Food and space are fundamentally linked. Philosopher Elizabeth Grosz likens cities to human bodies based upon how they both consume food, produced elsewhere yet manipulated for their corporeal needs. On a more personal, everyday level, we eat in space and we make spaces around our eating. The restaurant or the dining room; the last meal in a prison cell or the first meal in a neo-natal unit; the beloved chair in my mother’s kitchen or the window booth in Sharples Dining Hall. How we feel about food can’t be separated from how we think and feel about the spaces we eat it in.
Sharples is the only formal dining hall at Swarthmore. It is by turns an outdated ski lodge and the Hogwarts great hall, a homey center of campus life and an overcrowded emblem of the college’s strategic planning needs. At the end (and the beginning and the middle) of the day, its three major rooms and central meeting areas spatially anchor many Swarthmore students’ everyday experiences. This week, Swatties told us what they call each room in Sharples – and a whole lot more. They have shared their naming preferences, the frequency with which they use different rooms, and their emotional associations thereto. Our sample size is small, with a total of 86 respondents, so it doesn’t tell a complete story. But what it does tell is a good start.
Regarding nomenclature, certain names clearly stand apart as the chief designators for each room. Sharples’ largest room is almost exclusively called the “big” or “main” room, and although more divergences appear in the other two cases, “middle” and “quiet” take dominant shares respectively. Yet, the nuanced patterns by which students name and experience these spaces show anything but a static statistical pie chart. In particular, it appears that Swatties’ relationships – both nominal and emotional – to their dining rooms change considerably over time. Two examples stand out.
Firstly, the names students use for Sharples rooms tend to solidify – become less diverse, more standardized – as they spend more time at the school. Exemplified in the case of the middle room, current freshmen employ a striking multitude of names while sophomores and juniors use increasingly fewer, and seniors demonstrate the greatest concurrence on “middle room.” While it may be impossible to attribute this to any one phenomenon, it is especially compelling to think that from year to year we standardize our language. By our fourth year here, we have been labeling the rooms so repetitively – think for a moment about how often you text someone your dining location – it would be surprising and disadvantageous not to develop a most common set of terms.
Secondly, the frequency with which students eat in each room seems to change with time, suggesting that their personal (or at least practical) relationships with these spaces evolve. The main room shows this well. Between the classes of 2018 and 2015, we see an increase in the number of people who eat often in the main room and a decrease in the number who use it seldom. It is therefore plausible that Swatties develop a greater affinity for this room as they age – or alternatively that, as Swarthmore’s size has increased across these specific four years, upperclassmen who otherwise wouldn’t are now choosing the main room out of logistical necessity.
The emotional relationships students forge with Sharples rooms significantly govern how they understand the dining hall’s spaces and thereby how key moments in their day are lived. How students report that Sharples rooms make them feel, visualized in word clouds, speaks volumes. It is particularly interesting, when looking to the raw data, that people express highly visceral and textured emotional reactions to each room. These emotions often directly oppose one another. For a single respondent, it was common to see strong contrasts such as “overwhelmed” for the main room vs. “great” for the others; “confused and scared” vs. “happy”; “freaked” vs. “comfortable, relaxed”; “social” vs. “scared” vs. “lonely”; even such strong notions as “terrified”, “at home”, “invisible,” “judged,” and “exposed.” Such genuinely meaningful terms imply that the rooms are approached with not just favoritism or preference but serious value judgment, related to palpable feelings of goodness and badness.
This data begins to show trends, but also begs a lot of new questions. What do Dining Services staff, who need to reference Sharples rooms constantly in their work, call each space? Why exactly do students feel the emotions they do in each room? Are such feelings a matter purely of room size, or do deeper social and demographic associations around the rooms play a role? How could our information, pertaining both to frequency and feelings, guide architects of future dining facilities at Swarthmore?
This week’s Swat Visually obviously leaves us hungry for more.
– Matthew Goldman ’15
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For next week, Swat Visually is asking you to join forces in creating a playlist to bring spring to campus. So think of those warm weather songs you just can’t wait to play outside on the beach, and who knows, maybe the weather will be inspired. Submit your song suggestions here:
See you next week!