• April 23, 2014

The Worst Building on the Campus

I was meditating in the men's room down the hall from my office, and it occurred to me that humanities departments often have the worst buildings and facilities on campus.

Is your toilet paper a gigantic roll in a locked plastic case (to prevent you from stealing it)? Does the roller have a spindle so stiff that only one sheet of single-ply paper can be removed at a time (to thwart your wastefulness)?

Do you use stringy soap that leaves long strands of bubble-gum scented goop between the dispenser and the sink? Do you have spring-loaded faucets that shut themselves off instantly, so that one hand must hold the water on while the other hand half-rinses itself? Do you dry your hands with an abrasive brown paper that seems to be made out of pulverized Egyptian mummies?

The building where I work as an English professor went up about 60 years ago as a state-of-the-art science center. Our small, liberal-arts college has built two new state-of-the-art science centers since then. One was completed just last year after a record-breaking capital campaign, and it is quite luxurious.

The restrooms in that new science center have beautiful marble countertops. The chrome faucets do not shut themselves off against your will, and the soap dispensers put a precise dollop of something like shaving cream in your palm with the touch of a button. Even the toilet stalls are wider. It's like the difference between first class and coach. I half expect a washroom attendant to offer me a fresh towel and to brush the lint off my jacket.

Meanwhile, back in my building, the stained, stuccoed ceilings drip on rainy days, and buckets are placed at odd intervals on the third-floor hallway. The floors and walls are covered with industrial tile -- dingy beige and mint green -- that is cleaned regularly with strong-smelling institutional solvents.

I suppose these facilities are meant to cultivate a kind of religious asceticism in the humanities faculty (the less comfort, the more virtue). The building reminds me of Catholic grade school. Some mornings the smell of tile and detergent makes me flinch at the memory of a nun's yardstick thwacking my disrespectful derrière.

Mind you, I'm not really complaining. My office is small but clean; it has a window and lots of shelves. And I have an up-to-date computer. After 20 years as a college student and teacher, my current digs are the best I have ever occupied. Things could be much, much worse.

Like many of you, I've shared one-desk offices with an indeterminate and fluctuating group of grad students, part-timers, and adjuncts. I've had office mates who would crash there for weeks at a time when they couldn't find affordable apartments. I've taught in a Quonset hut and in a trailer in a parking lot next to the Dumpsters. For one course at a community college, I met with students in my car and fed the parking meter for hours. I was touched when one of them put a coin in the meter for me.

Some of my offices have had peculiar shapes: 6 feet wide and 30 feet long with a sloped ceiling (once part of an attic); 8 feet square and -- if you peeked above the suspended ceiling -- perhaps 50 feet high (a ventilation shaft).

I once had an office that was like that strange floor in Being John Malkovich -- I had to duck to enter the door. I still have nightmares about one building that did not seem to have a single right angle; my office induced back pain, nausea, and existential dread. Working there was like being in a German Expressionist film from the 1920s. I was starring in the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

I once had an office -- a cubicle really -- in the physical-plant building of a major university. Gigantic machines rumbled all around me. My coffee mug sometimes vibrated off my desk. I used to pretend that I was an oiler in the engine room of the Lusitania. The room was well below ground level, and, during the rainy season, the entire floor would flood, sometimes to a depth of 18 inches. There were high water marks on the cinder-block walls from previous inundations. Mold ascended the fabric sides of my cubicle until, finally, it looked and smelled like a forest floor in the Pacific Northwest.

After a couple of months -- and conversations with the other workers -- I learned that I could reach various points on the campus through underground steam tunnels. On my way back from teaching a class, I could pretend that I was Jean Valjean evading Inspector Javert in the sewers of Paris. My cubicle was so far from the center of campus that students rarely found me. Once, shortly after teaching Conrad's Heart of Darkness, I asked one of my advisees "Are you an assassin?" And he said, without missing a beat, "No, I'm an errand boy sent by grocery clerks." We laughed for two minutes. It was the high point of my semester.

I think the worst office I ever occupied was below a large public lavatory. A thick, iron pipe from the room above ran along the ceiling of my office. And every time someone flushed a toilet, the pipe made a noise that was loud enough to stop conversation: WHOOOSH! . . . gurgle . . . gurgle. Students couldn't resist making some version of the same joke over and over: "This is, like, the rectum of the university." I would just sigh and shake my head.

I had nowhere to go but up.

Still, even in my present position on the tenure track, I can't help thinking that the humanities faculty is rapidly descending into a stratum so far beneath the scientists that we can't mingle socially without awkwardness.

I suppose the humanists look unclubbable. Some of us have taken to wearing denim in case we're called upon in an emergency -- perhaps to prop up a falling roof timber or to man a bucket brigade.

Given the surplus of people with humanities Ph.D.'s, in the not-too-distant future the science faculty should be able to recruit our assistant professors as subjects for their experiments. After that, they could be set loose in the biology department's forest preserve, and administrators could hunt them for sport.

But, before that happens, I plan to schedule all my classes -- and meditation -- in the new science center. I've already begun doing so. The students in my English classes don't always appreciate having to walk across the campus, but a few of them like the idea that the humanities are being taught in the very heart of the new academic hegemony.

But there is a problem. After two semesters, the scientists are becoming aware that one of those vulgar humanists is up to something in their clubhouse. Last fall, they noticed that the desks in one of their orderly, high-tech classrooms had been arranged like a horseshoe instead of in rows. An e-mail memo quickly went around that "desks must be put back in straight lines." Several times I've found my classroom locked. Only scientists have keys to those rooms.

The jig is almost up, but at least my humanities education has taught me something about sartorial mimicry. I just ordered a lab coat with my name on it, and from now on I'll wear goggles and a plastic helmet when I'm in the hallway.

Now that I've tasted the good life, I just can't go back to the humanities building. Perhaps, after they apprehend me, the scientists can remove this mental block -- and eliminate the need for renovating my building -- with some new medication.

They can call it "HumanEx."

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com

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