Saturday, March 23, 2013

On wealth

Well, said Mary Seton, about the year 1860 — Oh, but you know the story, she said, bored, I suppose, by the recital. And she told me — rooms were hired. Committees met. Envelopes were addressed. Circulars were drawn up. Meetings were held; letters were read out; so-and-so has promised so much; on the contrary, Mr —— won’t give a penny. The Saturday Review has been very rude. How can we raise a fund to pay for offices? Shall we hold a bazaar? Can’t we find a pretty girl to sit in the front row? Let us look up what John Stuart Mill said on the subject. Can anyone persuade the editor of the —— to print a letter? Can we get Lady —— to sign it? Lady —— is out of town. That was the way it was done, presumably, sixty years ago, and it was a prodigious effort, and a great deal of time was spent on it. And it was only after a long struggle and with the utmost difficulty that they got thirty thousand pounds together...

This is Misnomer U's story, pretty much. The long struggle continues; now and again we have to lobby the state legislature for our continued existence. Otherwise, barring a fresh round of budget cuts or a natural disaster, they ignore us. We are small and do not have any sports teams, and while we are no longer exclusively female, we are still stubbornly woman-serving in our demographics and outlook.

Over spring break I went to visit the University of Basketball, where I went to grad school. No particular reason, just missed the campus and the town. There is a small art museum at the edge of campus; I went there now and again when I was a student, though I don't remember thinking it was anything special at the time.

I went in, and followed the signs upstairs to the study gallery. Oh, my God. How did I not know about this when I was a grad student? Faculty members can request to have specific works put on display for their classes -- anything in the collection, any class. There was a corner set aside for a Brit Lit II survey, an ordinary sophomore-level gen ed class just like the one I'm teaching now. Only the students in this Brit Lit class get to go in and see works by Blake and Turner and Beardsley. I hadn't had any idea you could do that -- nor would I have thought to take advantage of it, not back then, when I was still struggling to get through one day of class at a time, trying not to expose my ignorance in front of a horde of unruly undergrads. You don't think about giving your students cool and enriching experiences until later, after you've got a handle on what you're doing. But God, what wouldn't I give to have a resource like that now!

The galleries at Misnomer U. are strictly for rotating exhibits, mostly of faculty and student art; we don't have a collection as such. Much of what we do have on display, at any given time, is for sale.

We don't have a performing arts series. This is why I ferry students "all over hell and creation" (I thank thee, Fie, for teaching me that phrase) to piggyback off of other schools' visiting artists. We don't even have a film series.

We try to pretend these things don't matter: with a little imagination, one can put together a fairly respectable-sounding schedule of "cultural events" for the freshmen in Intro to College Life, even if most of them are homegrown. But opportunities and experiences do matter, and they especially matter when most of your students come from places where the arts are not part of their everyday life, and frankly I am getting sick of pretending.