A campus building encourages student engagement and retention (opinion)

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Grinnell College’s Humanities and Social Studies Center opened in early 2019. Almost four years later, the college officially dedicated the building in early October. It’s counter to current trends for a small college to invest in the humanities and social studies—and especially in its bricks and mortar. Grinnell not only made this investment but also did it in a way that has become deeply personal for those of us who are lucky to teach here.

Inside Higher Ed recently conducted a survey of 2,000 students that found that college and university facilities can have an impact on student success. Campus buildings create environments that help build community, encourage learning and keep students enrolled. I’ve found that’s certainly been the case for our Humanities and Social Studies Center.

The room number of the space where I teach is 2327 South. During the most severe stage of the pandemic, social psychologists were quick to assure people that memory is tethered to company, to shared activity, so when our social life shrank down to its tiniest units, our memory got hazy. We tether to one another, and we also tether to space. Now, I get to go back into the building where I teach, to my favorite classroom, and find my students there, with their bodies, ready to learn. It’s been wondrous: sweeter for having to teach without it for a long while.

My classroom is like a reverse fishbowl—huge, generous windows look out onto the commencement lawn. I teach mainly seniors in one of my courses, so I can gesture to that space and the stage that they will soon walk across when I make references to postcollege life. I use the wall of windows for a pause, or I have them sit, looking out, and write about what they see, to sharpen their observation skills.

My favorite classroom in this building is 2327 South—it was lovingly designed by a team of architects advised by a committee made up of staff, students and faculty members. I’m sure they made some mistakes somewhere, but from my vantage point, it’s perfect. The classroom was designed for how we teach: small discussions, lots of movement, lots of spreading out with books and paper and poring over texts, whiteboards and blackboards (depending on your preference), screens that hide easily so we can focus on each other and talk it out, slowly at first, and then with growing intensity. Twenty-three twenty-seven is the perfect stage for how we teach and learn.

We call it “south side strong,” the side of our building where we finally get to work in, learn in, teach in. Privileged enough to go home during the pandemic lockdown, I deeply missed the hallway conversations, the pleasant “running into” of former students, colleagues new and old, or someone I gave a knowing nod to across a crowded meeting and now can catch up with. Being kept from this delicious space for learning and working was like a tease. I cringe when I think of how stripped of laughter and knowing looks the last two years have been. We learned, but staunchly, with a kind of brittleness. Now we get to come back with all our particularities, our smells and beverages, our hiccups and giggles.

Now I get to teach in this big-windowed, quiet, contemplative space. When we need a break, we can walk out to the exquisite four-story atrium. The architects built a glass enclosure around one of the oldest buildings on campus, and now we have new inscription sites—places to carve the names that inspire young minds in the 21st century, such as Morrison, Anzaldúa, Baldwin—to join the Chaucer and Homer that mark the original edifice. Floating walkways peek down on small gatherings—here two, here five, here one—of students working and talking and resting. The inscriptions above are an invitation to enter conversations that reach down into time and place and bear many new fruits. Maybe someday one of the young minds in my seminar will have their name carved on a building.

The students call it “our room.” They say, “I’ll see you Monday in our room.” Such a sense of ownership and belonging to a learning community is rare and precious. Too few young adults have access to spaces where they can wonder, be curious, make mistakes, find common purpose with each other. Unfortunately, many colleges and universities simply can’t afford such a focused investment on spaces for learning.

When one of my best teachers retired in St. Paul, the article in the local newspaper about her began, “I am a lucky teacher.” I, too, am a lucky teacher to have this space of quiet, with few notifications or wrist taps, a space in which designers and teachers and alumni thought hard about what it means to really sit together and learn something with and from one another—and created spaces to invite that and carry it forward.

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We tether to each other and to space. Sociologist Kai Erikson calls the stuff—the spaces and objects—we use to remember our life the “furniture of self.” Twenty-three twenty-seven, on the strong south side, has been like that for me and several rounds of students. Every year in August, former students often check in or write back: “Hi, Karla. Are you starting the seminar? Are you in our room? How are this year’s students doing? How are you?”

That sense of a shared stage, a spot in the loud world where you were invited to dwell for a bit and change, is rare and wonderful. That the alumni reach out to wonder generously about the next round of people who get to inhabit it is even better—we pass the torch—we share this space. I hope as we seek to solve the complex problems that face young people today, more spaces that host shared contemplation, growth and conversation will be built and shared with a wider swath of young minds. For now, back to 2327. I am a lucky teacher.

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