The Foundations of Social Space at Amherst College

(Craig Campbell)– “To change the world, one has to first change the process of world-making.” –Pierre Bourdieu, Social Space and Symbolic Power

The “Culture of Silence” has become a buzzword at Amherst College in the past few weeks. Writers in all sorts of media – journalism, op-ed, on-campus publications and national newspapers – have picked up the phrase and used it as criticism of the general combination of administrative action and student attitude that have led to an atmosphere of sexual disrespect. Since the summer, the administration has been rapidly moving to amend policy. Amherst students, staff, and faculty conducted a frank, campus-wide discussion of rape culture. In every facet of this institution, people are putting substantive thought into finding ways to end the “Culture of Silence.”

Student culture here is often derided by those who constitute it. Recently, we’ve tackled the Culture of Silence, but this dialogue resonates with the complaints of athletic culture, academic culture, and drinking culture that we’ve all heard or contributed to. We can intellectualize these issues and discuss them on an abstract level without end (isn’t that what an Amherst education equips us to do?) but we need palpable, concrete changes to conventions that inform and promote the undesirable parts of these cultures.

The students who met with Amherst’s Board of Trustees in October suggested one such change in regard to the “new” alcohol policy. They noted in their minutes provided to the student body that “increased enforcement of the alcohol policy created a disparity in where students could feel comfortable congregating.” They suggested a more lenient policy toward gatherings in open, well-lit spaces (Morris Pratt, Marsh, Seelye, for example) that provide an alternative to the private, dark common rooms in suites at the Socials. Instead of forcing students to drink behind closed doors of private residences, social gatherings should be brought into common spaces, those areas accessible (with the exception of Hitchcock) to anyone with an Amherst ID.

Amherst prides itself on the history of its picturesque edifices, especially the buildings on and surrounding the Freshman Quad. But none of those buildings look like they did when the College operated in the 19th Century. The elegant ballrooms that once marked the primary social spaces of the college were unfortunately obliterated in the renovations that “modernized” the campus over the last century.

But the existing spaces continue to be underutilized. I was warned, when deciding to live in a single on the first floor of Marsh, that I should be worried about the incessant loud noise issuing from the large adjacent ballroom on weekend evenings. I’m unhappy to say that, this year, exactly the opposite is true; I’ve only seen the space heavily populated during our two Coffee Haus events. I’m more frequently disappointed by the cold silence with which the giant space greets me almost every time I leave my room. The size of the ballroom, heavily used and inhabited in previous years, exacerbates its loneliness when left silent and empty. Unfortunately, it’s the fear of police retribution that has kept the space from being used for social events.

Instead, we have very stratified architectural layouts in many buildings, both residential and non-residential. The entire first floor of Charles Pratt Dormitory was once a giant, open gymnasium; now, however, it is divided into two very separate common areas. Val is separated in such a way that accommodates and perpetuates demarcated social territory – athletes in the back, international students in the middle, etc. Cohan was explicitly designed as a riot-proof dorm, and it shows in its labyrinthine layout that erodes any sense of unity. Keefe Campus Center serves the student body so poorly precisely because of the way it is partitioned – why can’t Schwemm’s be connected to the Friedman Room, the largest gathering place in the building? Most other colleges are serviced by Student Unions, where all student activities are given the same priority in periphery offices that surround one large common space that is able to accommodate large events.

How we interact with other individuals is largely affected by how we interact with space. So by revising the space, we revise the way we interact with each other. It’s not a comprehensive change, to be sure. But the divisions that we perceive exist within the student body – male vs female, athlete vs non-athlete, Shadow Amherst vs AC socialites – can in part be reconciled with this very visible and very changeable part of the way we experience this College.

Echoing the fall of Davis, in a few years the remaining dorms currently on the social quad will be demolished, and the place tour guides tell prospective students is the location of “most parties” will inevitably shift elsewhere. But, considering all the complaints about the Socials now, we should preempt the demolition by identifying changes to the way we interact with other existing social spaces on campus.

In subsequent weeks, I will be examining the problems with the architectural arrangement of particular spaces on this campus, and how, in specific terms, they might be altered to better foster a sense of community within the student body. It may be rearranging the furniture in residential study rooms, providing better lighting to indoor and outdoor spaces, or keeping some buildings open later into the night. We’ve clearly shown, in the past month, how much we want to change the way we interact with the Amherst world. We create this world in the way we eat, the people with whom we socialize, and the places we choose to study. But, as Bourdieu puts it, we must first “change the process of world-making,” and tangibly alter the physical foundations of our experience here.