Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

At Franklin & Marshall,
Ringing In the New Generation


By Lawrence Biemiller

Lancaster, Pa. -- It bothers me that I can't remember the song my freshman-year next-door neighbor in Buchanan Hall blared day and night. Not "Free Bird." Not "Sweet Home Alabama." But what? How could I forget? He had four-foot speakers and he played the same song over and over and over.


F&M
Franklin & Marshall, from the tower of Old Main

It bothers me because I'm sitting on the Buchanan Hall porch with one of the two current occupants of my old room, a Franklin & Marshall College freshman who is complaining, just as we always did, that "the course work's really tough." He is "technically pre-med," and he has just joined a fraternity. He tells me the food's not bad, especially since a Quiznos sub shop opened in the old lounge connecting Buchanan to Marshall Hall. The dorm is still noisy sometimes, he says, especially when "a bunch of us play video games on the network -- it gets real loud."

He asks what I think of F&M now that I've been out in the real world -- he worries, just as we did, that the college deserves to be better known than it is. Answering isn't easy. I talk about how much I learned in Professor Michalak's foreign-policy-analysis course and about the time Professor Wickstrom climbed up on a desk and put a pillow on his head to play Falstaff. I tell him how much I learned working for the college paper. But I also tell him that F&M in the 1970s was a lousy place for a clueless gay kid -- I knew of only one other gay student in my four years here. He nods.

When I ask to see my old room, he seems to hesitate, but then he gets up and swipes his key at the door and leads me upstairs. I'm surprised to find that my hall is co-ed now -- even the bathroom is co-ed, he says. I marvel at his iBook and at how many students share their music over iTunes, rather than through the walls. At some length, I describe the old built-in furniture and the years before the dorms were air-conditioned. I stand in the room a good 10 minutes before I notice the message board on the open door. In inch-high capitals, it says "THANKS FOR LOCKING ME OUT FAGGOT."

I graduated from F&M 25 years ago this June. Spending a few days on the campus now reminds me that, while much has changed about the undergraduate liberal-arts experience, much has not. Professor Pinsker no longer holds court between his morning classes at one of the big round tables in the Common Ground -- he's retired to Florida, and the Common Ground has become Pandini's, an upscale pizza venue. I spot Professor Stephenson in front of Distler Hall and am surprised to see him gray-haired, although I am myself bald.

But the Phi Kappa Tau brothers still hoot and holler from their second-story deck on College Avenue -- one shouts "I hate tiny boobs!" at two passing women as I walk down the far side of the street. And Thursday night is apparently still party night: At 4:47 Friday morning I am awakened by loud voices emptying into the street in front of the college guest house, just two doors down from Delta Sigma Phi.

My cramped senior-year single, 10 Dubbs-Klein, is now inhabited by a sophomore, Kristen Evans, who has somehow managed to shoehorn in an easy chair. Her iMac sits exactly where I kept an old manual typewriter. She takes me down the hall to show off high-efficiency washers and dryers that will send her an e-mail message when her laundry is done. Like many students now, Ms. Evans plans on spending some time abroad -- she'll be at the University of Oxford all next year. Few of my classmates went anywhere.

Nor did we exercise much. Now the college's vast sports-and-fitness center has weight machines, five basketball courts, upper- and lower-level indoor tracks, and a pool the size of a lake. Even when they're not heading over to work out, students favor athletic wear. The women sport tight sweatpants that show off strips of flat stomach. The men walk around in baggy mesh shorts with studied, gym-hipped swaggers -- I do not remember that any of us swaggered so. Instead, of course, we smoked.

The food-service director, Kathleen Argires Pianka, gives me a tour of dining facilities. Besides Quiznos and Pandini's, there's a new coffee shop called Jazzman's, where a small coffee costs as much as at Starbucks. The main dining hall has been renovated to bring the cooks out of the back kitchen. Rather than sliding trays down cafeteria lines, students queue up for custom-made deli sandwiches or made-to-order Thai. Even at the traditional-fare station, Ms. Pianka says, "we constantly batch-cook."

