What does it mean to live in a community?
In one sense, a community is a group of people who have something in common. When I reflect on what I have in common with my fellow students, faculty and staff, two things come to mind. The first is our affiliation with the University of Michigan. The mere fact of affiliation, however, confers little significance within Ann Arbor. Meeting a fellow Wolverine in your hometown or on a trip abroad is exciting, yet here, our Wolverine-ness tends to fade into the background. The school swells with spirit on game days, but in the course of daily life meeting another Wolverine is so common that it ceases to be special.
Another aspect of our community is that we share a common space and engage with each other within it. We meet our peers in this neutral territory so that we can form bonds and foster relationships of trust that lead to deeper social connections. From the buzz of the Diag to the roar of the Big House, the activities that bind the individual to the community invariably take place in the presence of others. Leaving the privacy of one’s home is crucial to attaining this newfound sense of belonging.
It is this second aspect — our interaction in public spaces — that is the greatest determinant of our sense of community. When people say, “I went to the University of Michigan,” they do not simply refer to receiving their degree. It is rather a question of being there; memories of screaming in the students’ section, getting lost in Angell Hall and hustling to class in sub-zero temperatures linger in the minds of U-M students years after graduation. In a similar vein, the invaluable work of faculty and staff ensures that this environment is preserved for current students as well as the generations of students to come.
However, this semester COVID-19 has forced us to adapt to an unfamiliar social reality. Reflecting on the possible ramifications of this adaptation, I began to wonder: How did we interact historically in public spaces here at the University, and how have these interactions changed in the time of COVID-19?
In probing this question, I decided to examine three kinds of public spaces in particular: dining halls, libraries and “crossroads,” places students walk through or spend a few hours in doing a variety of activities, such as the Diag or the Law Quadrangle.
Before the pandemic, Michigan Dining hosted thousands of students per day in seven public dining halls and two, Martha Cook Dining Hall and the Lawyer’s Club, designated as “residents only.” MDining is also the top student employer on campus, with approximately 1,000 jobs offered each term. The amount of food produced and consumed in all of these places combined was and still is staggering — anyone who has relied on the dining hall system in their college career should pause to quietly applaud this herculean effort.
For MDining, the act of feeding thousands of students has stayed the same. The experience of going to the dining hall, however, has changed a lot.
Dining hall student coordinator and LSA senior Alethia Blough told me in our Zoom call about the major differences in dining before and during the pandemic. She works in South Quad Dining Hall, where the old system of grabbing food from different mini-restaurants has given way to a highly organized series of socially-distanced lines. There is no more eating in the dining hall, either; students enter the dining hall, join one of the lines and are finally spit out at the exit.
“We’re definitely trying to keep things more enforced and be a more known presence, just to direct the lines and things like that. And so (students) kind of have to interact with us. They can’t just grab their plate and go.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, the necessity of the situation has decreased spontaneous interactions among students and introduced required interactions between student diners and employees. This is a clear, even encouraging caveat to any categorical denunciation of COVID-19 damaging all social relations. As has been the case for many other essential workers, the pandemic has shown the importance of people that previously students might have taken for granted. Moreover, as cases climb in dormitories across campus, fostering trust between workers and diners is more important than ever.
When I spoke with Aidan Meador-Woodruff, an LSA Residential College freshman, on the phone to get the student perspective on the dining hall experience, one of the first things he expressed was an appreciation for the kindness of dining hall workers. “The people who greet us at the dining hall and the actual staff are very kind in their interactions with students,” Meador-Woodruff said.
And these small, everyday interactions count for a lot in a time when the coronavirus pandemic also threatens an epidemic of loneliness for new students. However well people get along in the contemporary dining hall experience, it is no substitute for the vital social function dining halls have played in previous years — the possibility of sharing a meal with friends in these common spaces was crucial for developing a sense of connection among students. Especially as the temperature drops, residence hall residents — and anyone who lives alone — will have to reckon with fewer opportunities to break bread with their peers.
The library is another focal point of public life that has drastically altered its operations. As physical spaces, the many U-M libraries have offered generations of students a sanctuary for academic study. Unlike with the Union, the Fishbowl and other serious academic hubs, the library is not only a study space; it also holds a vast repository of knowledge. The whole apparatus of the library — both physical and virtual — is directed toward the goal of supporting scholars from all disciplines across the university.
This semester, most libraries at the University have temporarily closed in observances of public health guidelines, yet librarians are still working hard to replace the loss of in-person access to the physical spaces. I got to hear more about these efforts when I talked with two librarians over Zoom: Emily Petty Puckett Rodgers, a space design and assessment librarian who also leads the Library Environments department, and Dr. Rebecca Price, a subject specialist for architecture and urban planning.
As the lead of the Library Environments department, Puckett Rogers conducts research on how patrons engage with the physical, and now virtual, spaces of the library. She told me about some of the new services the library was testing out, such as specialist virtual consultations, contactless pickup and continued access to the special collections. “I think that we are responding to some of these challenges in ways that try to place us at the point of need for people,” Puckett Rogers explained.
