More than Cleaning: Custodians and Student Success

Steve Volk, October 24, 2016

When you think of successful university careers, you might think of presidents, provosts, and deans; when you think of the wisdom to be found on campus, you’re likely to think of professors sharing the fruits of their decades of research on chemistry, classics, or quantum mechanics. You almost certainly won’t think of the folks cleaning the bathrooms, washing the floors, and changing the trash bags.

— Serena Golden, review of The Philosopher Kings, a 2009 film about eight custodians  who worked at top-drawer universities.*

And yet I have been thinking about the people who clean our offices and the students’ dorm rooms, mow the lawns and rake the leaves, prepare and serve the students’ food, patch the roofs when there’s a leak, deliver food to our workshops, and – bottom line – make our surroundings not only habitable, but pleasant. They are, as Peter Magoda, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University, observes, with a nod to Ralph Ellison, “an invisible campus culture.” [“Teaching, Learning, and Campus Custodians: Untidying Conceptualizations of Wisdom in the Academy,” About Campus (July-August 2014), available via Ohio Link]

cotton

Window at Calhoun College (Yale) broken by Corey Menafee

I’ve been thinking about service workers on campus since I read of the Yale dishwasher, Corey Menafee,  who broke a windowpane in Calhoun College – yes, that Calhoun College, the residential hall at Yale named after the South Carolina politician, Secretary of War and Vice President who staunchly defended slavery – that depicted enslaved people picking cotton. Menafee felt pressured to resign from his job after being arrested by campus police on felony charges before ultimately being taken back by his Yale employers after a five-week, unpaid, suspension.

I have been thinking about service workers because the dining workers at Harvard are on strike for pay that will allow them to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. [UPDATE: Harvard reached a “tentative agreement” with striking workers on Oct. 25, 2016.]

But it’s not wages and working conditions that I want to write about today – although there’s plenty to be said on that account. Rather, it’s the role that service workers – particularly custodians, food servers, and those who interact with students on a daily basis – play in the education of our students, not to mention our staff and faculty. (I have learned more about Guyana from the gentleman who delivers beverages to CTIE’s Brown Bag Pedagogy sessions than from many of the books I have read on that subject.) Many of the service workers on campus, certainly those in the dorms and dining halls, will likely engage more frequently with the students than many faculty. So, as Magoda, author of the recently published The Lives of Campus Custodians: Insights into Corporatization and Civic Disengagement in the Academy (Stylus, 2016) cautions, “failing to recognize and benefit from their wisdom represents squandered learning opportunities to the detriment of the entire campus community” [3]. Continue reading