During my days of touring liberal arts college campuses, I heard questions about how the institutions addressed the problem of the “campus bubble.” The term fits: more often than not, when I think of a stereotypical liberal arts college, it seems like it was plopped down randomly onto its surroundings. There is an abrupt transition from on-campus to off-campus. These bubbles are perhaps most noticeable by drastic changes in architecture or an obviously predominant population of young people. They are also notorious for their high concentrations of privileged people.
Before entering this year, it’s appropriate to take a look at how the idea of the bubble applies here at Wes, some of the less-recognized benefits and valid criticisms of the bubble, and ways we can keep the bubble at the forefront of conversation without popping it.
There are some results of living in a bubble that don’t seem to be as detrimental as the isolating term implies. I think a couple of the most distinctive attributes of the Wesleyan community—some of the things that make Wes Wes as we know it—derive from the campus bubble.
For instance, the safe spaces on campus in which all students are free to express themselves are successful in part because they thrive on the community’s differentiation from the outside world. It would be difficult to have this accepting of an environment if students didn’t feel that they could learn about themselves and explore different things in the safety of a somewhat isolated environment. This could be both in terms of taking on new academic and extracurricular interests, and in terms of learning things about yourself personally that may not have even been on your radar before getting to college.
In addition to the safe spaces on campus, the passionate dialogues that take place at Wesleyan couldn’t be the same without the code to which the students and administration adhere. This refers to both Wesleyan’s more obvious codes like the use of gender-neutral pronouns, but also the ways in which students are expected to respond to their peers’ comments and questions. A code like this would be much harder to come by without the certain degree of “bubbliness” or isolation that Wesleyan currently has. It is with these criteria in tow that conversations here become both their most intimate and their most articulate.
There is, nevertheless, undeniable validity in being concerned with how this community is isolated from its outside. Maybe the most common concern is comparing the privilege of a liberal arts college community to that of its immediate surroundings, and at Wesleyan another compelling issue is the high concentration of like-minded opinions that might go against the intention that students here have to keep open minds and reach for diverse conversations.
This is made more evident by the impassioned nature of Wesleyan students. This is important not only because it can make a popular opinion on campus look like the only opinion, but also because it creates a bit of a trap. Accompanied with the campus bubble is a sort of “idea bubble” that makes it easier to fall into the popular assembly of views without checking yourself or the circumstances that got you there. This is because here is clearly a community of thinkers who want to ask and answer hard questions and are eager to be (or are) the most eloquent conversationalists they can be. It’s something to aspire to in an environment like Wesleyan, or in college in general, because it seems as though these few years are a unique opportunity to have people like this around you from whom and with whom you get to learn. That’s an exciting thing, so it makes sense that breaking out of the bubble, or actively imagining the circumstances that lead to different kinds of equally intelligent opinions and conversations elsewhere, might not happen as frequently as it should.
Furthermore, Middletown itself is an underrated resource of varied opinions, experiences, and different dialogues waiting to happen. Finding ways to connect to the greater Middletown/Middlesex community is a good way to start scrutinizing the bubble. There are several extracurricular opportunities with this goal, like working at the Green Street Arts Center or the Center for Prison Education, or looking into MidWes, the umbrella student organization of groups focused on Middletown-Wesleyan relations. But it doesn’t have to be as official as adding extracurriculars, and to many that probably seems like a time crunch. Spending time off campus in general, perhaps getting to meet people that live and work in Middletown and related towns or maybe just exploring the area, would be similarly effective in putting the bubble in perspective.
For the start of this semester, it’s key that we as a community acknowledge the merits and pitfalls of our bubble. Acknowledging that the bubble plays a significant role in shaping our conversations and opinions might lead to more of the open-mindedness to which we aspire.
Sammi Aibinder is a member of the Class of 2018.