Answer me these questions three

A busy week, culminating in a trip to Skokie, Illinois, for the Midwest Writing Centers Association meeting, kept my mind occupied away from bloggable topics. So, three brief questions that occurred to me while I listened to people talk about college writing centers:

1. How difficult is it to find open spaces in an urban environment? My student Caleb, who is studying off campus in Chicago this semester, said one thing he misses about Cedar Rapids is how easy it is to get out of the city. Chicago has, thanks to its early planners, a run of public space along the lakefront, but that's often crowded, and how accessible it is depends on where you're starting from. I visited the Skokie Public Library for the first time, and noticed that there are very few tables. Plenty of chairs, many of them plush, but few places on which to set papers. I need to compare the new Cedar Rapids library next time I'm there. That night, Caleb and I had dinner at the Heartland Cafe, which has removed most of the shelves from its "general store." Both of these create more space in the rooms. Maybe this is connected to a widely-felt need for more open space.
(The "general store" room at the Heartland Cafe used to look like this,
but now has fewer shelves... picture from Heartland website)

2. Is there an ethic or unwritten law governing non-commercial use of commercial third places? One of the best sessions I attended at the conference was a presentation by four consultants from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Writing Studio. Their presentation drew heavily on The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, which I have discussed in an earlier post. The Writing Studio aims at being a third place on campus for students, more hangout than tutoring room, and from all accounts they've succeeded. One of the presenters fondly recalled another third place, a coffee shop in his home town where he and his friends would gather after high school. They never purchased anything, nor did they cause trouble. They just hung out on the coffeehouse patio and talked. He reported the owner would threaten every month or so to kick them out, but never did. Oldenburg says in Celebrating the Third Place (Marlowe, 2001), "The best places are locally owned, independent, small-scale, steady-state businesses" (p. 4). Businesses need to make sufficient profit to stay in business. It seems in this story that the owner was being unusually forbearing, and that the teens should occasionally have made some purchases, but is there a line that shouldn't be crossed?
(Paper consultation at the UMKC Writing Studio, from UMKC website.
Putting green is not visible.)

3. Can there be virtual third places? UMKC does some consultation virtually, by e-mail and Skype. As the presentation went on, they discussed how they were trying to use social media to become a virtual third place. This is a phenomenon not considered by Oldenburg, whose books were published before social media became widespread. I would think not... the shared characteristics of the third places Oldenburg describes are (my list):

  • local, easily accessible from home, preferably on foot;
  • comfortable, where you could drop in by yourself and feel welcome;
  • relaxed i.e. you can stay as long as you wish, spending (if it's a business) some but not a huge amount of money; and
  • possessing a steady clientele, so that when you drop in you're sure to encounter people you know.
I suppose all of these do apply to virtual encounters, particularly if your computer's in your basement or your bedroom where you can stay as long as you want for free. Yet I think something is missing if you're not encountering humans in the flesh. And unless you find a quote from Oldenburg that proves me wrong, I'm claiming him for my side.

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