Seeing the campus through new eyes

I arrived back on campus on Monday morning to launch my two main projects for the semester: a performance featuring Wesleyan’s Physical Plant employees and a workshop taught by Physical Plant that gives students the chance to learn basic maintenance skills. Luckily step one for both projects is the same: learn what exactly it is that these guys do.

Yesterday morning I shadowed Dean Maroun, who is one of the four carpenters on staff. I went and met the carpentry guys in their break room during their morning coffee break, and we talked a bit about ideas for the course. They emphasized the need to articulate what it is we want students to get from the course because, as they pointed out, they could easily talk for 18 hours about the foundation and framing of a house alone. In a way, it’s really a question of where to start. Do we go into the structure of a house? Do we go all the way back to financing–before you even own a house–to credit scores and mortgages and interest rates (oh my!)? Do we skip that and start with looking at homes and recognizing potential issues and asking the right questions? Or do we just bracket those steps and cover basic renovation and repair work in carpentry, plumbing, electric, and HVAC? I’m so grateful to have them asking these sorts of questions because I would never come up with them on my own. I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m hoping spending some time watching them work will help me gain some clarity.

The rest of the morning Dean took me on some odd jobs with him–finishing a new door installation, repairing a door bell–as well as showing me around the shop, and pointing out some of the work they had done over the break. He talked about the challenges of the work, with some of the other guys chiming in at times, about how many assignments are like solving a puzzle–they have the skills to fix what needs fixing, but because of the wide variety of the work they do, most jobs aren’t something they do every day. Take, for example, building a flight of stairs–its a straightforward enough job to figure out the specs, but because they only do it a couple times a year, the work is never mindless. It’s an interesting byproduct of being a carpenter on a campus with over 300 vastly different buildings.

Before I left for the afternoon, Dean took me over to see the CoGen facility at Freeman Athletic Center, where they make a large portion of the electricity for the campus. It’s a relatively small room, with lots of pipes going every which way and other machinery sandwiched in between. Apparently it was a tight squeeze when they installed the new generator–a fact I would have never even thought to consider. Dean tells me this is how he sees the whole campus. For every nut and bolt he sees he thinks about the person who was there and had to screw it in.

Its such a thrill to see the campus through new eyes. As students, not only are we not able to see this “nuts and bolts” perspective, but we also only get to see the campus as it exists for a brief four years. This morning I shadowed Kevin Webster, foreman of the electrical shop, who has worked for Wesleyan for 28 years. Hanging out with him made it clear that when he looks at the campus now he also sees all the past iterations of what it once was. He sees the history of the campus in on its present form. Kevin took me to see some of the places at Wesleyan that most students and faculty never get to go. We visited the clock tower of the Memorial Chapel where, before a room full of gears was replaced by a single digital screen, an employee would have to go every week to pull all the weights of the back up from the basement so the clock could keep ticking.

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He showed me the old spiral staircase in Beckham Hall that leads up to the mechanical room and explained how the building used to be home to a basketball court and a pool. He took me through the tunnels under WestCo and the Nics and showed me the ones below the Butts (Fun fact: there used to be a Kosher kitchen in the basement of Butt A).

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He explained how the University used to be organized into smaller “colleges” and pointed to an old “College of Letters” door plaque above the entrance to what is now an industrial kitchen. He showed me the mechanical rooms under Exley and Usdan and explained how the systems worked, and how they used to work.

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In these places that filled me with a sense of awe and mystery, Kevin was completely at home. He navigated the tunnels with ease and confidence. He showed me places he knew I would otherwise never see with a sense of pride and ownership. It was clear that Kevin really valued his accumulated knowledge of the campus–it’s what makes the Physical Plant guys completely irreplaceable. He kept saying how you can’t learn this place over night, that there are things about the buildings on campus that you either know or you never will. I realized that when you understand the history of the buildings–just like when you know what it’s like to put the nuts and bolts in place in a building– you see and interact with the spaces in a whole other way. Plus, if you’re lucky, you avoid the frustration of looking for an electrical panel that’s hidden behind a painting on the third floor of the library.

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