The first time I stepped foot onto Wesleyan’s campus the grass was impossibly green. I could take my shoes off, walk on it without stepping in a goat head burr. The buildings were too large, beautifully large. I couldn’t see the skyline, clear and flat, through all of them. I got lost on the streets that bleed into Middletown, trying to find a class that I was meant to sit in on. I walked in on a meeting in one of those old houses, the ones that creek and have that old house smell to them. The people in the meeting helped me get where I needed to go. I sat in the corner of a workshop class out of the professor’s line of sight, careful not to breathe, not to disturb. That evening, in the dark, I sat on Foss for the first time and looked out across Wesleyan and knew that I wouldn’t be accepted. It was too real a university. I was a fake and half-formed person within it.
Two semesters later, in one of my seminar classes, my professor asked us why we chose Wesleyan. The girl who wore tweed jackets sitting next to me said it was because of Olin. She walked into it and it felt like the kind of place that people do real thinking. She saw the outside place, the red brick, and the marble columns, and the metalwork on the impossibly tall windows, as a reflection of what was going on inside the meat of people’s heads. The physical place gave shape to something as formless and abstract as “real thinking.” The building, impossibly, both existed prior to and outside of the act of thinking while simultaneously calling it forth.
When it was my turn to answer I said my reason for attending was “spite,” which was true enough. I spited Wesleyan for making me feel apart from it, but more importantly, I used the university to exercise the spite I felt toward my home and to myself for being from there. It felt like a clever response at the time. Spite seemed a better answer than something as purely aesthetic and empty as a brick and mortar building. But the answers were, at their core, the same.
Olin Library, along with the rest of campus, gave form to something that I would not have otherwise been able to articulate, gave it shape and dimension, set it into marble and leather and brass. A sense of moreness, more than goat head burrs and empty skylines. I walked through the stacks every semester, slowly, plucking out my books in part to avoid paying for them and in part because it made me feel like a real student who could use such an enormous and real library. I carried around my thick books in a New Yorker tote bag, wore turtlenecks, and bought a pair of Doc Martens, the kind that I saw everyone else wearing. I loved the clothes, but more so, I loved what they signified: That I belonged. The longer I stayed at Wesleyan the more natural it felt; the less the lines and colors stood out, sharp and distinct, the more home blurred in my memory. I was beginning to live there, melting into the place.
Last semester I left my apartment for spring break, locked the door behind me, all the pretty antiques I’d carefully collected from Freecycle, all the library books I checked out and never finished, all the clothes I had bought to craft the right person,
still inside. I paused a minute before I called my Uber, nervous that I had left something important.
I would not be back.
My campus experience is now mediated through a screen, embedded in a pixelated 2015 MacBook Air that I’ve owned since high school. I’m back home, back in Oklahoma. I’m not on a campus that spends $36,000 every year to maintain the green, green grass and $446,000 to make sure that Olin stays pretty enough to emboss on cardstock letters. My tuition has dropped. I no longer have to spend 12 hour weekends working at Usdan Cafe to afford Wesleyan. I’m getting the exact same education for much less money. What I don’t get are the marble columns, the pretty girls in tweed jackets, the feeling of self-importance, of superiority, that the physical place both demands and allows from me.
Online education offers access without the demands of physicality and without its pretensions. It has made attending college, for me, far more accessible without compromising quality. While I understand this will not be the experience of all, or even of most remote students, if this format works well for some, I have to ask, why did it take a global pandemic for elite universities to adopt it? And why all the kicking and screaming on the way there?
Professors who still refuse the format will feebly attempt to justify their strict adherence to in-person learning: you can’t learn without being face to face; I can’t use my whiteboard; the energy is different; the students are more distracted. And while I understand that for some professors the transition is hard, especially if they haven’t been trained in using these technologies, and that some arts and sciences classes genuinely need the aid of physical space, I also know that the real problem is, at its root, a distaste for what remote learning symbolizes.
I heard it in my professor’s subtle jabs at online learning before COVID-19, in the Zoom University memes that popped up all over the Facebook groups for elite universities, and in myself when I said that I couldn’t believe I had worked so hard to transfer into Wesleyan, only to finish out my last year online.
