For the past month or so, every time I’ve tried to log into the back end of our Carletonian website, WordPress has asked me to complete an “I’m not a robot” task. But it’s not just any “I’m not a robot” task. It’s the arduous kind. Grueling. The question reads: “Select all pictures which contain an airplane.” Or a boat, or a car, or an umbrella, or whatever. Then I have to scroll through two pages, each of nine images, to identify the correct ones.
Such a task reveals just how difficult visual perception is. These pictures are blurry, pixelated. And they make weird use of perspective. Sometimes it’ll be just the very outer edge of the wing of an airplane. How am I supposed to know that that’s a plane? They really are trying to confuse these robots.
The task also leads one, if one is a dutiful liberal-arts student, to question the conceptual boundaries of these things. For instance, is an airplane wing really an airplane itself? Does a semi truck count as a car? Is a motorcycle just a glorified bicycle? These are the sorts of questions that come to mind as I’m subjected to this torture, which occurs not once a month, not once a day, but approximately every 10 minutes as I try to upload articles onto our website. And sometimes I fail at the task! I get too many wrong (because I’m going too fast, not because I don’t know what umbrellas are, I promise), and then the site makes me examine a whole new set of eighteen images. I’m getting worked up just thinking about it!
So I spoke to our web editor. He explained that it was a “cloudflare procedure” that prevents hackers from getting into the site. Because you’re curious, I’ll tell you that the Carletonian website is subject to some 200 hack attempts a day. Yikes. Definitely makes the whole defense-against-robots thing seem more reasonable. (And I admit, we’re flattered!)
He also explained that this protective measure is set to populate when a user is outside of Carleton’s radius. That explained why this had been, maddeningly, happening to only me, while our managing editor, still living in her room on campus, had been accessing the site humanity-check-free.
What’s funny about that is that I live in Northfield. Or, just outside of Northfield, past the highway (don’t tell). In the scheme of things, I’m really quite close to campus. And I don’t think any of our hack attempts had been from Northfield-based robots. But alas, it’s a fine rule, because until this point, I’d only ever logged into the admin site while nestled squarely within Carleton’s lush green (or muddy, snow-ish white) campus.
All in all, there are a lot of silent, subtle benefits of being on campus. There’s the absence of this cloudflare procedure. There’s Duo. There’s the trusty Wi-Fi, which those of us on campus this Fall were sorely reminded to be grateful for when, for several hours on the last day of finals, the whole campus’ Internet went down. It was hilariously terrible timing, and the whole thing felt apocalyptic (perhaps foreshadowing?). I remember being in the Libe—one of the only sources of Internet, via ethernet cords—and pacing around like a vulture, finally spotting an open computer, only to be intercepted by some guy who’d been beelining at a slightly quicker pace.
When I spent a term abroad, I remember frequently encountering the “Off-campus Access to Library Resources” login page, a gentle reminder that though I was still a Carleton student, I wasn’t quite part of the whole thing. Or I was, but it was going to require a tiny bit more effort—an iota, a symbolic few clicks—to participate in it. I think I’ve even seen that page in Blue Monday. Blue Monday is practically a Carleton site itself—especially at certain times in the afternoon, or on the weekends—but Carleton is so Carleton that even being in downtown Northfield is often talked about as an “escape.”
As to other under-the-radar perks of campus life, there’s the sheer convenience of everything. Even the longest trek—from the townhouses to Farm, maybe—takes maybe 15 minutes on foot. There’s the bookstore right in Sayles, for when you run out of toothpaste or want to buy an expensive impulse snack. In the “real world,” errands take some planning; at Carleton, it’s so convenient you hardly notice how convenient it all is. Not to mention all the free stuff—free condoms, free common-time lunches, free coffee from any number of department lounges. (Of course, these things aren’t exactly “free” given the $70k tuition, but they’re undeniably convenient.)
There are the custodial services in our dorms and our gathering spaces. Talk to most any Northfield-option student and they’ll mention what an adjustment it is to keep up with household chores. It’s easy, living in the dorms, to notice the bothersome things, like the decorative thermostats, or the thin walls—but it’s equally easy to ignore the pleasant things, like having consistently clean carpets and sinks.
