A peculiar kind of personal ownership attaches to well-worn places. I own Chicago’s Butler Field, for example, where you can sit on blankets and listen to concerts in the Petrillo Bandshell, under a towering circle of skyscrapers watching to make sure everyone behaves. I own my first-year college dorm room, the front yard of my childhood home, two of my old offices, a White Hen Pantry and Rosewood Beach, despite the fact that I’ll never be able to return without the exclusive parking sticker.
About two months ago, I added Middle Path, which moves us so capably across the campus, with so little Capability Brown. Like the students, I took to it pretty early. There are senior faculty members here who have walked the Path for decades. Their feet know every bare spot, dip and ice slick. They’ve memorized the offshoots and timed the segments. They can dispel the grit from their shoes with one artful shake, while the rest of us wait, foolishly, for pearls.
Once we consider Kenyon’s isolation and small size alongside the (supposed) death of the liberal arts, the Path’s message is Sisyphean. Or maybe it’s a pre-modern Buddhist/Aristotelian recommendation to avoid overindulgence on the one hand, and monkish self-denial on the other — an admonition to develop good judgment through the moderate avoidance of extremes. More likely, it’s a postmodern joke: an ironic recommendation to a manic population of over-scheduled overachievers to find the middle, when what we really want is the road less travelled or the path to glory, because moderate people can’t compete within our present institutional and economic structures.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as faculty-in-residence, it’s that we’re pushing extremes. Though students long to see more of the faculty, we’re already working 24/7. We wake at 6:30 a.m., take our kids to school and/or help aging parents, teach, meet with students, answer mountains of email and serve on multiple committees. In the evening, we dart home and then return to attend events with visitors and job candidates, hoping someone else will make dinner, clean our houses and put our kids to bed. Once our caregiving responsibilities are unsatisfactorily met, we work into the wee hours of the night grading, answering more email, programing Moodle and prepping for the next day. Heaven forbid a conference, journal deadline, grant application or illness should appear in the middle of the term, because then everything else stops, after which there’s catch-up hell to pay.
Though students don’t always complete their homework, they’re also working 24/7. They wake at 8 or 9 a.m., walk to Peirce, attend two or three classes, visit office hours, meet with study groups and attend long afternoon labs. In the early evening, they endure two- or three-hour athletic practices, after which they eat and travel to their assigned evening lectures and films. When seminars end at 10 p.m., they’re off to their organizational meetings and music ensembles. Once their extra-curricular responsibilities are unsatisfactorily met, they work into the wee hours of the night prepping for the next day. Heaven forbid a play, championship, break-up, research project or illness appears in the middle of the term, because then everything else stops, after which there’s catch-up hell to pay.
Of course we’re thrilled to do this work. Faculty courageously battle the pressure of promotion and job loss, the pain of familial neglect, their peers’ high standards and nagging self-doubt, because everyone knows how difficult it is to land a good academic job, one with terrific, hard-working students who genuinely love their work. Students courageously battle parental pressure, employment uncertainty, their peers’ high standards and nagging self-doubt, because everyone knows how difficult it is to get into a good college, one with terrific, hard-working professors who genuinely love their work.
The community walks this Middle Path together, and that’s what makes it meaningful — what makes it ours. We arrive to class each morning with the very same rocks in our shoes.
Alexandra Bradner is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy who lives among students this year as the faculty-in-residence. She will occasionally report her experiences in this column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.