Stranger in SLAC-Land: Considering Intimacy on a Small Campus

It happened again today. I was dropping my son off at the daycare on campus, and a colleague asked if me and my husband would be attending the kindergarten graduation ceremony later this afternoon. I have a toddler, and I know very few (if any) of the older children or their parents, so we planned to skip the graduation…However, this colleague was the third person who asked if we would be attending the ceremony.The third time’s the charm. I noted sheepishly that I didn’t realize that we were supposed to attend. He responded with a faint smile “It really is a nice event.” And so I finally got it, attendance is required at the kindergarten graduation.

You may be wondering what this has to do with life in SLAC-Land. This is about my kid and kindergarten graduation ceremonies. What I’ve learned in my first year is that employment at a smaller institution comes with a set of rarely articulated, but often followed rules of community engagement.

As I discussed in an earlier post, my graduate work and subsequent employment were at large R1 institutions. And while there are reports that I am a warm and open professor, I am a classic introvert. I relish the opportunity to work hidden away from the chatter and bustle of the campus. At large research institutions, anonymity is the rule – for all except those rock-star profs who are mobbed by adoring students fans as they try to make it to the café for a coffee (think Toni Morrison or Noam Chomsky).

I didn’t realize that during all of those years at bigger schools, I internalized an ethos of invisibility. And how foolish, really. I am a woman of color in a field that has historic issues with diversity. Was I ever really invisible or anonymous? Of course not. (At a recent conference, I mentioned to my roommate that I was going to sneak out and get coffee. She laughed, “Sneak where? Everyone knows you.” This is not due to some academic fame, but rather to the fact that I’d been attending these conferences for years, and I’m one of only a few women of color).

So maybe it was an illusion that I was gliding across my larger campus unnoticed. However, there is a kind of atomization that happens on big campuses. Junior faculty know their departmental colleagues, collaborators, and fellow committee members.

I walked onto this much smaller campus and began operating under the same rules. That was until daycare drop-off one morning last September, when a (then unknown) colleague waved and called out to us using our names. I wondered how in the world she knew who we were.

It is probably not surprising that this all begins and ends at the daycare – the place where professional colleagues are made human via interactions with their kids, and in plain sight of their peers. The daycare is an example of our campus culture writ small.

The familiarity found in the parking lot of the daycare extends itself to the all-faculty meetings, to the committee meetings, to campus advising, to student events. Everyone knows each other, and they expect your participation and your dedication to the maintenance of this intimate environment. So If you feel that itch to hide away, you are out of luck.

In an early chapter of the incredibly useful book, A Black Academic’s Guide to Getting Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul, co-authors Roquemore and Laszloffy advise learning the culture of an institution so that you can succeed while meeting the demands of broader community. I first read this chapter years ago, and scoffed. “Learn the culture?! Done.” What I didn’t realize is that my institutional affiliations never challenged me to learn a new culture. Now I am learning.

What this increased everyday engagement has meant for me is that I have to be more disciplined about establishing personal and professional boundaries. On the weekly schedule that is posted on my door, I now designate a day for off-campus work. I also encourage students who cannot make it to office hours to request a formal appointment. While I’m trying to adhere to an unstated campus culture of open doors and endless availability to students, I know that I also need to protect my research and writing time.

However, this isn’t all about boundaries, It’s also about building relationships. I am learning names, seeking out committee work that is appropriate for my stage in the T-T process, and reaching out to folks in other departments. I am actively engaging in the life of the campus, rather than letting it swirl around me. And there are real benefits to participating in this new community. I am being mentored both informally and formally, and there are cookouts, and hand-me-downs, and last-minute dinners that have made this place feel like home. So while I was initially reluctant, I am learning the rules of the sandbox and making new friends.

2 thoughts on “Stranger in SLAC-Land: Considering Intimacy on a Small Campus

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve had a similar learning curve going from an R1 and Ivy League grad and postdoc experience to a small-town, small-ish R1 in a rural area. The weird thing for me, though, is that I don’t have kids. Everyone knows everyone here through their children, and it’s seriously caused barriers for my husband and me to meet people.

    I do sometimes worry that I may be committing faux pas without even realizing it. I’ve felt kind of isolated from my department (my office is not in the main buildings) after that first flush of people reaching out. You’ve reminded me that it’s my job to seek out interactions now.

  2. This is a lovely, thoughtful post – it is a reminder that often others see us differently from the way we think they see us (or not see us …. or whatever was said above). I hope you are happy with the newly-found community, and that there are a lot of pluses for you and your family.

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