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Range Rover: Institutionalized

'In seminar rooms and lecture halls I find all sorts of items redolent with connection...'
As September rolls along, millions of students and faculty are getting back into the post-secondary swing.

I just returned from my annual sojourn to the meeting of the Canadian Herpetological Society. Sited in a different Canadian locale each year, this particular incarnation was held at Carleton University in Ottawa. And while I’ve written columns about this particular synod on a couple of occasions, I won’t subject you again (this time, anyway) to either the detail and nuance of all I learned about current and ongoing research in this country on the evolution, physiology, behaviour, genetics and conservation of reptiles and amphibians—or the various treasure-hunt triumphs of the field-trip that followed (though we did rustle up a rare four-toed salamander and a pretty cool metre-and-a-half-long grey ratsnake, Canada’s largest ophidian and, unfortunately, quite endangered).

Instead, what I’m thinking about is how this yearly foray, along with other scientific conferences I attend for journalistic research reasons, have become important touchstones that reconnect me with something I continue to value highly: universities, colleges, museums and other aspects of post-secondary learning institutions.

Most folks I know have at least some good memories from time spent in university or college. I wouldn’t be going out on a limb, however, to guess that the vast majority of these aren’t academic in nature, but centred more on social situations and events, and connections made with others that, in some cases, helped steer life directions. In my case, having spent 15 years in four such institutions as a student, instructor and researcher, I find my memories to have become somewhat blended and more gestalt-y, eschewing social watersheds to wrap more around the rhythms, look and feel of the particular crucible of campus life I inhabited—buildings, offices, laboratories, seminar rooms, lecture halls, etc.

Each of these, of course, arrives in different form. For instance, the types of spaces and distances between buildings conjure a physical echo of all the walking I once did to get from A to B, here to there, the library to home. Or the way the smell of a typical student-building cafeteria or pub is triggering of connection in a way that off-campus food-and-drink experiences never were—even if they still exist.

When I first arrive on a new campus—usually of the self-contained and not disseminated form—I’m first given to noticing its overall location and geography with respect to the community, and how it’s pieced together in a cohesive (or not so much) layout. On the heels of that comes reckoning with the number and types of buildings; the most aesthetic Canadian campuses feature at least some century structures in the marquee red sandstone of Nova Scotia or limestones of Southern Ontario that visually dilute an ugly plague of mid-century modernism (including the widespread concrete-heavy brutalist architecture of the 1950s/60s) and equally failed 1970s/80s postmodernism. Excellent examples of heritage buildings can be found at big inner-city unis like Queen’s, Toronto main campus and McGill (e.g., the Redpath Museum—if you can overlook the colonial imperialism of the Redpath sugar barons).

The Cambrian feel inside such old stone buildings is entirely different from that within the brutalist concrete bunkers and wide-hallway, fluorescent-sheen-on-linoleum high-school imitations—or even more recent buildings that channel high-concept, sound-absorbing theatre complexes. Yet they all share that unmistakable feel of information dissemination, learning and knowledge-sharing. Likewise, though the stairs may differ in each, all fall into a panoply of institutional styles; trudging up any set in these places with a heavy backpack is an instant trip down memory lane for me—particularly any foot-worn stone reminiscent of the main stairs that spiral up within the Royal Ontario Museum, where I would preferentially swim through a daily cascade of schoolchildren rather than skip up a character-less staircase grafted on a hundred years later that led to my office from a staff entrance.

Epoxy resin countertops have been a laboratory standard for decades. Extremely durable and both flame- and chemical-resistant, they’re something I became intimately acquainted with. While other colours are available for a slightly higher price, I never had a university lab that was anything but the cheapest standard black—a good thing given what we were doing to them and spilling across their surfaces. I also can’t help but remember the old lab storerooms, where you’d go to get your glass as an undergrad for various assigned experiments (and then “borrow” the best tubes and flasks to build a bong); in graduate school this exercise morphed to using your supervisor’s lab gear or ordering stuff from a catalogue that fit your particular research project.

In seminar rooms and lecture halls I find all sorts of items redolent with connection—like the folding or swinging seats and half-tables, some in old-style for taking notes and newer ones for setting your laptop or tablet on. When I sit through a presentation in a large lecture hall I recall my student days; when I give one, the other end of my academic career. All these years later both still feel familiar, comfortable and welcome.

Ultimately, however, the best part of meetings in institutions for me is plugging back into the rhythm of the academic year, one that added another decade and a half onto the elementary and secondary back-to-school cycle and will live in my mind and my bones for life. As a result, September will always remain a time to seek new horizons, learn new stuff, and satisfy curiosities—worth the price of any registration fee.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.

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