So it was great to spend the summer with you around, and I’m glad we got to see you off yesterday. All the best of luck for a great junior year!
I know one thing: you’ll be busy. I hope today, Friday, gave you a moment to catch your breath and prepare before everything hits.
Boy, was W&M quiet yesterday. I love quiet summer campuses; you feel like you own the place. Everything slows down, so slow you almost think time has stopped completely. Especially when it’s hot.
The word I’m looking for is languid. Everywhere I went at W&M yesterday was languid: your dorm, Sadler, the gym, that brand-spanking-new fraternity housing (which looks reassuringly solid in construction, I must say <grin>. Unlike some frat houses…)
I’ll bet the Sunken Garden was magnificently languid. But I didn’t get there. I was running around like a chicken without a head, trying to deal with the storage facility, shopping, etc., etc. Maybe I should’ve spent a little more time being languid myself.
Another place that was equally quiet (if not quite as inspiring) was Merchants Square, over by Colonial Williamsburg. From there, I looked as far into Colonial Williamsburg as I could, but it looked awfully sleepy in there, too. Perhaps if I’d walked to the far end of Duke of Gloucester Street, I would’ve encountered hundreds of middle-age couples trying to reinvigorate their romantic relationships by sending innocent women to prison on trumped up charges of witchcraft. But somehow I doubt it.
(OK, I don’t watch as much premium cable as you do, but that Colonial Williamsburg commercial is the creepiest thing I have ever seen on television.)
I didn’t walk all the way through Colonial Williamsburg because I had other fish to fry. I wanted to visit your campus Barnes & Noble bookstore. You already know why: to see if they’d ever fixed that fake Thomas Jefferson quote that’s been plastered above the American History section for several years now.
Yup, the self-help-y nostrum that the folks at Monticello tracked down to the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969). The quote nobody who ever read Jefferson could ever imagine sounded authentic:
Of course, they haven’t fixed it.
So, as usual, I went in and narrated my whole long and pathetic story about this. Highlighted by being told by the legendary President of William & Mary, Taylor Reveley, “this is the kind of problem I can actually fix around here.”
And, as usual, I concluded on my usual plaintive note: surely someone, somewhere at Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater would care that he was still being mistaken for the admittedly quite remarkable Mr. Gombrowicz. Wouldn’t they?
And as usual I got my usual bemused reaction (you know, is this gentleman clinically insane, or merely extremely eccentric?) And I thought to myself, when I go back in a month, and next spring, and next fall, and someday for your commencement, nothing will have changed.
So I decided to think some more about this. Why should something so microscopically trivial be so hard to change? Could there be a lesson or two in there somewhere? Maybe.
For it to change, first, somebody at W&M or B&N would really have to care about changing it. It’s obvious that on the very long list of B&N’s problems, this one ranks at the exact opposite end of the list from, say, Amazon.com.
But that’s not all. Imagine I found someone in the store who really did care about this. They’d have to choose an actual TJ quote worthy of the same place of honor (next to Jon Stewart <grin>). Then, they’d have to find someone who could format, print, and install a replacement piece of wallpaper that looked just like the one it replaced, and wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
They’d need the authority and budget to do all that. And who knows if anyone in the store is even allowed to touch the wall décor? Maybe that comes out of some store design or merchandising office at B&N College headquarters in Basking Ridge, NJ. Who knows?
Regardless, it seems my strategy of talking to people inside the store — or even posting on their Facebook page — was probably destined to fail. It seems unlikely that anyone in B&N who could fix my TJ problem even knows it exists.
So I need to raise this from a microscopically trivial concern to something B&N would actually want to fix, even if only out of embarrassment. Maybe I need more external pressure. I could try President Reveley again. Or maybe the W&M American History Department (colonial and revolutionary-era American history is kinda a big deal down there, or so I’ve heard.)
Or maybe someone at Colonial Williamsburg. They own the land your bookstore sits on. And they seem even more obsessed about American history than me. (Come to think of it, how come nobody there has noticed this phony Jefferson quote?)
Maybe I don’t know who the right person is. Maybe I need to let them find themselves. That means getting some publicity. I bet this would make a pretty nifty tongue-in-cheek article for your campus newspaper. Light. Fun. A change of pace from the usual bad news about budgets and so forth.
Now who do I know who could suggest that to just the right editor?
Obviously, this is a toy problem. (It doesn’t even rise to the level of “first world problem” <grin>.) But like a lot of toy problems, it’s illustrative. It’s relevant when you want to actually change something that matters.
You need to understand the chain of actions that must happen for your change to take place. (Sometimes it’s a more complex set of events than you realize.) You need to figure out who has the authority and budget. You can’t assume someone at the bottom of the food chain will automatically pass your issue “up the ladder.” You don’t want to make the modern mistake of assuming a single Facebook post will magically galvanize an organization into action. You need to consider when other forms of outside pressure will be helpful (rather than counterproductive). You need to look for the best sources for that pressure. Sometimes, you need to involve the media. And if all that fails, think up another strategy.
I don’t know if my example is the most convincing one out there. But it reminds me there are important lessons to be learned from even the most ridiculously trivial stuff.
Most people are too impatient to learn those lessons. They don’t want to be bothered with the trivial. (To use my example, they’d just say, “my problem didn’t get fixed because those people are idiots,” full stop.)
But even trivial matters can often point to deeper, more useful knowledge — if you’re willing to follow reality where it leads you, and really think about why things are the way they are.