April 2, 1998 * Vol. 11, No. 7


Please loiter

SFU needs some social meeting places where people can engage in "intellectual intercourse," says prof

by Norman Swartz

Philosophy professor Norman Swartz retires from SFU this year after 31 years of service. In preparation, he's been sorting through old files and letters and discovered a 1986 letter to then-president William Saywell about the glaring lack of student social space on campus. Twelve years later, little has changed, says Swartz. "There have been, to be sure, a number of new buildings opened on campus since 1986, but the problem of lack of social space for students is little improved, if at all, perhaps even worse given the increase in enrolments." Below is a slightly edited reprint of the original letter.

Oct. 17, 1986
To: William Saywell, President
Simon Fraser University

I would like to talk about the ambience of this university, particularly as it presents itself to students, not to faculty members, or administrators, or the support staff.

As I reflect on my own undergraduate and graduate career, I am struck by how little my memories centre on what went on in the classroom or on my interaction (very meagre indeed) with my professors who, for the most part, were truly remote from the student body. For me "my college/university experience" connotes endless hours of engaging my fellow students in discussion; my intellectual curiosities were not so much raised by my professors as by my peers.

Attendance at university only incidentally meant attending classes and taking exams; it was nearly wholly given over in being immersed in an intellectual atmosphere, in being with a group of fellow students who were experiencing, sharing, and loving the sheer pleasure of trying out ideas on one another.

Promoting research, expanding and reforming curricula as needed, and attending to and rewarding good teaching, while essential ingredients in establishing and maintaining a good university, are incomplete if they are not accompanied by affording students the opportunity to test themselves in intellectual intercourse.

Allow me an analogy. No one would imagine that we could teach swimming simply by lecturing students on how to move their arms, legs and neck in synchronization. The students must get their feet (and more) wet. They need to learn by trial and error. And so it is with educating the mind. Students need practice; in particular they need to practice on one another.

Why don't students interact at Simon Fraser? Principally because the physical plant is such an unmitigated disaster.

When I was a student, everywhere I turned there were social meeting places: lounges (by the score); games rooms; fireplaces; reading rooms with (gasp!) newspapers lying about just for the reading; music rooms (several had pianos); lawns with shade trees; TV rooms; trophy rooms; exhibits (in lounge areas and in library foyers and which were not locked up at 5 p.m.); etc., etc. Anytime a student wanted to talk, he/she knew where to find others ready and desirous of compliance.

I happened to be on the campus of Reed College (in Oregon) last summer. A student gave us a tour of campus. At one point, she led us into a great wooden hall. There were at least two pianos, two cats, and even a stray bird. The shelves and floors were heaped with books that students had donated to a free exchange. It was like returning from a distant planet. A wooden floor! Comfortable chairs! Actually the place was a mess, but everybody was having such a good time it was palpable.

Has anyone ever really looked at the SFU equivalent? A vacant concourse that looks like a subway station, with a @!&% rubber floor, fixed benches on the walls &8211; about as inviting as an Arctic shower. (Actually, I'm being unfair. The subway stations in Montreal are considerably more friendly and interesting than our concourse.)

There is virtually no commodious social space for students at SFU. We faculty members have our offices which many have decorated in homey ways. But where are students to turn?

Imagine yourself a student who's just had a lecture which fired you up. Suppose one of your professors had just challenged some political or religious or sexual assumptions which, until now, you had not even realized you'd subscribed to. You're bursting with a desire to talk about them. Okay – where would you go?

Copyright © William Schuss, 1998
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To the library with all those solitary carrels and a rule of silence? To the cafeterias, a sea of strangers under an injunction to eat fast and clear out? The mall? Do you really want to sit on the outer edges of a concrete cavern on a wooden plank on top of a concrete pedestal? And anyway, who else ever sits and talks there? To the inner quad, which is one-third stagnant water, while the rest looks as if it was discarded from the sterile set of the mind-numbing 1961 film, Last Year at Marienbad?

Two weeks ago, the dean of arts invited a fellow here from Stanford to discuss continuing education. We got to talking about what makes a campus attractive to students. It was a beautiful day. Had SFU a different kind of physical setup, one might have expected dozens of students outside, milling about and chatting. (Have you ever been to Berkeley? You'll know what I mean.)

We went to the window to look down on the mall. Only one or two people were to be seen. As you walk about this campus during the day, you see a great number of students rushing about between classes. But the rest of the time, you'd have a hard time believing that there were actually several thousand people in these buildings.

Day after day, I'm struck by the incongruity that the campus looks virtually the same whether it's Wednesday morning or Sunday afternoon. It's almost complete desolation in either instance. Whatever students do with themselves in their free hours between classes defies my comprehension. Maybe most of them arrange their programs to have as few free hours as possible, so that they can get on and off campus quickly.

I see the problem as being so enormous that I fear anyone who examines it will conclude that it defies correction. Fair enough. We can't undo quickly such a 'monumental' mistake. But at least we can take steps to recognize the problem, to plan for its correction over a period of years, and take some steps now, even if just a beginning, to remedy the problem.

I would like to urge a modest re-direction in this university's priorities. I would like to urge that an argument be made, and a plan drawn up, to channel on a regular basis a certain amount of capital funds to the creation of usable, friendly, accessible, comfortable social spaces for students. Something must be done to humanize the utter sterility of this campus.

No one can walk about here, then walk about the campuses of our two sister universities and not immediately be struck by the difference: those campuses are alive with people, ours is a morgue by comparison.

At Indiana and at McGill (two universities at which I have spent a great deal of time), there are tables and chairs set up about the vending machines so that people can sit down and talk (and they do). At SFU there are no tables and chairs near the vending machines. 'Want a hot coffee? Buy it and move on. No loitering.'

What this campus needs are places where we can invite people to "Please loiter."

What we should do immediately is send out some explorers — administrators and especially students — to other universities to observe what really works for them. Let them bring back some ideas and some photographs. Particularly photographs. And let's have our students look at these pictures in an exhibition and vote for what sort of social spaces they'd like to have replicated here.

It is nonsense to believe that every building must be designed anew, or that we somehow have an obligation to experiment in architectural design. We have some clearly defined needs, and they can be met with solutions which are simply there for the copying. Experimentation can be a fetish when solutions are already available.

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