It is clear that Puckett Rogers and her team, along with the hundreds of employees of the U-M library, are continuing to earnestly support researchers here at the University in the virtual environment. What has been temporarily lost, however, is the experience of being in the library. Price illustrated the nature of this experience well in our conversation.
“Just being near all the ideas that are in those books; you have, sort of, conversations. People are talking to you — that sounds really scary.” At this point Price paused and laughed at herself. “But when you’re in the library there are these conversations going on all the time that you can be part of.”
This is an evocative description of what is special about libraries, though I think Price’s notion of being near the ideas also points the way to a broader truth. When you go to a library, “the ideas” are not only sitting on dusty shelves — they also exist in the minds of everyone around you. At any given moment, the vast majority of people working in libraries are wrestling with concepts, proofs, code, essays or whatever they happen to be working on. They do so privately in their own minds, but publicly in the act of writing, typing and talking. In addition to the ghostly conversations happening between writers and readers, actual conversations also take place between the budding scholars of the future.
Puckett Rogers described the library as an “intellectual collision space.” That might be an oddly chaotic image for a place usually reserved for quiet contemplation, although the second floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library is a notable exception. At the level of ideas, however, collisions do occur. Even in the silence of the Law Library, one can constantly hear the frenetic pitter-patter of fingers on a keyboard. Collisions are happening everywhere.
Last but not least, I reflected on the character of the thoroughfares of campus: places like the Diag and the Law Quad.
The Diag is the most “public” of all the spaces addressed in this article. It is a common byway for practically everyone, ranging from seasoned townies to fans of the opposing team on game days. The student population, however, still probably provides the majority of foot traffic. Indeed, in the time before virtual learning, I traversed the Diag every day, which is the case for most students. For this reason, I assumed it would mark the cornerstone of the community; it would represent our sense of togetherness.
Yet, I have started to notice something troubling about the character of daily life in Ann Arbor. It is not the fact that people keep their distance from each other — this is a good thing, albeit an unfortunate truth of following public health guidelines. It’s also not about my frustration with people not wearing masks — this has been a problem since the beginning of the pandemic.
I have noticed that, with regard to how we treat each other, not much has changed at all.
I arrived at this understanding while I was sitting on the Law Quad. It was a beautiful autumn day, and lots of people had come out to relax or do schoolwork on the lawn. The scene was eerily normal. There was something familiar about how people were simply leaving each other alone. It was then that I realized that COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to ignore each other even more intensely than before.
Though we may not like to admit it, ignoring each other is an integral part of the culture of our campus. It’s rare to receive a smile from a passerby on the way to class, unless you know them. At bars, people tend to keep to their circle of friends. In the few minutes before class begins, as people are unpacking notebooks and their pencil cases, no one is in the mood for a conversation. At a school as competitive as Michigan, people are too busy, distracted, tired or stressed to truly dedicate time and curiosity to the well-being of strangers.
To be fair, this cultural practice is in no way unique to the University of Michigan. In all large cities and towns, there comes a point when it is cumbersome to actively acknowledge the existence of everyone you see. Instead, minding your own business becomes the predominant attitude.
I think that is why there are so many smaller communities at the University. The innumerable fraternities, sororities, pre-professional fraternities, consulting groups, a capella groups, interest groups, clubs and even the student newspaper contribute to a sense of community that is much stronger than what mere university affiliation can provide. Students in these organizations care about each other, make lasting friendships and in some cases do incredible things with a group of diverse, like-minded individuals.
It is clear, however, that caring for a smaller community does not always translate to caring for the U-M community as a whole. People who are conscious of COVID-19 keep their distance and wear a mask, effectively “ignoring” you, but they do so because it is in the interest of the community; they acknowledge that others’ health is important to them.
On the contrary, I am not sure what I can say about the person who walks the streets without a mask, spits on the ground and does not apologize for either. This person clearly does not know me, and he does not care about me. Like all of us, he pays attention to what he finds significant. I do not think there is any mystery involved in his behavior, nor an interesting psychological problem. He simply does not give a damn.
The paradox of COVID-19 is that building a real community requires meaningful and sustained interaction, while at the same it is currently in the interest of the broader community for us to remain temporarily apart.
In terms of how we conduct ourselves in the public sphere, we can learn much from their stewards such as dining hall employees and librarians. They ensure the continued function of essential services, as well as the spaces in which those services are rendered. They cannot afford to ignore others as a part of their job, but the truth is that neither can we.
Our lives are becoming increasingly private, but in those rare moments when we are in public we must tread carefully. Personal responsibility will not be enough; what is currently missing in the weakly-bound communities across the United States is a sense of the collective. Only when we are able to acknowledge the existence of others will we recognize the deprivations of unmitigated self-interest and the virtues of living in the public sphere.
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