What a Difference a Space Makes

Thursday, August 21, 2014 | Jeff Olick

Jefferson Statue

Although it was 28 years ago (holy moly!), I will never forget the first time I arrived in New Haven for graduate school.  It was July, 1986 and I was coming to town to find an apartment and to scope out my geographic future.

From the exit off I-95, you could see the gothic spires of Yale in the distance.  After passing through an urban wasteland of empty lots and parking garages, we saw that the New Haven Green was followed quickly by the main campus.  It looked exactly as expected—august, old, intimidating.

The immediate task, however, was to find Prospect Street, on which the Sociology Department was then housed.  We followed the map through the heart of campus, wondering in which of these Oxonian edifices I would scale the heights of intellectual accomplishment. But something was off.  Had we made a wrong turn somewhere?  The buildings of central campus were receding in the rearview mirror as we literally headed to the other side of the tracks.  Ok, not so bad, here were a few dilapidated mansions with signs in their front yards.  But then, beyond another empty lot, right across the street from a strange, low-slung I-didn’t-know-what (it turned out to be the ice hockey rink, colloquially known as the whale because, well, that’s what it looked like), was #140, the sociology building.

Let’s just say that it was not impressive—a sort of bargain-basement Bauhaus structure that looked vaguely like a Midwestern elementary school or a minor East German agency.  And the inside was no better—cinder block and linoleum, fluorescent lighting, cheap Formica tables, and a potent mixture of cleaning solution and cigarettes. Welcome to Yale.  What a disappointment.

Having nevertheless become a sociologist in those depressing surroundings, I came to understand why I should not have been surprised.  Even in the mid-1980s, sociology was a newcomer and outsider.  Unlike the humanities—curators of culture and defenders of civilization—and the natural sciences—whose legitimation was unquestioned in a world of atomic weapons and antibiotics—the social sciences (excluding, of course, economics) are a marginal, even dangerous enterprise: they challenge the status quo, critique the taken-for-granted, even suggest the necessity of transformation.  Though the history of sociology traced to 1895, when William Graham Sumner caused an uproar by introducing Herbert Spencer’s godless new science to his students, the social sciences in general were children of the postwar era.  Both the generators and beneficiaries of modernization theory (and, often enough, agents of its practice), sociology was about the corruption of the present and the anticipation of a different future.  Its establishment was, at its core, anti-establishment; its marginality, geographically and literally, was thus not accidental.

Though there are exceptions, the architectural and intellectual story of Yale sociology is a fairly common one.  A tour of sociology departments around the U.S. (and elsewhere as well) is not likely to inspire, at least not aesthetically.  What a collection of dumps! The story of sociology at Virginia—yet to be researched and written (dissertation anyone?)— is not exactly the same as any other, though it does share some general characteristics.  Like Yale, UVa has a unique and significant position in American higher education.  Yet, for decades, the sociology department at UVa was located in New Cabell Hall, the “new” designating its distinction from the original Cabell Hall rather than any distinctive freshness to the facility, which probably looked dated even before its late-forties construction was complete (actually, rumor has it that the building was designed as a short term solution to postwar growth, and was never expected to be permanent). Despite UVa’s well-deserved fame in American architecture, all the hallmarks of sociology departments across the nation were present in the extreme: cinderblock, dropped ceilings, exposed wired, cracked linoleum tiles that never looked clean no matter how much industrial-strength ammonia was poured on them weekly. The proximity of Jefferson’s lawn notwithstanding, an uglier facility would have been hard to imagine.

Until, of course, three years ago, when elaborate construction plans moved us to temporary space out on Ivy Road.  Just about the same dreary architecture, if in better shape because the building is not owned by the university, but with a view of the 7-11 instead of Central Grounds and a twenty minute walk from most of our classes.  Our marginality seemed manifest, even if for perfectly understandable institutional reasons.  But we still seemed stuck in the seventies.

Should we be concerned that the postwar decades that brought us some of the dreariest architecture in human history are also the decades that brought us the growth of the social sciences?  Perhaps. To be sure, some think sociology should go the way of bell bottoms and tie-dye.  Toward the end of my time at Yale, the university, in a wave of budget cuts, was contemplating closing the department, as Washington University in St. Louis had done about ten years before (though for different reasons).  But they didn’t. To be sure, there are still reasons to be concerned: enrollments are down, job prospects are bleak, the liberal arts and higher education in general are facing many challenges, and on and on. At the same time, perhaps the social sciences have now been around long enough—we sociologists would say they have become “institutionalized,” which only vaguely suggests a mental health problem— that one can no longer quite imagine a major university without them.  Their contributions are now undeniable, their questions more urgent than ever. After twenty-five years, Wash U is re-opening its sociology department, and the Yale department’s resurgence is an exemplar of institutional reinvention.

And, as you readers probably know, a bit of rebirth is afoot here at UVa as well. In the past year, we have secured a solid future for our graduate program.  Since I got here ten years again (holy moly again), we have added eight new faculty members, and we will be hiring again this year.  And after our three year physical exile, we have just completed our move into permanent space.  And what a space!  Randall Hall is one of the most significant and lovely buildings on Central Grounds.  It was the long-time home of the history department—one of UVa’s most important institutions—and then temporary space for the Dean’s office.  While we are sharing about 20% of the building with a number of different administrative offices, most of the building is ours.  The offices are lovely, all with moldings and woodwork, and some even have fireplaces; all are bright and cheerful.  The hallways are broad and welcoming, and there is plentiful meeting space.  And we are a quick walk to just about everything.

Most important I think is the combination of centrality and venerability.  The sociology department is now literally at the heart of things.  The conditions are thus now in place—physically and institutionally—for us to be at the heart of things intellectually as well, as I’m sure all of us feel sociology ought to be. After American sociology’s long history with low-rent modernism, by moving to an old building UVa sociology may thus ironically be in the avant-garde, a sign of sociology’s permanence. I’ve always been proud of UVa and of the department, though I’ve sometimes been inclined to apologize to visitors and new students for our physical space. No more.  We’re here to stay, in the middle of things, and, I hope, an emblem of sociology’s place in the contemporary university as a whole.