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My university is medium sized, according to those lists that categorize us, and rural, in an economically disadvantaged town.  But it is one of those areas where the air is never below green (they don't even do smog alerts!); our worst problem in air quality is pollen and mold.  If you get up on Saturdays and make it to the Farmers' Market you can not only buy local seasonal produce, eggs, and meats (not much processed things such as cheeses or pre-made foods, as there isn't enough of a market for that, although baked goods are big and last year there was both a donut truck and a bbq guy), but you can also see a large percentage of the people who work at the university -- both staff and faculty.  

These are just two of the reasons why I like living and working in the place that I am situated.  I know there are things wrong with it (those who are closest always can see the cracks and where we fall through them), but in general I would rather live here than in a huge city where everything is available.

I have been thinking about the community aspect of the university setting today as I am actually not in my home town, or rather, I am in my home town.  I came to Lawrence, Kansas, yesterday afternoon for an art opening at the university.  One of my colleagues, who teaches photography, is in a group show highlighting art from faculty at universities in Kansas and nearby states.  I came, because it gave me a chance to bring my father to the art exhibit (he doesn't get out nearly enough!), and to support my colleague, and to see the facilities at KU again (I think the last time I was in the Art and Design building was before I was teaching in an Art Department). I drove down with two other faculty, one in my department (who was using this as an excuse to come to the University to see a book in their special collections) and one in another department.  There were other colleagues there as well -- in fact I think there were more from my home university than from any other university, perhaps including KU itself (although young faculty to me look like students, so you really can't judge by my impression!).  

This is not unheard of, driving hours to see the work or the lecture, or the students of a colleague, in their glory at a great distance.  It is something you do to support your colleagues and your friends.  And your colleagues, if you are lucky, become your friends, and you don't care what they are doing just because you work together and it reflects well on the institution you work at, but also because you care about them and what is important to them.  I value where I work but I also value the people I work with.  People make the community.  

I know that this is something that is not unique to academe, at all.  But it is something that can come when a place and its people work together.  It can offset a whole bunch of smaller annoyances and it means, when the bigger annoyances become more overwhelming, there is a cushion that can help support you when you fall.  I have friends who have left jobs at my university because the state didn't recognize their same-sex relationships, or they were not able to obtain a tenure-track position.  But many of them have kept in touch and are still an important, but distant, part of the circle of friends.  I don't know how common this is in business, or in another setting, but it is not uncommon at a university setting, at least if you are fortunate.

I wonder if it is because almost all of us live in the small rural town, and the university is the largest employer by far, although the second largest is also academic -- a medical and dental school unaffiliated with my university.  The sorts of more liberal churches university faculty tend to gravitate toward (primarily Episcopalian) are majority university affiliated membership.  The grocery stores are centers of gossip and societal interaction.  And a Friday evening you can get to a friend's house for an informal dinner with a three-minute warning, or at least ten minutes -- that is how long it takes you to drive across town if you avoid the stoplights.  So that smallness of the town is beneficial for informal social interaction.

I guess what I am saying is that this is one of the things I value about the place I live, and it is partly the university and partly the place.  I like the fact I have the best students I could possibly imagine, of course, and that we don't tend to have very wealthy show-offs in the rural town in which I live.  I don't like that we have abandoned buildings and student slums in town, but there is an attempt to clear those up by the city council, and sidewalks and potholes get taken care of slowly, but they know they need to do better.  Often we vote to raise our own taxes, and we have a non-discrimination-based-on-sexual-preference employment and housing policy in town, the only town in our area to have one.  But all of these elements are from the people, and not just university people (none of them are on the city council, for example).  

And sometimes, just sometimes, you will be a state away or at a conference, and one of your colleagues you didn't even know was going to be there shows up and says "I wanted to see your talk" and you smile and feel happy inside.  It is the little things that matter so very much.

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Feb 01, 2014 at 11:38 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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