Human Geography

On Thursday I set out from my office with the intent to go to class. Because of the APSA meeting, I had not been physically present for the first meeting of the course, so this was my inaugural journey to take a look at the classroom. So it was in many ways the first day for me -- and I did not recognize the name of the building in which the class was scheduled.

Now, this is not an unfamiliar experience for newcomers to a college campus, but I've been here for over six years. The fact that I'd never heard of the building -- the fact that I had to consult a campus map to get a general sense of the quadrant of campus in which the place was purportedly located -- felt very strange. Fortunately, on the way there I ran into Liz, a student in one of my other courses, who was (coincidentally) on her way to an interview to be a campus tour guide. Not surprisingly she knew where the mystery building was, and was able to direct me there and even to suggest an alternate and faster route to get there from my office in the future. This last is particularly important because the building in question is about as far from my office as one can get and still remain on campus, and after being here for a while my tacit sense of how long it takes to get places on campus does not, in fact, encompass the path I took from my office to the class building, while the alternate path is just about at the upper bound of that tacit sense. Still, I need to reset my internal clock and leave a couple of minutes earlier than I ordinarily would in order to ensure that class starts on time.

The whole experience illustrated a simple point: individual experiences of "the same" place need not have much to do with one another. If I were to take a campus map and then to draw out the pathways I ordinarily take over the course of a semester, and to do so in such a way that frequently-traveled routes were darker in hue than more infrequently traveled paths, I suspect that I'd generate a kind of geographical fingerprint that would be wildly different from many of my colleagues in other departments and divisions of the university, and probably also different from the average student geographical fingerprint. There are places on campus that I've heard of but never seen, and places I frequent that I doubt are frequented by most students or most other faculty. And even with my now having entered the class building I'd never heard of before Thursday, there are still buildings on campus in which I am almost positive that I've never set foot.

Of course, how many of my faculty colleagues have ever set foot in a dormitory? Part of the whole idea of the Residential Faculty program is to ensure that my pathway through the campus intersects with student pathways outside of the classroom or the office; the fact that my office is in a dorm is the first step in that process, but it goes much further than that. I regularly take meals in the student dining-hall, which makes for some interesting entanglement of pathways; I also teach in the dorm where my office is and where the members of that class reside, further breaking down the boundaries between "faculty space" and "student space." At the same time, I am keenly aware of the need for privacy, so even though my office is in the dorm I do not regularly go and wander the halls upstairs or anything like that -- and sometimes (not often) I close my office door while I am inside working on something. But my very presence in the dorm -- the fact that my pathway from a classroom to my office intersects with the pathways of a number of students returning from class to their places of residence, and the fact that we run into one another in the reception-area by the hall's front desk -- makes some of my experience more similar to that of a student on campus. At least in a geographical sense.

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