University and Identity
Identity and university are connected in multidimensional ways. First, there is the individual student who shapes her identity based on the people, activities, and knowledge she is associated with from the time she starts her college experience. She also already has an identity she brought with her that developed before she came to school; she may subscribe to definitions of identity that the greater society has designated for her as well as developed an identity based on significant occurrences in her home, town, state, or country. The individual student also negotiates her identity with that of the school itself, embodying the values, concerns, and persona of the student body and the university history (case in point- I knew nothing about football before I arrived at MSU. That has most certainly changed.). Moreover, the school itself forms its identity dialectically on two levels: with the processes of the greater culture and by the identities of its students. Because campuses bring people together that may not have normally otherwise met, dynamics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation confront us full-force both in our interactions with each other on campus and the in mainstream rhetoric, forcing students to bolster their sense of who they are and what they stand for. As we navigate through the different meanings of social occurrences, tragedies on campus and struggles and achievements of individual students, we develop and shift our identity as a school and our identities as individuals.
For my project about the changing heart of our campus over time, I am analyzing these same questions as they pertain to different uses of campus space and what these spaces say about our changing state of identity.
In a scrapbook in the university archives, I came across a newspaper clipping from around 1908 that described a debate going on on campus at the time. Just to give a little background, during this period M.A.C. had their first greatly successful football season. October 10, 1908, the team tied with U of M at 0-0 and were otherwise undefeated that fall. According to the scrapbook author, Kenneth D. Van Wagnen, this “marked the start of MAC’s upward march in athletics, which in the years following brought it to the top among the colleges of the Mid-West, and, indeed, of the nation.” He also felt that all of the new events and clubs on campus were contributing to the “improvement of the cultural atmosphere at the college.” The newspaper clipping discusses a proposition to adopt caps and gowns as mandatory uniforms to be worn on campus. During the course of this debate leading up to the vote, it was uncertain which side would win. It says that all of the women and some of the men supported it at first. Then, the engineers realized how much of a pain this custom would prove to be in the laboratory, and the senior class voted two thirds against the movement. The subtitle of the article reads: “Are Not Appropriate. Collegians Think Garb Out of Place at School Like M.A.C.”
It is clear that the college was already beginning to form its identity and this situation confronted them, causing them to analyze and make a decision about who they were going to be. It was deemed that a school that only teaches technical subjects should not try to mimic another type of school. The garb custom did not feel right and was not representative of what the students envisioned M.A.C. to be about. I argue that this situation further solidified M.A.C.’s identity. What went forward was a community that embraced their unique identity that was based on their curriculum and collective academic goals.
Going forward we are interested in how the school’s identity shifted according to processes in the world and the different stages it took to get us to where we are today. Additionally, we want to do some further analysis to see where students currently view the heart of campus and perhaps how this heart shapes our collective and individual identities.