Getting Out of the Bubble--David Scobey.doc

But here i want to unpack the affective resonance i

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has interesting political and cognitive implications, some of which I will touch on later. But here I want to unpack the affective resonance (I would even say the emotional poignancy) that this phrase carries, as an image of the felt need to escape from ordinary campus life and learning, into a larger civic and community world. “The bubble,” I want to say, is a theoretical category in (liberal arts) students’ folk psychology of the experience of civic engagement. It expresses, in a condensed, symptomatic way, the emotional work accomplished by their public work. What does it mean to call campus experience a “bubble,” gotten out of through community learning or service? It is, of course, an image of encirclement and isolation, and yet it carries different connotations from the more familiar imagery of the ivory tower or the cloister. Ivory towers and cloisters are closed, strong, inwardly-turned; they represent a problem precisely because they constitute worlds unto themselves, ensconced and even seductive counter-realities. The bubble, in contrast, connotes a campus that is inescapable and isolated, and yet exposed to the larger reality outside itself, offering a window onto that reality which yet remains inaccessible and distorted. Far from being solid and heavy, it is weightless and disorienting. A bubble is compounded of structure and fragility, strength and weakness, and there is a strange amalgam of dismissiveness and anxiety in the way students talk about it. A bubble ought to be easily burst; and so being caught inside it underscores one’s own ineffectuality and entrapment. Like the bell jar in Sylvia Plath’s novel, its very fragility and unreality make it seem all the more confining. To unpack such connotations is simply to perform, for lack of a less grandiose term, a discourse analysis. Yet what underlying attitudes and experiences are represented in the casual, pervasive use of this discourse? On the one hand, it seems to me, the bubble represents undergraduate life and learning as isolating and insubstantial, exiled from a more “real” reality; it 4
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figures the campus as a space of distortion and diminution, small and deadening, without any of the countervailing serenity or rigor of an ivory tower—a place of ineffectuality, triviality, non- effort, and non-knowledge. On the other hand, the imagery suggests that community engagement—whether curricular or co-curricular, for this talk can refer to either—carries with it a nexus of opposite effects, effects that are confirmed in the sense of gravitas and exhilaration with which students talk about participation in community partnerships and community organizations. Student journals and classroom discussions describe public work as connective rather than isolating, offering liberal arts students the opportunity for collaboration with peers and encounters with significant others that stretch the self beyond the self, pose important issues, and enable new understanding. Community engagement is portrayed as expansive rather than
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