Online universities, like the University of Phoenix, are typically for profit. They have abysmally low retention rates, horrible job conversion rates, and are known for their predatory behaviors. Watch any of their advertisements and it’s clear who they are marketing to (they make no attempts to hide it): Blue-collar workers, single mothers, and work- ing parents. In other words, people for whom in-person education, and especially an in-person education at an elite university, is inaccessible both because of its physical demands and because of the cost.
My sister, who is a bit younger than me, started college with me at a local university in Oklahoma where we lived on campus and attended in-person classes. Now, she’s married, has a full-time day job, lives in a house, and is expecting a child. Intent on finishing out her degree, she continues taking classes from that same university online. Her husband takes online courses at the University of Phoenix because it integrates into his life, because it is accessible, because it allows him to work. Imagine someone
like my sister attempting to attend Wesleyan. She wouldn’t have been able to continue so seamlessly.
Many times I’ve imagined finding myself in this situation when my partner’s mother tells me that she’s had a dream of me becoming pregnant with a baby boy or asks me when I’ll start a family.
“I’m at Wesleyan,” I say. It’s a good cop-out. “Where would I put it? I know, I can pull out a dresser drawer in my dorm and leave it in there all day.”
It’s a joke between us even when it’s not. I’m frustrated that she can’t tell that my sweaters and New Yorker tote, the signs of affluence that I’ve attempted to take on, are a clear indicator that my womb is not free real estate. As much as I hate myself for
it, I know that my fear of pregnancy is rooted in classism, just as deeply as it’s rooted in feminism and my sense of bodily autonomy.
Imagine me pregnant, I think. Wesleyan students don’t get pregnant. This is the unnerving thing about online school for professors, students, and administrators. Not a fear of turning toward the unethical practices of the University of Phoenix, but the fear of allowing in and becoming like the students who populate online universities: single mothers, students with full-time jobs, people who take care of their parents and families, people who can’t afford the meal plan and the dorm fee and the price it takes to water the flowers and plant them new each season. The cost of maintaining the aesthetics of wealth is a hefty one. It means keeping the lawn clean and the structures up to date and keeping the students inside those structures of a certain type.
Maybe these coming semesters will change things. We have an opportunity to test out online learning, to see how it gels with campus life and the identity that Wesleyan and its students have built up around ourselves. If professors and students will play along, will push through the newness of it, perhaps we will get over the learning curve and find that the online university can be just as serious and real as the in-person university. More importantly, we may find that, for some, it can be more accessible. This is not to say that we should get rid of the campus and the pretty buildings; there are real people who need the real place to keep their very real jobs and livelihoods. I love Olin as much as the next Wes student. And of course, the majority of Wesleyan students will still want that nebulous college experience that the university promises. There’s no reason, however, that this idyllic Wesleyan can not exist in tandem with a purely practical Wesleyan, the Wesleyan that just wants a degree.
I have to admit that it was, in part, the aesthetics of Wesleyan that drew me toward it. I liked the feeling of being there, in the Northeast, physically far above and far away from home. I liked sitting on Foss, looking down, feeling as though I had climbed some hill and propped myself upon it, clawed my way out of the masses, and earned a seat in the ivory tower. But as intoxicating as campus life is, I didn’t join Wesleyan for the college experience, for the feeling of sitting at a seminar table, holding a thick and heavily marked copy “Ulysses” in my hand such that everyone could see its heaviness and its markedness, taking my first sip of red wine at a party in someone’s dimly lit apartment, sitting a few feet away from Cathryn Schultz or Terrance Hayes all starry-eyed, walking through the stacks of Olin, or renting out a classroom and marking up a chalkboard as though this were the “Dead Poets Society.”
I came so that my degree could say “Wesleyan University,” so that I could get a good education and gain access to a better job market. The rest is a footnote, tucked neatly away in a box of antiques and turtlenecks, collecting dust in a storage unit in Middletown, hovering in my empty apartment, hidden in dark and musty corners of the stacks, still wandering lost on the streets that bleed into Middletown.
Katie Livingston can be reached at email@example.com.