Beyond the Paper Screen / Finding our way back to a campus community

By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan NewsIt’s late afternoon, and the sun is warm on my face as I run down the steps toward the grassy quad. Halfway down the steps, I stop for a moment to take in the scene: Freshly cut grass spreads in front of me, bordered by a row of palm trees in the distance, behind which I can glimpse the chapel’s bell tower. On the other side of the field are the large oak trees, and underneath, brightly colored flowers dot the landscape. Players are just getting to their positions and stretching out their tight muscles after a long day at work. A dozen or so people stand on the sidelines, ready to cheer on their coworkers, partners or parents. The university staff kickball game is about to start!

Kickball is just like baseball, except it’s played by kicking (instead of batting) a larger rubber ball the size of a basketball. The ball is not heavy but it is very bouncy; easy to kick high, but difficult to kick fast or straight. On the uneven grass surface of the quad, it rolls and bounces unpredictably, inducing unexpected errors. It is a game clearly designed for fun — a perfect choice for friendly competition after work.

As I look around the field I recognize many familiar faces — the shortstop is our mailman; the pitcher is the director of business services; in center field is one of the math professors; and the university controller is at bat. For 45 minutes, they all throw their usual professional demeanor to the wind, and goof around in their team T-shirts with silly team names like “Recess Rejects” (a mixed team of employees from different departments), “Hire Purpose” (the HR team) and “Floppy Disks” (the IT department, of course).

More athletically inclined players look gleeful to be in their element; others, too, look relaxed and happy to be out in the sun. Everyone plays earnestly and good-naturedly, and seems to derive the same amount of enjoyment from the game.

Initially, I went to watch the game because one of my coworkers in the dean’s office was playing, but I kept going back because I enjoyed being there. Was it the pleasure of taking in the perfect Southern California weather after being cooped up in my office? Certainly. Was it the opportunity to take a deep breath and shake off the tension of the day before I head home? Most definitely. But more than anything else, it was the joy of being around my colleagues in a relaxed mode, getting a glimpse of their off-duty selves, and being part of a “community.”

For nearly two decades of my adulthood, I was constantly on the move. After deciding to study in the United States, I embarked on a series of moves as I went from an undergraduate to a master’s to a doctorate program — from a small town in Oregon, to inner city Chicago, to a college town in Colorado. I got married, took a leave from my PhD program, and moved to Dallas, then moved back to Colorado a year later with my then husband. I went to do fieldwork in two different states, went back to Colorado to finish my dissertation, then was off to North Carolina for a postdoctoral fellowship. With all that mobility, it was impossible to develop a sense of belonging anywhere.

When I joined the university 17 years ago, I immediately found many faculty and staff had worked here for many years and even decades. They knew who to call whenever they had a question or a problem. They knew each other’s spouses and partners, and their kids grew up together. In short, they shared history together and belonged to a “community” that spanned the professional-personal boundary. For a newcomer like me, who didn’t fit the institutional mold in many ways, this “community” thing seemed at first more cumbersome than helpful. I will never be co-opted into this collectivism, I thought to myself.

I don’t even know when it happened or how, but eventually — without even being conscious of it — I became part of the university community. I realized this only when our community received a devastating blow eight years ago, when the university went through a series of lay-offs in the midst of the economic recession. I don’t wish to rehash the detrimental effects of the lay-offs or the deeply seated mistrust that lingered for years — still lingers in many respects — except to say that people around the campus stopped counting on the institution or each other as part of the community.

I surprised myself by plunging into a leadership role during this difficult time despite having, as a tenured full professor, little personal stake in it. In the end, I had to admit to myself that I cared about this place and desperately wanted to recover the goodwill and sense of belonging that once made this university a special place.

Hanging out at the kickball games this spring, I felt, for the first time in eight years, something was shifting for the better. I see my fellow university employees are coming together to organize something for themselves, laughing together and enjoying each other’s company.

Higher education in the United States is at a crossroads, and many challenges lie in the university’s future. But at the end of their first season, the university staff kickball league has accomplished something invaluable: They are giving us a glimmer of hope that we may be on our way back to that community feeling.

(The next installment will appear July 15.)

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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