Contemplating Deeper Springs

Between herding cattle and scribbling essays, one young man finds the time to dance disco under a black light.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

It’s the Thursday before spring break, and the narrow light at the top
of the pit has suddenly become closer and brighter. The due dates for my
“Nietzsche and Freud” paper and my biology project have been delayed until
after break. Sleep has re-entered my vocabulary. If there weren’t 50
cows to be herded across the valley today, three faculty positions to be
filled tonight and 15 publishing houses to be paid for our recent book orders before I get on a bus to Chicago, I’d be home free.

Mornings

Mornings begin with my first class. Unfortunately, at Deep Springs
there’s no way of scheduling all your classes after lunch. Afternoon
classes exist only to solve dire scheduling problems, because the
1:15-5:45 slot is reserved for labor. To make matters worse, students
have little control over their schedules. Class scheduling works
backwards at Deep Springs, so that students can take maximum advantage
of the limited course offerings, eight or so per semester. Students
first sign up for the classes they wish to take, then the classes are
scheduled by the assistant to the dean of faculty. More specifically,
they’re scheduled by me.

(The fact that my last classes of the week are today — a day before the last official day of the semester, simply coincides with the best possible schedule for the school. A coincidence I discovered with some expediency, but a coincidence nonetheless.)

Biology starts at 9:30 a.m.; the teacher is in New York dealing with a family
illness, so the last couple of classes have been student-led. We move
through the chapters on the immune system with a little trouble and a
little rapidity, but with respect to the teacher’s pleas for diligence.

“Nietzsche and Freud” follows. Of my three classes here, it’s
unquestionably the one I look forward to the most. It’s a seminar with
eight students, and save for the occasional lecture, the teacher is an
equal participant in the discussions. It’s been said in previous
articles on Deep Springs that Nietzsche, whose writings took up the
first half of the semester, is of particular appeal to Deep Springers.
Certainly, his idea that study should serve action appeals to an
institution where the theme of service is pervasive. However, readings
of Nietzsche as an anti-Semite and proto-Nazi add repulsion to
the attraction as the class grapples with his work. It makes for a diverse and lively discussion, and shy persons like myself must make a concerted effort to be heard.



Afternoons

Class runs until the 12:30 p.m. bell, which calls everyone to lunch. Meals
can be either a synthesis of or an escape from the complexities of Deep
Springs life. Mealtime subjects range from humane corral design to the
effect of academia on American poetry to the proper role of the
applications committee in determining the nature of the school. Lunch
and dinner, though, can also be a guilt-free opportunity to relax. Just as a discussion can capture and change one’s thought about an important school issue, it can also devolve into unrepentant silliness. At least one table per meal breaks out into a fit of giggles.

At 1:15 p.m., Barbra Streisand comes through the cafeteria stereo, marking
the beginning of labor for the day; the students who clean the tables
use the music to clear the room. Today I’ve been lucky enough to land the
plum assignment of cattle herding, one of the more romantic tasks at
Deep Springs. It’s also an opportunity to get outside. As bookstore manager and general laborer, my principal responsibilities this semester have been ordering books, redesigning the school’s Web page and computerizing our
technologically impaired library’s card catalog. Between this and
academic work, it puts me in front of a computer for four to six hours a
day, resulting in an increased pallor and latent crankiness. I
spent all last semester gardening, building fences and fixing corrals, and
I welcome the opportunity to get out into the sun again.

I’ve been assigned Chicken Charlie, a gentle and genial but famously
slow horse, and the afternoon is not starting well. Chicken refuses to
go off on his own; he’ll only follow Boomer and his rider. More
specifically, he waits for Boomer to get ahead, then either follows
glumly or rushes to catch up, bouncing me like a loose sack. Thankfully,
the other student out with me is a gifted horseman, and he maneuvers the
cattle down the sandy hills and onto the floor of the valley.

Only later in the afternoon do I find out that Chicken is unresponsive
because I’m sitting too far back in the saddle. After I straighten up and
move forward, he begins to respond to my commands. After three hours my
back is tight and I’m more cognizant of the complex muscle structure in
my size-8 suburban-raised feet, but I’m pleased not to be wholly
incompetent on a horse by the time I dismount. You have to take these
little victories as they come; failure is a refreshing constant of Deep Springs life. Participating in the labor program means that
things just sometimes don’t work, and it balances the sometimes
excessive school pride with necessary humility.

Evenings

After dinner and an hour spent organizing invoices, the weekly
curriculum committee meeting begins at 8:00 p.m. Tonight is one of our most
important meetings of the semester, when we lock down three faculty
positions for the upcoming year.

With the academic job market as it is, we are receiving applicants
who might otherwise land tenure-track jobs. Given that Deep Springs
doesn’t offer tenure — in fact, long-term faculty can stay no longer than
seven years — we have to try to grab Ph.D. candidates at places like Yale,
Berkeley and Harvard before they land jobs elsewhere.

The meeting starts lightly as we jokingly fight for the position of
calling Jacques Derrida and Stephen Greenblatt, cited recommenders on
applications we’ve received (alas, Derrida offers only a fax number).
The committee — seven students and the school president — then settles
quickly to business. We choose to recommend three applicants for hire to
the student body: a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Harvard, a
prominent garbologist and waste-management expert at SUNY-Stony Brook,
and a husband and wife team of political theorists from Duke. Given
these and the other positions yet to be filled, next year’s faculty is
looking to be one of the best in years. After approving the academic
calendar, the meeting ends an hour or so later.

Night

Had my assignments not been postponed, I’d be in the lab with a pH
tester in one hand and Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” in the other
by 9:30 p.m. Instead, I’m in my Big Smith overalls, guiltlessly grooving to
Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” under a black light.

If a dance party with 26 guys seems absurd, that’s because it sort of
is. It’s an opportunity for Dionysian release, but given the
impossibility of such on a dry, all-male campus, it’s also a
self-conscious parody. One student attends in a tiger-print velvet shirt
and tight black skirt, another in bright orange federal-prison issue
work coveralls, another in the apron he neglected to remove after
washing dishes for two hours. “Baby Got Back” follows “I’m Too Sexy,”
then a techno song that samples from “The Running Man,” then Blondie. In
the end, it’s just an opportunity to be goofy for an hour or two.

If one assumes that every aspect of Deep Springs life is essentially a
construct, the “boojee” is the only one that doesn’t redeem itself by
working. The applications committee attracts students bound for the
nation’s top schools, and the curriculum committee provides for an
equivalent level of teaching. The labor program supports an economically
viable and environmentally conscious ranch. It’s our dances that fall
short.

And it’s OK. In the past 12 hours, I’ve gone from being a college
student to a ranch hand to a bookstore manager to a college
administrator. If I can’t be Tony Manero, then I can at least sleep easy
tonight knowing I’ll have the rest of my life to work on that.

Whet Moser is a 2000 graduate of Deep Springs College. He has written for the News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, the Roanoke Times and other publications.

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