Madison Monday: total institutions, greedy institutions and coming home

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It was another lovely week in Madison, where many things happened, and also not much at all.  It was a short week of classes after our Fall Break, which is always a nice thing.  All the kids from the Madison Consolidated school system were also on break, and many of them with parents who work at the college were wandering around the campus, sort of like the kids in The Lord of the Flies, though hopefully with less violence.It is that time of the year for pumpkin panna cotta at the 605 Grille, which I can report, was quite delicious.  On Friday night, we sat at the bar and caught up with friends.  On Saturday night, we went to our first Halloween party, a great time only made better by our host’s outstanding taste in beer.  And then to a housewarming party for another friend, which all made us feel very popular and lucky in the community which we have here in Madison.  And got me thinking about different kinds of communities.

When I first imagined being a college professor at a small liberal arts college, I imagined that my fellow scholars and students were all I would ever need in the way of community.  Many professors, my husband and I included, choose their profession because they decided at some point that they never really wanted to leave college.  As a an undergraduate, I looked around and said to myself, “I want to stay right here forever.”  And so, here I am.

There’s a concept in sociology called a total institution, developed by Erving Goffman.  A total institution is an isolated, enclosed social system whose primary purpose is to control most aspects of its participants’ lives.  Think of prisons, asylums, boarding schools, military bases, and, well, small, liberal arts colleges.  I’ve often asked students whether their college is a total institution, and it’s an argument that’s pretty easy to make, especially in a fairly isolated setting like ours.  Or as our alma mater says, “far from mart and town.”

As a professor at a small liberal arts college, there is certainly pressure to allow the institution to control most aspects of your life.  Lewis Coser, another sociologist, might call colleges greedy institutions, and if you’ve ever been a part of a greedy institution, you probably don’t need a definition. A greedy institution makes total claims on their members and attempts to encompass within their circle the whole personality.  In simpler language, a greedy institution will eat you alive.  If you let it.

This all sounds very ugly, but when I first started teaching, I wanted my job to encompass my whole life.  I thought I wanted to hang out with all my colleagues, having deep intellectual conversations about Foucault and post-modernism.  I wanted to spend lots of time with my students, have them over to my house, and live life as if it were all just one big, happy, continual classroom.  I imagine that some people live this life and find it quite satisfying and fulfilling and engaging, but I’ll confess that at some point, I had to escape the asylum.

Which is all a complicated and convoluted way of saying that at some point I realized that for me, being a college professor was best imagined as just a job, and not as a way of life.  It’s a very good job and a very rewarding job.  I’m paid a quite decent amount of money to read books and sit in a room and talk to people about them.  I have ludicrous amounts of job security in a very tenuous economy.  It really doesn’t get much better than that.  But as a greedy institution, a college will attempt to draw you into many, many things that have very little to do with the most important part of your job–being in the classroom.  It will invite you to obsess over pointless minutiae and infuriating politics.  You will find yourself engaged in heated arguments over something that matters to only 20 or so other people on the planet.  And it is in those moments that you feel like you may very well have landed in a mental asylum.

When I first started interacting more with people from the local community that exists outside of the college, I would tell them I worked at “The College,” assuming, of course, that they’d know which one.  But they didn’t.  Which was puzzling and a teeny bit annoying to me at first, but is now something for which I am quite grateful.  Why should anyone know which college?  It is, after all, just another place to work, isn’t it?

When I leave campus each day, I don’t interact with people anymore as a college professor.  I’m just another downtowner, or a regular at the bar, or a parent, or a neighbor.  Maybe I’m the woman who writes that crazy blog.  But I am off the reservation, happy to be able to say I work in the asylum, but I don’t live there.  What a blessing to have that choice and at the end of each day, to be able to come home to Madison.

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