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Consuming Duke

notes from the past

In my time so far at Duke, I’ve often felt that I don’t belong here. Not because I feel like I don’t fit in with the people here, or because I feel like I didn’t deserve to be admitted, but because I don’t feel like I’m giving anything to Duke itself. I take lots of things. I consume and consume the products Duke offers me, but I don’t really give it anything in return. Duke doesn’t even ask me to give it anything in return, except capital.

I have no delusion that all my fellow Duke undergrads similarly feel that they don’t belong here, but I do think that most of us interact with Duke as an institution where we are offered products to consume, not as a place we participate in. Or, in different words, Duke is not a garden we help grow, but a resource we reap. Because of this, we treat the staff poorly in addition to not feeling like we are a proper part of this place

Our consumption—most commonly—is mindless and ubiquitous.

I go to Marketplace breakfast and eat food grown or raised in places that I can only guess at, harvested, slaughtered, packaged and transported by a system I barely understand—involving countless people that I’ll never meet—all before it even arrives on Duke campus. Then, once it’s here at Duke, I still do not participate in its preparation. I simply walk into Marketplace and it’s there ready to be cooked for me on request, or even simply sitting out for me to grab. I do not know who bakes or sets out the chocolate croissants, much less who cleans my dishes and mops the floors when I leave. My relation to food here is exclusively consumptive. 

There are other students who know the dining staff and how the food comes to us better than I, but by and large, we relate to the food we eat as a mysteriously produced commodity ready for our consumption.

We consume the services of the maintenance staff even more unconsciously.  People (boys) can pee on the toilet seat and by the next morning, their mess will have been cleaned up without them having to bat an eye. The lawns stay mowed, each and every building clean and fully operational, our energy systems churning onwards, the buses ready for use. 

And then there is the massive administrative support system, ready to help us travel abroad, help with financial aid, plan our class schedule, send our transcripts, help with IT issues, etc. etc. 

I’ve surely left large holes in detailing the products Duke offers. I don’t even know who plans the Duke performances or how construction is run, for instance. But nonetheless, I hope the picture is clear. Duke as an institution is composed of a massive web of people and resources doing a variety of tasks in a variety of locations. All of which we can consume without participating in. 

We don’t have to help Duke provide us these products. We aren’t asked to help cook or clean in exchange for being here. We are consumers and that is enough.

Importantly, this makes it far easier to ignore and abuse the services of staff members here at Duke. Or at the very least, to complain about their work much more readily than we would if we actually knew the difficulties of their jobs.

The two seeds one might argue we do indeed we sow, or, the two ways that we do indeed participate in our institution, are through paying it money and through academic research. To me, both of these are problematic and potentially empty ways of participating.

First of all, not everyone pays to come here, but more importantly, buying a good puts us as the consumer in the relationship. We allow Duke to function through financial support, but financial support does not involve us in how things actually get done here.

The idea of providing capital instead of labor is central here. In giving capital, we don’t do anything, we simply give something. To today’s ear, “giving” may seem to fall under the broad category “doing,” and, of course, it is in a sense. But more importantly, the two are quite different in that giving is indirect while doing is direct.  

If students were responsible for cooking food for themselves and others, we’d directly feel ourselves to be giving to the institution and the general Duke community. Paying money is completely different. There we are buying a product and giving to Duke only indirectly.

Participating in Duke by doing academic research—academic labor—is more compelling, but still not very. The fact of the matter is simply that undergrads don’t contribute all that much to the research or academia machine. Sure, every now and then students do some important research work, but the vast majority of academic products produced by Duke—books, scientific innovations, policy ideas, etc.—come from faculty and graduate students.

To return to the idea of belonging, I personally find it very important to participate in an institution, community, household, etc. to feel like a part of it. 

Sure, there is a sense in which I feel like I “belong” in the Harris Teeter by East Campus at this point in the year. I have my VIC card, I know my way around the store, I can afford to buy food there, but that’s not the type of belonging that I’m interested in. I want to be a part of something, not merely a source of capital.

To feel like I belong here at Duke, I’d have to feel like I was more than just a consumer. To belong somewhere, you must be a part of that place. And a part that merely consumes without giving seems to me like a part that doesn’t belong.

Perhaps I’ve gotten tangled up in my words, and should simply say that I don’t feel like a participant here at Duke, making no claim as to the feeling of belonging. But I think that there is a deep sense in which Duke—like most American colleges and universities right now—alienates its students by treating them as consumers.

Students can find belonging in there time here, but it is much more likely to be with friends and with sub-groups than with Duke itself. We can have school pride without feeling like we belong here as part of the place. As it stands we are most often mere beneficiaries. And so long as I feel like a mere beneficiary I won’t feel like I truly belong here.

Austin Smith is a Trinity first-year. His column, "notes from the past," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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