Hughes: Behind our Diplomas

Consider Dartmouth from a staff member’s perspective.

by Terence Hughes | 5/30/17 12:25am

When interviewing staff, I took note of symbols perhaps before taking note of stories. While a Dartmouth-crested polo commands uniformity in a way that makes a staff member seamlessly blend into the background, a wedding ring, Boston Red Sox hat and wrist tattoo reaffirm personhood and individuality.

I learned a great deal about perspective in these interviews. Consider the Green. We see a space where students lounge between classes, where tours traverse with visitors, where a farmer’s market gathers in warm months. On the other hand, staff see a space where underground sprinkler systems cross like road maps, where re-seeding is done frequently, where constant maintenance is needed to keep up appearances.

In this way, Dartmouth is a metaphorical stage. “Onstage” is a place populated by students and faculty where academic research thrives, visitors come to observe and students grow into themselves. But there is also an “offstage,” where staff ensure that chemistry hoods function properly so faculty can conduct their research, that someone is behind the counter at Late-Night Collis when we drunkenly stumble in to grab mozzarella sticks, that classroom projectors work so Dartmouth can continue on being a top school for undergraduate teaching. What happens offstage frequently makes what happens onstage possible.

These metaphors, stories and reflections have emerged throughout the past two terms as I conducted ethnographic research for my senior capstone project, “Staff Narratives at Elite Academic Institutions.” In my research, I conducted interviews and focus groups with campus maintenance staff. As an anthropology major, I often feel a fundamental tension in the assumption that to do anthropology properly, you must travel far away and experience “otherness.” But I have learned that anthropology does not have to be elsewhere. As a first-generation college student from a blue-collar family, I often reflect on the unspoken ways in which class touches each corner of our community. Accordingly, I began to question how I might engage anthropologically with this place I call “home.” How might this permit new levels of empathetic engagement with otherwise unheard narratives on campus?

My fieldwork quickly brought me to the intersection of recognition and labor, leading me to consider Dartmouth through the lens of economic anthropology. Economic anthropologists analyze how commodities are produced, what the labor behind a commodity entails and what a commodity means to its consumer. Consumers frequently forget — or perhaps are encouraged to overlook — the labor that produces the commodity they consume.

Through my research, I began to consider Dartmouth as a commodity. Who consumes Dartmouth? Who labors to produce Dartmouth? How do politics of (mis)recognition interweave producers and consumers here in our community? In many ways, students, faculty and administrators “consume” the institution. We attach Dartmouth to our résumé to land jobs. We sit in classrooms, offices and research labs, simultaneously consuming and producing knowledge.

But like any other commodity, there is a disconnect. There is much that goes into the making of Dartmouth as image and as a physical space. In time, I realized that even as a first-generation college student from a blue-collar background, I did not understand the work and the experiences that make this place the commodity it is. Despite my appreciation for the work that I grew up watching my parents do, I failed to consider the effort it took staff to create a space in which I, and others, could perform our Dartmouth experiences.

In conducting my research, I heard beautifully complex narratives that cannot be distilled down into an op-ed. I listened as staff reflected on what working at Dartmouth before co-education was like, sharing stories of fishing with students each year in the Second College Grant. I laughed alongside staff members when they questioned the purpose of “The Onion” or asked me why we voluntarily drink Keystone Light. I heard stories about how working at Dartmouth is the dream job for many because of the financial and personal stability it provides.

Staff members also shared the frustration they feel when the 500th student in a row shows up at the Novack Café window engrossed in his phone, not knowing what to order. They shared their experiences cleaning up the vomit of students who didn’t bother to leave an apology note or even attempt to clean up after themselves. I listened as they confided in me the ways faculty frequently make them feel as if their time is not valuable. Their jobs, such as testing the smoke alarms or fixing classroom technology, are commonly viewed as disturbances, and staff are asked to “come back later,” as if they don’t have schedules, lives and families of their own to tend to.

Listening to these stories impacted me. How might they come together to impact our community?

Like most questions in anthropology, the answer is that it’s complicated. But one step is to remember that we all have blind spots that prevent us from seeing the world exactly as it is. All members of our community are in a position to better acknowledge the labor that produces Dartmouth as we consume it. I realized I was blind to how, as I go about being onstage, I consume Dartmouth without properly recognizing those working offstage who make my life here possible. I also found a blind spot through my assumptions; specifically, I assumed that an offstage existence would be a “lesser” existence. When I started this project, I assumed that staff members were unhappy because their work was invisible; as an idealistic student, I assumed I could fix this unhappiness. However, the lived truth forced me to understand offstage Dartmouth on its own terms, not as a space inherently devoid of value but as one that can offer stability, community and personal meaning to those within it, even without proper recognition by those onstage.

We must therefore critically self-examine our personal blind spots and how our onstage position at Dartmouth impacts what we recognize and what we misrecognize. We can translate this reflection on personal blind spots into an understanding that we — as those onstage — are in a position of privilege from which we can better demonstrate appreciation. Thus, we can reframe our understanding of offstage Dartmouth as a space that does not need consumer recognition to be intrinsically valuable but deserves it. As students, we must empathetically engage with the stories of those who work to build our community.

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