costs that really seem to matter in this community, because quite honestly, space doesn’t have a lot of meaning. I respect our scenic campus very much. I wouldn’t intentionally vandalize it because I value it and I value our community. In general, that is how I relate to all public space. I wouldn’t harm it, but I wouldn’t necessarily put myself in significant discomfort to protect it, whereas in my home, where I am responsible for space not only for myself but also for my family, I go to great lengths to prevent harm and stop harm once initiated. This is a no brainer. I relate to my home (space with layered meaning and responsibility) differently than I relate to public space.

To varying degrees, our campus is comprised of public space… but it doesn’t have to be. I do not suggest that we need more private spaces on this campus; that would be counter-productive to our objectives as students. A distinction must be made between shared space (on the public end of the spectrum) and student space. Dorm lounges could be considered a form of shared public space. In theory, they act as a communal room for a residence hall where people come together to study, relax and talk late into the night. But let’s face it, that model failed with the true commons system. Dorm lounges all look the same, smell the same and feel the same because they are all extensions of the same institution that controls them, Middlebury College. Lounges aren’t student spaces; they are college spaces for students. Therefore, I’ll let the aggressive dorm drunk take a shit in my college lounge because even though I might live next door, the lounge has no meaning to me. It is not a part of me, and I am not a part of it.

So, why don’t spaces with layered meaning under the protection of students exist on this campus? The college actively works to destroy them. Enter The Gamut Room. Controlled by students for students. One of the few places on campus where that statement holds true. I have been involved there for the better part of four years and every semester I’ve seen the space (and community) underachieve while overworked managers struggle to realize its limitless potential to be a place of positive community interaction. The Gamut Room has a rich history that stretches back over forty years. Murals cover the walls above cozy couches in the unique subterranean den. One step inside and you know this place is different, it has the character, authenticity, life and warmth possessed by places where thoughtful users shape their environment to meet their own needs. Yet last semester The Gamut Room made zero revenue and more often than naught, was empty, dark, uninhabited. Why? Why does The Gamut Room underachieve?

I have struggled to answer this question for years. Do students not yearn for a space that is their own? Are we truly satisfied with the spaces provided by the institution? Is it the drinking culture that swallows swarms of our peers each weekend? Our heavy workload that makes casual socialization nearly impossible? The design of our campus? The design of the room itself? The food we serve? Our reputation? In my search for answers I have blamed myself, my peers and fellow managers (Sam, Lizzie, Emmeline and Ryan, I am sorry if I held you responsible).

My anger and frustration reached boiling in the fall of 2010 when Tim Spears, Vice President for Administration at the college, sent an all school email requesting applications for a student run café in the space recently vacated by the Juice Bar. I couldn’t think let alone speak about the subject without muttering curses under my breath. Did they not know about The Gamut Room? Why would the college establish a student-managed café when one already existed? With a little extra support, couldn’t The Gamut Room fill the void left by the Juice Bar? My indignation only grew as details of Crossroads Café trickled my way.

Allow me to put this in perspective. I began my term as manager in the fall of 2009 with high hopes for the coming year. Those hopes were dashed the third week of the semester when the folks at CCAL told me I had to close the kitchen until it was licensed by a state health inspector. This movement toward greater regulation had been coming for a long time, but why wait until the third week of the semester to tell me? I’d already volunteered dozens of hours to plan events and staff the kitchen. As the conversation continued, I realized that none of them had any idea what it would take to qualify for a license. Thus began a four month long wild goose chase. I had no choice but to do it myself. Don’t get me wrong, I never could have gotten a license without the support of the college, but it could have been much easier had they been well informed or given me just a little bit of notice. That semester and the following j-term, I sacrificed academics, friendship and health to keep The Gamut Room afloat. So, perhaps you can understand my frustration when I learned that during the planning process of Crossroads Café, the management team assembled by the administration received substantial support from high level administrators and got paid, sometimes as much as forty hours per week, for their service to the college.

I was outraged. I didn’t understand. Sure, Crossroads is great. I can now say that I am glad it exists. Yet, I couldn’t fathom why the college would treat two student cafes so differently. What about Crossroads merits this level of support while The Gamut Room flounders in a perpetual state of asphyxiation in the basement of Gifford? My answer lies in a fundamental difference between the two spaces. Students manage The Gamut Room for students while students manage Crossroads Café for the college. Thus, Crossroads Café is not a true student space. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense why the college would invest so much in Crossroads and so little in The Gamut Room. For many months I have harbored doubts about these convictions. Earlier this month, my doubts were extinguished.

As I mentioned above, The Gamut Room is on the edge of collapse with weak prospects for the future. Thus, several other students and I offered to take over management for j-term to inject new life into the space. Now here’s the kicker… on Monday the 9th of January, we received an email from JJ Boggs, Doug Adams and Matthew Biette notifying us we had to close the kitchen until further notice due to non-compliance with state health regulations. Fortunately, I dealt with this same regulation two years ago and learned from the state health inspector that compliance at the level proposed by CCAL was unnecessary for a kitchen of our nature. Had I been a first time manager, I might have spent months trying to satisfy this requirement. Instead, I fought back and for the time being, the issue is on hold. I want to make absolutely clear that I do not believe The Gamut Room deserves special privileges under the law. If it turns out that we need to send a dozen of our employees to a $200 eight hour training session to operate legally, we should, and we will. What I object to is the style with which this decree was delivered. One would think that the indefinite closure of a student café on campus would be worthy of an emergency meeting to help student volunteers surmount a formidable obstacle. Instead, it was only worthy of a vague email with no reference to the origin of concern. Would Crossroads Café receive the same treatment? It is my sincere hope that the lack of support given The Gamut Room during my time as a student is the result of honest oversight and not motivated by an institutional ideology that undervalues student efficacy. I will not speculate any further on this matter.

