Room 133 in the Atrium building is small and warm. It seems to be the only room in the building that is so warm. Air vents are broken? Pit of lava just under the floor? No one knows.
The cap on World Lit, which I teach in room 133, is 35. There are exactly 35 desks in 133, mashed uncomfortably close together. But, pardon me, “desk” is too strong of a word–I should say chair with postage-stamp-sized writing surface attached with a fixed arm.
By the time I get to class, the students are focused on intently collapsing their possessions and selves into this small cube of space allotted by this Learning Area. The brick-like Norton Anthology of World Literature is teetering on their knees while they ready their quiz paper on the tiny writing surface which does not, as you might guess, allow an entire page of notebook paper to rest fully upon it. Their papers are cresting over the top edge of the “desk” like tongues. Their elbows are squeezed into their ribs so they don’t touch their neighbors while writing.
They are concentrating very hard on not touching their neighbors, on successfully balancing the NAWL on their knees, on not falling asleep due to the heat and general atmosphere of oppression in the room.
Of course I’m saying here that it is hard to pay attention, then, to the main thing, to me talking about World Literature. Most dare not rest their heads on their desks, since this is so clearly rude and mostly they do not want to be rude, but the lucky ones against the wall will doze off with their heads supported nearly upright by the wall, snapping to attention only when I start talking about Sex or Love or Power, the all-time Most Interesting topics in World Literature class, or if I start yelling as I might when I get to the topic of eternity in the Bhagavad-Gita, or if I start weeping heartily as I might when I make myself recite “Boat of Cypress Wood.”
At home when I am working, writing, studying, reading, learning, whatever, I sit in bed (and no, I have no problem also sleeping in that same bed later, as some do; I am great at sleeping). I concentrate better when I am comfortable. But I know classrooms aren’t really supposed to be comfortable. It’s not that bad, I know; no one’s sitting on a pile of glass. Still, the I guess the hard chair and the difficult writing surface is supposed to keep a learner attuned. In reality, this hardly works.
What would I have instead? Something between a bed and a pile of glass. In an ideal world the students could have some choice in the matter. Some might simply like bigger desk/chairs. Some would like something very sturdy and definite to sit down to, like a table. Some might like those juvenile floor rocker chairs, or just the very floor itself. That is what I would choose if I were a student with a choice.
Beyond the chairs, the room is plain and white. A plastic chair rail winds around the room, which always seemed a little insulting to me. Two huge windows in the back with the shades drawn. A white board mounted, inconveniently, on one side wall rather than at the front. Nondescript laminate floor. A utilitarian “blank page” of a space, I suppose the idea is. Nothing distracting.
Really I think the architecture and design of this room sends another message: this place is not special. Focus on the moving and noise-making person at the front of the room and nothing else.
That is now how people work. People have bodies. Bodies are a fact of their nature. Except for the most impressive bodhisattva among us there is no forgetting the body. It makes its needs known, much to the annoyance of the higher order mind so intent on getting an A in World Lit.
I wish there were trees in the room and a cooling breeze to rustle them. Some potted plants and a little fan would suffice. (Quickly downsizing one’s vision of ideal equipment is very Lecturer of me). A very long chalkboard that curved around the now-curved room I am envisioning. A skylight. Cups of icewater for everyone. A coat rack and some shelves for everyone. Mirrors. Yeah, mirrors on the walls. Millennials like a steady reminder that they exist. Also, they might behave a little better and work a little harder if they think they are being observed. And if we can’t have mirrors we could at least have some posters of eyes around the room, or some shrines for imaginary ancestors, to make sure they feel securely networked to others, which is something else I hear they like.
But in room 133, none of us have what we would like. We work hard at ignoring this.