Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New Wine in Old Bottles. The Return to School

 It's that season again: the students are returning to town. June and September always bring about a remarkable transformation in Amherst. Between those two points, the place seems to change in character, becoming, if not what it once was before all of us interlopers moved in, at least something a bit more like a typical rural New England town. Many express pleasure at the change, if only because the pace of life seems to slow down—and it's easier to find a parking place. Others are actually and explicitly happy to be rid of the students.

Amherst's permanent residents have something of a love-hate relationship with our students, which I find at once amusing and irritating.

On the one hand, we are proud to be the home of three of the five colleges (which earns us that "book" on the book-and-plow emblem). We certainly value the students as direct contributors to the local economy as well as the people who justify the existence of those colleges, which contribute even more. As our Master Plan puts it, "These institutions offer stable employment levels and have low turnover." (As the Chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, I can tell you that the consultants' original draft more bluntly characterized the labor market here as: stable but stagnant. So now you know.)

On the other hand, a certain number of us (and note: usually not the real natives) just don't seem to like students or appreciate their presence. It's a sort of sour and humorless attitude, which at times makes me want to exclaim:  "But you moved to a college town! What did you expect?! I mean, if you don't like young people, maybe you would find Alford—with the highest median age in the Commonwealth—more to your liking." (It's an attitude that the students themselves somewhat awkwardly tried to mock—though incorrectly targeting Town government rather than cranky town residents—in the April Fool's issue of the UMass Collegian last year.)

Still, those objectively cranky folks are probably in the minority.  The more justified concerns involving students really fall into two categories: the increased demand on resources and services, and behaviors ranging from the inconsiderate to the antisocial. This isn't the place for a longer discussion on this important topic, but the Select Board and Town Manager, in partnership with the University, have been making a sustained effort to address all these issues.

That's why one of the performance goals for the Town Manager (whose evaluation we recently completed) reads:
2. The Town Manager shall continue to strengthen relationships with UMass and the Colleges, for concrete progress in areas that improve the community’s quality of life by:
  • a. mitigating the impacts of a significant student population: on neighborhoods, on demand for public safety resources, on parking and traffic issues, and so forth; 
  • b. compensating for the significant amount of non-taxable property; 
  • c. pursuing issues of mutual benefit to the Town and the academic institutions
Booze, Books, and Bylaws

As for the behavioral issues, part of this is just a matter of teaching common courtesy, and the other part is a matter of law enforcement. Both involve good public education and public relations. In order to get the student population to obey our laws, we first have to tell it what they are.

The Police are sending a cover letter and copy of the relevant bylaws to all the local campuses. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but it's also no help. [documents added Sept. 1] The "Community and Campus Coalition" focuses on education about responsible attitudes toward alcohol. The "Have a Heart Coalition," a joint effort of Town and University Police, starts from the premise of basic awareness and courtesy: Students need to realize that they are living with and among others, and to respect their needs and sensibilities. Often, students simply aren't aware that their behaviors are problematic or objectionable until someone tells them. We are also facilitating efforts to introduce the local population to students, so it gets to know them as individual people rather than merely a nebulous "problem."

An amusing discussion of the seasonal transformation in the Boston area arose yesterday on Twitter, where contributors proffered a variety of suggestions (earnest or sarcastic) to newly arriving students (#bosfroshadvice). Among my favorites, this one nicely captured the problem of student cluelessness about life in a residential neighborhood: "No need to shovel, your elderly neighbor cherishes that time with nature."

Sometimes, of course, education is not enough, or at any rate, lessons need to be learned another way. The Town recently passed a "nuisance house" bylaw and raised the fines for violations of both noise and open-container laws to the state maximum in order to send the message that we take these things seriously. The police have shifted to a policy of fines rather than arrests for many infractions of the law, which is a win-win situation: It simplifies the process for all parties concerned while sending the same clear message. Although this shift was not intended as a revenue-enhancing measure, receipts from "Fines and Forfeitures," as we learned from the quarterly budget report at Monday night's Select Board meeting, are up by 144% over the past year. (That's a total of $ 74,692 over what was budgeted, because revenue from Library fines decreased by $ 8,600. In this case, at least, booze clearly beat books.)

One of the ways that social scientists distinguish between cultures is by differentiating between those whose norms are based on guilt vs. honor-shame. The latter tended to be more prevalent in non-western or pre-modern western societies. Shaming the violator of community norms can be a means of enforcing them. Since we have abolished the stocks and pillory (though I have occasionally heard Planning Director Jonathan Tucker express a certain nostalgia and desire for their return), citizen-journalist and blogger Larry Kelley has taken it upon himself to call attention to the violators of the "nuisance house" ordinance under his "Party House of the Weekend" rubric.

