Campus Life

Deluxe College Grindstones

For those of you who don’t understand my cryptic title, I’ll explain. There’s an old adage about work that creates a colorful, if not painful, image. It says that to get down to business, we should “put our nose to the grindstone.” That seems a bit excessive in my view, especially in these days of cosmetic surgery. To alter the shape of one’s nose, one needs only a good plastic surgeon. Of course, I’m kidding about the reason to put our noses to the grindstone. Since the topics of my articles here are related to college, the adage in question refers to studying. That’s why we go to college, right? (Don’t answer that!)

Anyway, I was inspired to write today by an article on Campus Grotto entitled America’s Best Study Spaces. The “spaces,” of course, refer to places on college campuses. There are some dazzling pictures that illustrate just how grandiose some of these spaces are. Naturally, no article of mine would be complete without a boring, corny remembrance of my dim-past days of collegiate glory. So, allow me to recall one of mybest study spaces.

When I was a high school senior, I was recruited to play tennis for a small liberal arts college in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. Lycoming College is located in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series. It’s a beautiful region. Lycoming’s campus was rather rudimentary back in those days. “Those days” would be the middle-Sixties. I remember some of the classrooms with not a small amount of curiosity. One music survey course that I took was located in an old house on the edge of campus. It looked a bit like the house where Norman Bates lived in Psycho. Arriving students occasionally had to sidestep hunks of plaster that fell off walls or, more dangerously, ceilings in the “foyer” (if one could refer to such a sad space in such fancy European terms). If you check Lycoming’s Web site, you’ll see nothing resembling Chez Bates, just the usual modern buildings and inviting study spaces worthy of a Campus Grotto mention (which doesn’t happen).


But I digress … My favorite study space at Lycoming was in the library. I had my own favorite corner “desk” (large tables were too big for the library’s cramped quarters). This suited my introverted nature quite well. Sitting in the corner with walls to my left and back, I had an ideal POI (position of advantage) not only to defend myself from surprise assaults from my dorm buddies but also scope out the wonders of the coed student body, so to speak. There was also a well-placed window on that left wall, which gave me both natural light in the day and a prominent view of the quad’s crisscrossing sidewalks, providing an excellent excuse for daydreaming.

Of the many times I sat in “my” spot at the library, my favorite memory involves Mahler’s Das Lied von Der Erde. My music history prof assigned us to listen to this monumental symphony, so I picked up the reserved copy from the main library desk. This was a vinyl LP. There were no CDs, iPods, digital files, etc. back in 1965, so we listened to our music on those wonderful analog records that, even today, still sound better than CDs, but that’s another argument.

My date with Mahler’s Lied was on a particularly frigid winter day. The air temperature may have been somewhere in the low single digits. Forget the “feels like” temp. So, I was grateful for the conveniently located hot-water radiator that sat right up against my desk. Since my little fortress of solitude was in the music section of the library, there was also a turntable (record player, for the uninitiated) located in the far corner of the desk. It was one of those wonderful, old, tube-type units that had to warm up its amplifier a bit before it could produce sound through the large, heavy headphones permanently wired to it. Accordingly, I slipped on the ‘phones, clicked the power switch, and watched the warm glow of the tubes’ heaters come on.

Ah, the best of our intentions sometimes lead to unintended consequences. I carefully removed the first LP of the multi-record album from its sleeve, observing good LP handling practice by avoiding touching the grooved vinyl surface. Once it was on the turntable’s platter, I set the proper speed to 33-1/3 RPM (see what kinds of fun you young people are missing today?) and carefully lowered the tonearm onto the LP’s lead-in groove. I have always loved to hear the sound of a tonearm’s cartridge’s stylus settling into that first groove. It means that glorious musical sound is mere seconds away.

There I was, a study in focused scholarship. I had my notebook ready to record my thoughts about Mahler’s musical musings, movement by movement. The LP’s deluxe annotation booklet was spread out before me. My eyes were closed as I drank in the awesome tones of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bruno Walter. I don’t know how long my eyes were closed, but when I opened them, I beheld a site unfit for any classical (or otherwise) LP aficionado. Apparently, the heat from the radiator had spread to the turntable with such efficiency that the vinyl of my Columbia Masterworks LP began to soften and contort. I watched in horror as I saw what looked the tonearm riding a small roller coaster, rising and falling with the fast-developing distortions of the previously perfectly flat recording. Eventually, and quickly, the roller coaster’s leaps and dips became too difficult for my tonearm to track and it began to skip, so I lifted it back to its resting position and turned off the power switch.

Having been an avid reader of High Fidelity magazine for some years, I knew what to do for a warped LP. I slid the record player to the far side of my desk and felt the desktop wood beneath where it had been sitting. The radiator (and the heat from the vacuum tubes) had raised the wood’s temperature quite a bit, thus causing the vinyl to warp. So, remembering the lesson I learned from Hi-Fi magazine, I went to the stacks and found an oversized and heavy book of maps. I returned to my desk and placed the distorted LP on the bare desktop where the turntable formerly sat. The radiator was really pumping out some heat and the desktop was quite warm, but not hot. Next, I placed the map book on top of the Mahler disc and waited.

I kept an eye on the LP, peering across the desktop and underneath the book to see how long it would take for the combo of heat and weight to eliminate the roller coaster on the record. It didn’t take long, maybe a minute or two. Once I saw the map book’s cover hover near the desktop, I picked it up and — voila — I had brought Mahler and his LP back from the precipice. To assure success, I kept the turntable where it was, turned it back on, and restarted my listening session. Oh, there was the slightest vertical movement of the tonearm, due to the roller coaster remnants, but the music poured forth, uninterrupted without a single skip.

Being the dutiful student that I was, upon completion of my listening assignment, I returned the Mahler LPs to the librarian and cautioned her about the dangers of record players parked too close to radiators. She thanked me and said that she would move any perilously perched machines. Thus ends (thankfully!) this somnambulence-inducing saga of my old study space.

Now, for a welcome change of pace, here are a few highlights from that Campus Grotto article I linked to (way) up above. See if any of these schools are on your college radar list:

Harper Reading Room at University of Chicago

The vaulted Main Reading Room in the Arley D. Cathy Learning Center of Harper Library is one of the world’s most beautiful reading rooms and a UChicago favorite. Open to students 24 hours a day, it is the perfect space for quiet individual study.

Hoose Philosophy Library at USC

The Hoose Philosophy Library is the oldest and one of the most beautiful libraries on the USC campus. Its main reading room, equipped with a stone fireplace, stained glass windows and a high cathedral ceiling, creates a very thought-provoking study environment. The Philosphy Library, the perfect place for any thinker, is surrounded by depictions and captions from many of the greatest philosophers of the world from the ancient Far East to modern America.

Chancellor Green Rotunda at Princeton University

A two-story octagonal rotunda with symmetrical design offers a pleasant, yet not too visually distracting study space for students. The stained glass windows of the rotunda provide a natural octagonal dome light. A highly prized location, this space once served as a campus pub during the ’70s.

Klarchek Information Commons, Loyola University Chicago

Seats in this mostly glass, openly designed building look out over Lake Michigan. Lots of windows bring in plenty of natural lighting, setting the tone for an excellent study space with a view in this LEED Silver rated building. With input from a roof-top weather station, an automated system opens windows and controls blinds to naturally ventilate and cool the interior.

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There are a lot more gorgeous study-area photos and descriptions in the Grotto roundup. Check them out. While you’re doing that, try to make the mental connection between any of these fantastic venues and my little overheated desk in the music library at Lycoming College. Sometimes we forget that there may not have been as much “good” in the Good Old Days as we care to believe.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.