It is probably now safe to reveal that I have myself batched-cooked in that same kitchen. My friend Gregory, a student food-service manager, had keys to the dining halls, and several times we fired up one of the big grills at 2 a.m. to make ourselves batches of fried-egg sandwiches. Generally, though, in the middle of the night we just drove out to Dempsey's diner, where a waitress named Mary served us slices of strawberry pie. Now the Quiznos stays open till 2. "The college's short-term goal was to create ventures that would keep students on campus," Ms. Pianka tells me.

"This generation is very food-savvy," she adds. "They know what arugula is." They also understand the food service's complex calculus of meal swipes and "flex dollars," which befuddles me. To judge by their SAT scores, today's F&M students are much smarter than we were, but they have to be smarter just to eat.

In the office of The College Reporter, where I spent much of my time, the bulletin boards still have quotes that I tacked up when I was the editor, although they have yellowed and are largely obscured by later postings. The darkroom is now used for storage, since the photographers rely on digital cameras. Daniel Oakes, a junior, is the new editor. He says the paper is "struggling a bit for writers" -- nothing unusual there.

I meet a freshman, Caitlyn Carney, who sings the praises of a course she's taking that is part of the college's interdisciplinary "Foundations" curriculum -- it's called "Get Real" and it asks, Ms. Carney says, Where does art end and real life begin? In papers, she tells me, students are expected "to get in the minds of Plato and Nietzsche and say what they mean" -- a daunting assignment for anyone. Last semester, she says, she enjoyed Professor Fluck's freshman tuberculosis seminar. "I was so lucky to get in," she says. "We taught ourselves -- my group studied microepidemiology." Her enthusiasm makes me want to start college all over again -- but knowing what I know now, of course.

I talk with several members of LGBTA, an organization "supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and their allies." One tells me he's kept count and has e-mail addresses for 19 gay students, or just over 1 percent of the student population of 1,860. An athlete and business major, he makes a point of saying that he is "not a very stereotypical gay guy" and that he's only been harrassed once, by a few guys who said "There goes the fairy" when he walked by them earlier this year. The freshman in my Buchanan Hall room, by the way, later e-mails me an apology, saying the message on the door wasn't meant to hurt anyone.

Gay students I talk to say they are comfortable at F&M, even in some fraternities, although they are cautious about what they say to whom, and careful about how they describe themselves in online profiles on Thefacebook -- should they out themselves, lie, say nothing, hide their profiles from anyone who isn't an acquaintance? One woman, a freshman, goes to what she calls "L-word nights" with friends from off campus every week. A young man, a sophomore, assures me that "no one's going out of their way to promote hate on campus" -- a backhanded compliment at best.

Still, it's hard not to love the place when the trees are flowering and students are tossing Frisbees around Hartman Green and I am thinking of all the friends I passed notes to in class and stayed up so late with. Ms. Carney, when she's not reading Plato and Nietzsche, has a job that was once my friend Adam's -- she rings the college bell every weekday at 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., the beginning and end of classes. One morning I follow her up through the trap door in Old Main that leads into its dusty tower.

Up here is an older F&M even than the one I remember -- no flex dollars, no ethernet jacks, just a creaking, unpainted staircase clinging to bare brick walls. The only light comes from a pair of tall Gothic windows unchanged since the building opened in 1856. The initials of generations of bell ringers are penciled or scratched into an old door that leads to the attic over the chapel.

Ms. Carney consults her watch. Then she braces her feet on a landing, gets a good grip on the rope hanging down through a hole in the landing above, and uses all her weight to pull the rope down. Silence. She gives another hard pull, and then another. "You have to get it started," she explains. I can still picture Adam straining at the same rope -- I see him as clearly as though it were only last year. Then the bell sounds, high above us, and for some time Ms. Carney keeps it ringing brightly out across the sun-splashed campus.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published May 20, 2005.