On Lecture Halls And Moments of Distraction


Dear Campus Architects, Designers, And Whoever Else It May Concern,

There is a question I have long wanted — but never dared — to ask you. I have turned it over and over in my mind to make sure that no obvious answer had escaped me, but I cannot seem to come up with one. I feel a little embarrassed to ask and I certainly do not want to sound ungrateful, especially since everything indicates that you do put a lot of effort into creating ideal conditions for students and researchers to carry on their quest for knowledge. And, allow me to add, this is why I have been a great admirer of your work from my very first day on a university campus.

I remember that the absence of the letter “M” on the so-called “M-building” were I was to attend my first math seminar as a new Physics student, though it certainly caused me some embarrassment, was an eye-opener. It was amazing to realize how such a subtle design trick could encourage communication between new and experienced students. I felt incredibly lucky to have met one of the latter who was precisely on his way to the same building and who, seeing my helplessness, kindly suggested that I followed him. Sweaty, blushing and late, I entered a classroom full of strangers toying with the thrilling idea that there would come a day when I would be there to rescue younger students in distress. And indeed years later, proud as a peacock, I lead my youngest brother on a guided tour around the campus and showed him were the M-building was. A much-cherished memory.

On Thursday afternoons, my class was inflicted a particularly dull lecture. Most fortunately, it took place in a windowless lecture hall in which the scattered, discreet neon lights allowed us to plunge in a pleasant drowsiness as we digested our lunch. Even in the unlikely case in which someone would have wished to leave before the end of the class — though I personally do not see what is wrong with seating on a hardwood bench with a straight back and no space to stretch one’s legs; what are two or four hours when one is young and alert? — the escape was grandly facilitated by your clever architectural choices. First, the hugeness of the room allowed virtually everyone to seat at the end of a row, so that they could get out without having to bother other students. Second, the cozy dark carpet on the floor damped the sound of footsteps very efficiently. It might also have damped the teacher’s voice, incidentally, but as I said, the lecture was dull anyway. All this was absolutely perfect.

I can’t help remembering also how cleverly lecture halls were equipped to reconcile absent-minded scientists with energy-saving practices. Since it had become clear that no friendly note on the door would succeed in reminding us to switch the lights off before leaving, motion detectors had been installed to control the lighting. It was a brilliant idea, if I may say so. During lectures, as the teacher went back and forth in front of the blackboard and under the detector, we constantly had light. During exams, when he or she sat immobile at the desk, the light went off every fifteen minutes, which was life-saving for those of us who had been so careless as to forget their watch.

It took me a longer time to fully appreciate the ingenuity of color choices. I am ashamed to admit, for example, that I have long been convinced that the neon green paint in the bathroom of the Chemistry building had been chosen for common economical reasons – or even, I barely dare to say, bought on offer. How indelicate of me. It strikes me now that there could not have been a better color (apart from the bright orange in the Physics building) to revivify a sleepy student relieving her bladder during a much-needed coffee break in the middle of a demanding lecture. And over the years I have learned to appreciate the value of a coat of paint. When I visited a postdoc friend of mine, a while ago, I immediately appreciated how the dark brown walls of her office created an atmosphere that was obviously favorable to deep-thinking.

In short I am truly impressed by your keenness to grasp the essence of academic life, its highs and lows, its long hours of intense concentration and brief moments of distraction. I am especially touched by your deep understanding of the latter, and infinitely grateful for your indulgence. This is why I have to ask: why did you put the classroom and office windows so high that when we seat at our desks, we cannot look outside?

Respectfully yours,

other thoughts


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