Although the focus in these discussions of both welcoming the students and regulating student behavior is always on the University—because of its size, location, and the larger share of its students living in off-campus housing—I reminded the Select Board on Monday night that we should direct our messages in equal measure to the populations of Amherst and Hampshire Colleges.

Like it or not, the students are back, as regular as clockwork—for that matter, like my spring and summer pollen allergies, which happen to coincide with their departure and return. Or, as one of my Boston-area Tweeps put it, "I knew it when the cloud of Axe wafted north."

As much as I appreciate the quiet of the summer, I do admit that I in the end always look forward to and enjoy the return of the students and the start of a new academic year.


The "move-in" signs were all over town today. I didn't get a picture, but a large highway-style alert board between the apartment complexes on Meadow Street this evening, with lettering spelled out in yellow-orange light bulbs, directed new arrivals to turn right in order to find the campus dorms. [images now added]

 I did get a shot of the more modest Hampshire College welcome sign.

Here at Hampshire College (as at Amherst College), we have a new President. However, over in my building, we also have new signs and a new name. I am based in the (former) School of Social Science. It's a quasi-arbitrary thing, because that's where the position happened to be created way back when. I could as easily be based in Humanities and Arts & Cultural Studies, which also has a history line. Although, as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I took my history classes in the Humanities Building, I have become accustomed to thinking of myself as based in a school of "social science," to the extent that we attempt to pursue the investigation of culture systematically, and to generalize about historical patterns as well as explore specific cases.

That said, for most of us, the term, "social science" was not terribly congenial.  For me, it was not attractive, but no big deal. I used to joke that I was not a social scientist, but I played one when on the job. For other colleagues who were trained in that actual milieu rather than the humanities or humanistic social sciences, it was deadly serious. They resented the term, which was redolent of the 1950s, "positivism," American imperialism and ethnocentrism, and the military-industrial complex (did I leave anything out?). It smelled of "rats and stats."

I had one reason for objecting, if not to the School name, then at least to its representation: in course numbers, email addresses, campus and external envelope mail codes, and casual conversation, it was always abbreviated to "SS." Now, I did not particularly like having a Nazi acronym attached to my identity to begin with. But particularly when corresponding with German or other European colleagues, it was an embarrassment. In Germany, most public use of former Nazi acronyms—e.g SS, SA (Storm Troopers), NS (National Socialist), etc. etc.—is banned. You cannot even use those abbreviations on license plates, given their abhorrent historical associations. It would be the equivalent of "KKK" here. I occasionally called attention to this issue, but no one cared. (So much for cultural sensitivity and "multiple cultural perspectives.")

At any rate, we all agreed that the old name was neither very imaginative nor very descriptive of what we do, so last year, we again set about discussing alternatives. I'll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say it was an instructive conversation. It was quite interesting to see what terms colleagues cottoned to, rejected, or regarded with indifference. Many rejected the notion of "science," as such, while a few defended it, but that's amatter for another conversation. The debate at times seemed to have as much to do with the quest for a good acronym as a good name, as such. (At one point, in a moment of mild frustration, I suggested: Society, History, Information, and Theory).

At any rate, in the end we settled for Critical Social Inquiry. That gives you: CSI. Get it? Tee hee hee. People were really quite proud of this choice, in large part because of its presumed cleverness. A student intern even generated some signs and posters with a motif copied from crime-scene police tape. Admittedly, it may not help to distinguish us from Cognitive Science (abbreviated CS) when it comes to course listings and mail codes. Acronym fail. And of course, the "cleverness" of the joke may be lost on people five or ten years from now. I'm just glad we weren't doing this when "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." was on the air.

The new name was introduced with festive flair at the end of the spring term. i can even literally claim that I was there, did that, and "got the t-shirt."

Bottom line: Old wine in new bottles, but more honesty in advertising.

Toward the end of the summer, new signs went up, which was a double good: they concretized the change, but in many cases, they also showed up where there had been little, unclear, or no formal "signage" before. At the least, they have made the building easier to navigate and moreover helped to connect these spaces with one another and the rest of the campus through a common aesthetic, using the (relatively new) design standard.

A pity they couldn't do something about that ghastly "mural." (Good intentions do not equate to good art.)

On the other hand, we did get new restroom signs, helping to end the confusion caused by unclear or temporary ones.

Every thing in its place.

[updates: added images and documents]

Updates: press coverage

• Scott Merzbach, "UMass students asked to be good neighbors," Hampshire Gazette, 3 Sept.

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