However, I will explain why I believe the college acts against its own interests by under-supporting student spaces like The Gamut Room. As we all know, we are in the midst of an epidemic that manifests itself in damaged property. I am talking about reckless social behavior that in worst-case scenarios ends in assault, the hospital or even death. And those are the costs we can quantify. I ask myself, what makes binge drinking and its associated damages socially acceptable? SPACE. Think about the spatial characteristics of the social spaces provided by the college. Do they demand respect and preservation? The basements of our social houses are designed to contain and minimize destruction while enabling destructive behavior, that is why they are barren and we only use them once or twice a week. Is containment and minimization the best way to prevent the kind of behavior the college is currently leading a crusade against? What we need are student spaces with value and meaning beyond the white on blue stamp of Middlebury College, where our relationship to the environment motivates and regulates behavior in line with our values as a community. I am talking about places where students are part of space, where they are invested, where they are willing to confront a friend in order to preserve something that has meaning to them. College policies and ideologies have left us living in a desert of institutional space. When The Gamut Room dies, will the fight be over?

No. The Gamut Room does not stand alone. Weybridge House, The Bike Room, Old Stone Mill and Middlebury Musicians Guild all have student spaces that unite, empower and teach. Given the popularity of these programs, it is clear that students want space to make their own. Yet, like The Gamut Room, these spaces frequently face resistance from the administration and struggle to thrive in a system that chronically undervalues their existence. Even if they appear safe from incorporation into institutional space we must be wary. The administration didn’t have any trouble evicting the Mountain Club from the attic of Adirondack House last spring even though the group, a mainstay of our institutional image, occupied the space since the 1970s. With actions like this (and the whitewashing of LoFo) the college has proven that they can destroy student space with near autonomous authority. If we value these spaces and their ability to create a better Middlebury experience, we must fight to protect them. Only we have the power to tell the administration what we want. The time has come to use our voice.

- arp


  1. One of the most pertinent and straightforward essays about campus issues I have read in a long time. Thanks for bringing this often overlooked story to the attention of more people. Defending the small amount of community we have left depends on speaking out against this undervaluing and mistreatment of space. We need these "student spaces" if we are to continue the effort to fight against all the other complex and denigrating issues that persist on our campus and within our community. The Gadfly itself wouldn't have come about without the support of the Gamut Room as a space to discuss campus issues.

    Many of the spaces mentioned in this article - the bike shop,Gamut Room, OSM,FIC recording studio, ADK attic, Weybridge - have all had a resounding impact on my time here and, in support of this article, it is because of a different way in which the students around these spaces treat them with respect and give character to defining the space. They have all faced problems from the administration, as well as from mistreatment by students, but the hopeful part for me is that there is always a collective sense by the students who really care about them to try their best, even with little support outside of their own efforts, to keep these spaces alive.

    When I leave here in the spring these are the places I will remember and, because of them, desire to replicate and seek out beyond Middlebury. But before then, there is still so much improving that can be done. As pointed out in this article, many of these spaces are barely hanging on and need the support of all the students who have shared them and would like to see them grow. Get involved and speak up.

  2. Thank you so much for this post - it is timely and a message that everyone should hear!

  3. I must agree with PMC. This essay should be required reading for incoming freshmen. Three comments:

    1) It strikes me as telling that to wrest but a tiny bit of space from top-down administrative control and move it into the realm of student space takes the initial dedication and drive of some fairly remarkable individuals (i.e. The Gamut Room was co-founded by Eve Ensler '75, the Bike Shop by Hubert d’Autremont '07, LoFo was painted by Alex Benepe '09). If we want to bring about more student space, it needs to come from great effort on the part of individuals and small groups.

    2) Think of where these examples of student space are located. The Gamut Room is in a basement. LoFo was in a basement. The Bike Shop, a basement. While there is allure and value in having places that are slightly removed from the main ebb and flow of campus, I think a major victory would be to claim student space that is not sequestered to remote and dingy corners. There might need to be somewhere more visible and prominent--a place you don't necessarily need to go out of your way to access. I think common rooms are a great target. Bring in bookshelves, fill them with material for others to take from and contribute to as they'd like. Rescue an old lamp, hang some curtains, add anything that doesn't have the "white on blue stamp of Middlebury College" approval. When you move on from that dorm, from that lounge, leave these items behind. Let the spaces grow and evolve evolve over time with each new class that adopts them as their own. They'll develop histories, characters.

    3) I see some parallels with another student article that's stuck with me. While ARP's article focuses on the need to change the state of physical space here, MB's focus is a little less tangible--she focuses on the need to change our actions, sentiments, and creative outputs. The forces that pushed both of them to write, I think, are the same. Read it here: