Sunday, February 4, 2007

Institutionalization

Over the last few months (more broadly, the last 30 years) a lot of energy has gone into conversations discussing our identity here at the Institute for Christian Studies. What have we been all about? What are we doing now? Where will we be in twenty, five, or even one year? A crisis of identity is no surprise for anyone or any institution; the interesting thing is that ICS has never had a point where this wasn't the pressing institutional question.


One small aspect of life here presented itself recently when I was waiting for my class to begin at Regis College, a wonderful Jesuit school in the Toronto School of Theology. As I sat on a small bench in the hallway, people began coming and going. They stopped for pleasantries, but the drive of leaving or arriving for a seminar was unmistakable, for they all had a destination firmly in mind. As I watched my colleagues arrive for class, my amazement grew, because the whole thing seemed like magic. Everyone in the class came from different areas; some commuting in over an hour by train or car, others walking from the subway, a few cycling. But within minutes, seven people from all over the region assembled in one particular room.


For a moment, I imagined individual molecules of gas floating around in some ephemeral space. In the GTA there were millions of people bouncing off each other, all flying in random chaotic directions, often beyond their control. But somehow, the same little molecules congealed on a regular basis at the same time and in the same place with the help of schedules, calenders, and PDA's.


Traditionally, the Institute has a unique spin on this concept. Sure, people rotate around the few classes we offer this semester, but this intentionality is more diffuse. Most show up a significant amount of time before or after class begins, and stay for a while after it ends. They loiter in order to have conversations with each other, about projects and life in general. They have tea. They play checkers. They sit in the lounge and make fun of an article in Christianity Today.


Much to the chagrin of the administrators who value professionalism, the front desk is a popular gathering place. People hang around, make comments about senior members, the fax machine, the weather, the book you're holding, your hat; pretty much anything. Jeff told me once that he thinks this is a natural place to gather at ICS since it doesn't force you to make a choice or a firm commitment to what you're going to do. If you sit in the lounge, you have staked a position to socialize, and there is no backing out prematurely. Not that this is a bad thing. It simply rules out so many other potential decisions. But if you stand in the hallway, there is room for the unknown, the surprising. Maybe you'll stay. Maybe you'll walk away. Maybe you want to chat. Maybe you want to look at the art hanging on the wall. Maybe you're waiting for someone or something. Maybe you loiter without expressed intent. Whatever it is, you don't have to define yourself and cut off all other possibilities, since the hallway and reception areas could be a transitional place, but they could also be a place where you make your home for a little while.


From what I understand, ICS started with a bunch of people hanging out in Toronto listening to what each other had to say about life. Now, we might own a building (or 30 percent of one), pay people and issue degrees, but I don't think the heart of the Institute is in the classroom or even the lounge. It's in the hallways—the wild spaces where we molecules arrive from hundreds of different places to come together for a short time, then scatter to hundreds of unknown destinations. These spontaneous encounters, the true hallmark of ICS, are the ones that change us. And they can only happen without the magical restrictions of schedules, calenders, and PDA's.


--M

1 comment:

thugsb said...

Good stuff. The front desk area reminds me of those nosey communities where everyone hangs out on their front porches and gets in everyone else's business - nosey, yes, but also the places where people feel safe about living, the places where children can play together and parents from all over the neighbourhood together bring up each others kids. Nosey, but in a way that talks of people caring, because they want to know what is going on, not so that they can gossip, but so that they can take part in the vital life of the place.

Yes, I like the front desk, I like the hallways. They are ICS.