Friedman ’19: College’s thin line between private and public

staff columnist
Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Before coming to Brown, I had the false impression that spaces would assume well-defined roles in my public or private life, as they had during my high school years. But that is not the case; the university environment does not entitle me to spatial security, so to speak. Consolidation of public and private space is a paradigm of college life.

As college students, the entire Brown campus comprises our collective home. This, more often than not, leads to awkward misunderstandings between students with conflicting ideas for a space. Take, for example, the SciLi on a Saturday night: Usually no one is there, except for me when I have a linear algebra midterm the following Tuesday. Apparently, as I found out, it is also a good place to Netflix and chill and pass out while listening to music. It seems as though the SciLi also serves the function of a bedroom (perhaps in more than one way). Other spaces take on alternative functions at different times of the week. Apparently, the basement of Smitty-B, an academic building where I normally have section for my economics class, becomes a concert venue for parties and DJ sets on the weekend. Conversely, the seating area adjacent to the Blue Room serves as a noisy eating and gathering space during the week but becomes a quiet place to study on the weekend.

The distinction between public and private spaces was so much clearer in high school. Back then, the cafeteria and locker room played important and well-defined civic functions: I socialized in the locker room during my 10-minute break in between classes and ate in the cafeteria with my friends at 12:30 every afternoon. My college experience has proven itself to be completely different. My dorm room largely takes on the roles of both public gathering space and private living space. This phenomenon is a uniquely college experience.

I can usually expect at least six of my floormates to congregate in my room at some point during the day to share anecdotes, watch TV or play a game of FIFA on the PS4. And as it is usually 30 degrees outside and no one has anywhere else to go in the winter, I welcome the company. But sometimes this happens at midnight, on a weekday: I am in my pajamas, and I have linear algebra homework to do in the morning. Sometimes I opt to go to bed, so I make the decision to value my sleep over the next FIFA game and tell everyone to leave. But when I do, I feel as if I am closing a collective social interaction on my floor for the rest of the night. I don’t want that guilt on my shoulders, so I normally just stay up until 2 a.m. playing video games instead. This kind of decision, I never had to make in high school.

Sometimes the ambiguity behind the function of the dorm makes some questions into unintended, awkward double entendres. I have been told on many occasions that if I have romantic feelings for a girl, the best move is to ask her to “come over and study.” What? That could mean so many things. What if I really just want her help with some homework I am having trouble with? People study in other dorm rooms all the time with the intention of actually accomplishing something. What if she thinks this is an invitation to hook up? That happens, too. As you can imagine, this usually does not end well, as one party ends up romantically confused while the other is stuck trying to figure out problem seven on the homework.

Perhaps this ambiguity is not an exception found only on college campuses but rather a rule for life. Is Starbucks the place to grab a skinny vanilla latte, meet a math tutor, conduct a college interview or go on a date? The same ambiguity applies to virtual spaces as well. Is Snapchat a place to share photos and videos about your day with friends or explicit photos (as some think was its original purpose) with your significant other? Any space, physical or virtual, can be used for any purpose we choose. It seems as though duality and ambiguity of function are facts of life.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at

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