By John Mather
After an hour in the business building I begin to lose focus. My notes drift from objective observations to miniature rants.
“Somehow this whole project is counterintuitive. Here I am, trying to create an anthropological study of business students, and yet they all look like students. Normal students. A little more swagger in the step for some, but most, like me, walk with their eyes to the ground and their thoughts somewhere else,” I write.
Needless to say, the project didn’t start off well. My assignment was to observe different students in their respective buildings and create an objective sense of what it was like to be, for instance, an engineering student. We all do it: Look at someone and try to place them. “Oh, look at the trucker hat. He must be in RTA.”
Despite my early doubts, I spent two hours in four different buildings — in lounges, classrooms, and even elevators — watching and listening. I present my findings from one student to another and hope I have captured a modicum of student life. If not, at least these observations might be good for a laugh.
(Note: An effort was made to avoid stereotypes, but sometimes it is impossible.)
“Don’t judge a book by its context. No, wait, its cover.” This slip of the tongue happens 15 minutes after I sit down in a small cafeteria off the main hallway in the Business Building.
The man is speaking with a friend about an upcoming project. “Why are we doing this much work and not getting paid.” Behind me two women read textbooks and some guy with a calculator that could solve student debt in 10 easy equations sits in front of me. His headphones are buried in his ears, and every so often he sings to himself.
A group of four men discussing a project interrupt him. “I hate essays. I enjoy the research because I actually learn. I just hate writing them. No, I don’t mind writing it, I hate sourcing it,” explains one. Another group works on a class presentation. “We’re up to 28 minutes, and we want it to be around 23. We’re aiming for a minute a slide.” Powerpoint is now an art and a science.
Men in this building predominantly travel in packs of two or three. Women either travel alone or in one of these mini-packs. There are exceptions, but not many. They wear lots of denim and knitted sweaters.
I spot the odd sports jacket and many Ugg boots. For men, a twist of the hat to just the right angle sets them apart; perhaps 40 degrees to the right, and 18 degrees down. Perfect. The guy at the table across from me is now rubbing his calculator in, and around, his mouth. A little freaked out, I head into a classroom, IBS 500, where the students are getting marks back from a professor.
I sit in the front row of the class of 60 and wait for the teacher to ask me who I am. He never does, so I leave. I take the elevator to the fifth floor. When I get out, I catch the most interesting conversation of the morning. “There should be two elevators that only go down and two that only go up,” says a woman waiting with her friend. “So then it’s like a fucking horse race: Who’s going to win.”
The women give up and take the stairs just as the elevator arrives. I hop in and beat them to the main floor, then I wait for them at the stairwell. Total Ugg sightings: 12. “Can I have everyone’s attention for a moment?”
The student speaks with an Eastern-European accent. No one hears or notices him. “Excuse me, does anyone know when the French Revolution happened?” No response. A guy sitting alone on the other side of the room looks over. “What?” “Do you know when the French Revolution happened?” he repeats. “1778.”
The revolution started in 1789, but I don’t bother to correct him. I am in a room with low ceilings and even lower couches — the kind that can’t be good for your spine. The hallways of the image arts’ basement remind me of the hull of a navy ship; pipes run overhead, and the walls are lined with multicoloured lockers.
If not a ship, then it is the set of a high school coming-of-age drama. I immediately notice this group of students has a symbol: A stylized outline of an apple with a bite taken out of it branded on the electronic equipment. The room echoes, but I catch a bit of an interesting conversation. “If you talk to someone in new media or someone who’s online all the time, they use different words. Like ‘open source’ is a word,” a man explains to two women. “And they use ‘access’ as a noun.”
The student giving the linguistics lecture sports thick-rimmed glasses and needs a haircut, as do most of the men in this room. Scarves are also a must-have item. The main floor of the building is like a hospital. The enduring hallways continually turn in all directions. One turn takes you to a cavernous black room used for photo shoots. I fear I will have a seizure caused by sporadic camera flashes.
Up the stairs more students work in darkness. Red pot-lights guide me through corridors so narrow that I can’t avoid bumping into people. A professor looks at me and asks what program I am in. I race down the stairs in a panic and find myself back in the basement. Sitting in the lounge is a student with a Band-Aid on his laptop. “I dropped my laptop and my roommate said to put a bandage on it, so I did,” he tells his friends. “I thought it was a good idea at the time.” “You know what’s fun? DayQuil.”
The moment I enter the second-floor lounge their eyes cry: Intruder! I divert my gaze to the computer screen. I am the creepy guy. Everyone knows the creepy guy because no one knows why he’s there. And here I am. At least the couches are comfortable. The Theatre School is a maze, with an actual stairway to nowhere.
There are a lot of bulletin boards, women in black tights, and men in tighter tights. I admire them for being comfortable in such revealing shorts. But within 10 minutes I have met my wedgie-pick and bulge-adjustment quota for the day.
“I hate this fucking project. I hate it,” says one girl in the lounge. The two begin talking about class and how sleep won’t be an option in the upcoming days. “My advice would be sleep at least one night,” a guy says from across the room. The woman on the couch rebuts. “I could go 72 hours without sleep, I’ve done it before. I will run off adrenaline.” “Adrenaline runs out,” says her friend. “Yeah, it’s like nicotine.”
On the third floor, I find a group dancing to loud Latin music. When I stop to watch, the instructor points at me. I don’t want her to think I’m a pervert. More importantly, I don’t want security to think I’m a peeper. I trip on a pile of shoes as I scurry away. Down the stairs I hear a woman’s silent moan. It grows louder, climaxes, and falls silent again. She is sitting in the stairwell massaging her back as she exercises her vocal chords.
I sneak by her hoping not to break the meditation and find myself trapped at the top of a stairwell. To my right and left are more people dancing. Smooth jazz, ballet piano, and the groaner downstairs overwhelm my ears. Darting down the stairs, I slip back into the lounge. The conversation stops the moment I enter.
But the silence is broken as a man begins to describe a recent evening out. “They had three Absinths, two pints each, and smoked a joint. We had to drag them on the street car.” “By 2010, we’ll make sure you’re married.” Judging by the ratio of men to women in this room, 2010 is an optimistic outlook for any single man in this room — which looks like it was abandoned by the university 15 years ago.
It is called the “Rye-o-mat,” yet there are no washers, or dryers, in this engineering hang out; just vending machines and big tables with uneven legs. The padded chairs lining the walls are weighed down by heavy cement blocks so they can’t be taken. If you’re wondering who would want to steal an uncomfortable chair with its plastic upholstery torn off and yellow foam sticking out, look no further than these students.
Though my own beard is scraggly, I notice a lot of disturbing, unkempt facial hair. Still, the atmosphere is fraternal, and playful ethnic jokes fly through the air like shrapnel in Sadr City. I sit at a table with three guys so I can plug in my laptop. Scanning the room, I see most people have textbooks open and computers running. Instead of work though, they talk about getting blasted or play video games. “I only have enemies because I am mean,” is one of the only sentences I catch in the room.
Voices bounce off the walls and make conversations indistinguishable. “Do you mind if I have lunch while you are working on this,” asks the man across the table from me at 5 p.m. “Dude, man, you can do what you want,” is my answer. My battery is near dead and there is nothing more to observe. As I leave, the men across the table from me start having trouble with an assignment.
“The guy over there knows how to do it. The guy with the girlfriend. Do you know his name?”
“No. He’s just the guy with the girlfriend.” A God among men.