Given the reverence for a college education with which I was raised, I've always felt an emotional pull toward the "classic" college campus with the solemn buildings and the broad green spaces. The pretty little campus of Lawrence University and the vastness of the University of Wisconsin were my earliest memories of what college was supposed to look like. I carry a bit of mild regret that I've spent my professional career at two urban universities that had very little to recommend them along those lines. (And I'm quite excited that this is changing for UAB).
So I was eager to stroll around the Auburn campus yesterday during the break between the business meeting and the morning speaker. Auburn is classic in just about every sense: the oldest university in Alabama, and the largest (28,000 students). It completely dominates the town, which is tiny on its own. The campus has many beautiful spaces and they've done a very good job with preserving and restoring the old buildings. The overall effect is somewhat marred by the amount of construction going on, but a lot of construction on a university campus is considered to be a good sign.
The emphasis on sports, particularly football of course, is a little unnerving. In the official visitors guide that was in our conference packets the paragraph on Auburn's academic & scholarly achievements is slightly longer than the paragraph touting its athletic eminence, but one does sense a bit of padding ("...nationally renowned for many of its programs and accomplishments, including the invention of the flea pill, super bullet-proof vest, and high-performance dog food ... faculty from the college received an Academy Award in 2005 for achievements in motion technology...") In fairness, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Architecture are among the country's best, and one can no doubt get an excellent education at Auburn. Still, that's not what defines the place and it is not what ties the students and alumni to it so tightly. I said to Lynn as we were walking past some of the fraternity houses, "So what do you think gives the boys a bigger thrill -- those six astronauts who are Auburn grads, or the SEC championship last year?"
Sure, it's a cheap shot, and I really don't mean to sound disapproving, because I don't disapprove. But I'm someone for whom "belonging" has not only never been desired, it's something I've actively avoided. Whenever somebody starts talking about the need for "community" I want to run the other way, so the bond that one feels for one's college football team is simply foreign to me. I understand that this is a character defect on my part. Probably a fizzled gene.
But here in Alabama, where the UA/Auburn rivalry is such a big part of the social fabric it's something that fascinates me and that I try to understand. Warren St. John's book was a great help. The brilliance of it is that, while St. John is a passionate fan himself, he wrote a book that appeals equally to fans and non-fans. He was able to blend his passion for his home team with his passion for his journalism to create a piece that clearly deserves all the accolades that it receives.
I was thinking about him when I passed a parking lot sign that said, "No RV parking here" -- not the kind of sign one needs at any parking lot at UAB. St. John will probably be in Auburn this weekend. Saturday is the Iron Bowl, the annual contest between Alabama and Auburn. One of these years, when the game is in Auburn, I ought to spend the weekend there on an anthropological expedition. I wouldn't even need to go to the game. I could just spend a couple of days strolling and observing. I imagine it would feel just about as exotic as the week we spent in Salvador. I suppose I need to think about booking the hotel room now.