And then, beyond these taken-for-granted details of campus life, there are also myriad ways in which normal, standard ways of Carleton life are actually wonderful, and wonderfully campus-specific. Over the course of this remote Spring, as I come to grips with the fact that I’m never going to have another term on campus, I’ve been doing plenty of reflecting about these sorts of things.
On campus, I often feel a baseline sense of possibility. There are always new people to meet, familiar people to get to know better, people to change your mind about, people to get excited about. Here at home, my social landscape is not quite so compelling (no offense to my loving family).
And while there are interesting people in my online classes, I can’t sit next to them on Zoom, and I can’t make post-class conversation as we gather our things. Sending a Slack message to someone you barely know doesn’t exactly have the suave, casual feel of hitting them with a classic “1As, amirite?” as you enter the room.
There are also resources—offices and facilities that help make ideas possible. One of my favorite recent Carleton moments happened this past term, when I complained about how my ResLife shelf was ever-so-slightly too big to fit on top of my dresser, and my friend who worked in Boliou said I should just come by sometime and he’d help me build a shelf. And then I did that! And walked across the Bald Spot at eleven p.m. carrying a new shelf, perfectly designed to fit my dresser!
Then there’s the fun, dynamic nature of campus life. There were the Saturdays when I woke up with big plans to get ahead on readings but then ran into friends on the Bald Spot and instead spent three hours with the same page open in front of me, my highlighter drying up as I kept tricking myself into thinking I was about to get back into reading. There were the Sundays when I stayed at Dacie’s well past brunch, and worked on the porch to the soundtrack of the Gales practicing inside.
In my quarantined life at home, I’ve not only been missing the great stuff—Spring Concert and fiery class discussion and late nights at Sayles—but also the weird stuff. I think the awkwardness of Carleton, bemoaned while we’re on campus together, is actually another one of these hidden joys. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too romantic about it all, but I’m a senior, so forgive me.
I like the hilarious game of calculating exactly when I should glance up and say hi when I’m crossing paths with an acquaintance. And the weighty decision about whether to go for a wave, a head nod, or a stop-to-chat. Fortunately, Zoom provides plenty of opportunity for awkwardness, but there’s something less organic about it. We’re all just experiencing our own discrete awkwardnesses, in our separate locations. There’s less of a buzz. I want to share the awkwardness with you.
When I worked at the Carleton bookstore my first year, I always had the most fun on busy days, when I’d interact with a bunch of Carls, awkward and otherwise. They’d often apologize and act flustered when they messed something up with the then-novel chip reader. It was no problem at all for me! But I liked how concerned they all were. (There was also one time when a guy came up to the counter, wearing earbuds and saying no words to me at all, in order to purchase another pair of earbuds.)
And of course there are the endless opportunities to run into exes, or ex-loud-neighbors, or people you had an unsavory group-project experience with. There are the inevitable weird conversations, or more likely, those brief-eye-contact-followed-by-never-looking-their-direction-again dynamics. On Zoom, you never have to worry about eye contact, because there is none. Which might have its advantages, but I think it’s mostly boring.
And of course, campus provides the many more-pleasant opportunities I already mentioned. The random run-ins, the joyful catchings-up, the late nights in dorm lounges, the extended office-hour chats.
The online world offers some ways for us to mimic these elements of Carleton life. Profs can hold Zoom office hours. We can set up group FaceTimes with friends. We can even send virtual Friday Flowers via email. I can still spend weeknights up late with my co-editors, putting all the last pieces together for publication and asking each other for the hundredth time whether or not we capitalize the names of seasons. Only now it’s over the phone, not in the office we’ve lovingly decorated, and it’s for the creation of our newsletter, which is beautiful in its own right but doesn’t quite match the feeling of fresh Friday-morning newsprint.
So yes—as Stevie P said in his heartwarming Twitter video—we may be online, but we’re still Carleton. I agree. But we’re Carleton Lite, or something like that. A little less passionate, a little less spontaneous, a little less weird. Carleton for Robots, maybe.