After 18 years of various forms of involvement in higher education—undergrad, grad student, research assistant, teaching assistant, resident assistant, tutor, thesis advisor, lecturer, adjunct instructor—I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. When I stepped foot on the verdant campus of Macalester College this fall as a newly-hired visiting assistant professor, though, I realized that I’d never experienced life inside that hallowed American institution: the liberal arts college.
My first impression was that, when it comes up to meeting one’s expectations of what a highly selective teaching college is like, it’s amazing how little this college disappoints. I’m guessing it’s the same story at Williams, or Amherst, or Swarthmore: students strolling leisurely across a quad, stopping to laugh and chat or share a flyer for their upcoming a capella show, napping under trees and tossing the inevitable Frisbee.
When I flew out east at age 18 to begin my studies, sight unseen, at Boston University, I was surprised to find that my dorm looked like something from behind the Iron Curtain and was positioned next door to a giant auto parts dealership (billboard: TRUST ELLIS THE RIM MAN). Macalester is a college that actually looks like its website.
As I got to know the school better and made my way through the administrative tasks required of an instructor, the college revealed itself as what seemed to be a university on training wheels. Our new-faculty orientation included a dozen or so friendly faces, and we were visited personally by the registrar herself. At a university, the registrar is like the Great and Powerful Oz: you quiver in fear of her judgments while taking her actual existence purely on faith. Functions that require entire floors of administrative buildings at BU or Harvard require only one part-time staff member at Mac.
What’s been hardest to adjust to, having spent almost a decade in grad school, is the eerie absence of graduate students. At a university, grad students are as ubiquitious as Oompa-Loompas; at Harvard, for example, grad students outnumber undergrads by a factor of more than two to one. At Macalester, it’s like the Rapture has happened and the grad students were finally rewarded for their thankless labors by being assumed into heaven, leaving the exploitative faculty behind to wail and gnash our teeth as we grade our own papers.
The differences aren’t just matters of size and ambience, though: this liberal arts college effortlessly evinces the kind of serenity that universities have to work strenuously to achieve. (University brochure: “Our students relax! Really! DON’T YOU SEE THOSE TWO STUDENTS LYING ON THAT PATCH OF GRASS?! THEY’RE RELAXING, GODDAMIT!”) Mac students work hard, but they don’t wear that mask of determination that comes from having to claw your way into everything from the most desirable dorm to the best research apprenticeship to the last scrap of chicken parm.
The faculty members’ attitude is different, too. Though we all should have been overwhelmed at the faculty orientation, the only faculty members who showed any signs of stress were the ones who had recently relocated from big universities and hadn’t let their engines rev down yet. A couple of my new colleagues are ABD doctoral candidates at the University of Minnesota; they look around, raise their eyebrows, smile, and mention esoteric theories I’ve never even heard of even though I’m in their department. Distinctions among faculty titles are commonly ignored—those of us coming from universities were taken aback to learn that even non-tenure-track faculty, the untouchable caste of research universities, were welcome at faculty meetings.
This liberal arts college seems like a safe place, with a collapsed hierarchy: after class the other day, a student called out to me from the curb where she was sitting smoking a cigarette and nonchalantly apologized for neglecting a certain reading in her response essay. It’s not that the students are less respectful than they were when I taught at Harvard—they’re less uptight about everything. With no hierarchy of teaching assistants (as an undergrad you’re graded by your teaching fellow, who reports to his head teaching fellow, who reports to the professor) to go through, in the classroom every day is like casual Friday.
(Teaching colleges are notorious for faculty-student liaisons, and no wonder. At Macalester there’s actually a dedicated fund to support faculty members who invite their classes to their own private homes for dinner, which sounds like the setup for a Tom Perrotta novel. There’s little danger of scandal for me, though—I live in a studio apartment, and thus will be hosting a well-chaperoned class dinner at my mom’s house.)
If this all sounds like a dream, in many ways it is. For those of a certain mindset, there’s something immensely attractive about the prospect of being wrapped up in a cozy cocoon of crisp autumn leaves and non-ironic school sweatshirts. Though you’re less likely than at a research university to see your professor on PBS, you’re more likely to see her in the bleachers at your sporting event (at faculty orientation we were urged to attend football games: “Sometimes our team isn’t terrible”). She’s also less likely to be fired for failing to publish prestigiously enough, or to jump ship for another job with a bigger research budget and a lighter teaching load.
With the economy struggling and tuition rising, there’s a national debate about the value of a college degree—and it’s the enormously expensive, quietly thinky sort of liberal arts degree that you get at a place like Macalester that’s most controversial. The liberal arts college has never been a particularly democratic institution, and in years to come an education like the one my students are getting may become purely a luxury. Truth be told, it certainly feels luxurious—in all the nerdiest ways.