Persuasive writing

classicscafe.jpgIn my experience, there are certain groups that are simply not worth antagonizing. So: don’t try to pet wild animals. Don’t mouth off to police officers. Don’t flash hand signals at gang members. And don’t try to take coffee away from English majors.

And yet last month (perhaps on a dare) the Humanities Division proposed to convert the back room of Classics Café into a seminar room. True, there would still be coffee. But the larger of the two rooms—the sun-lit, south-facing Gothic space that overlooks the Midway—would be closed.

Almost immediately, an Internet petition went up. Interestingly, it was posted not by furious undergraduates, most of whom are away for the summer, but by two senior faculty members: David Wellbery, the LeRoy T. and Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson University professor; and Eric Santner, Philip and Ida Romberg professor in modern Germanic studies and chair of Germanic studies. In language typical of the café’s patrons, the petition states that Classics Café is “a physiognomy expressive of unique features of our academic culture” and “a Socratic space,” while closing the back room would “eviscerate a singular milieu of humanistic conversation.”

But don’t professors who hold named chairs have other ways of making their dissatisfaction known? “It’s not a scream of the powerless,” says Wellbery, pointing out that because the petition is online, it’s been signed by a number of alumni. “It was meant to be helpful in the decision-making process,” by demonstrating just how many people—792 had signed it by August 24 at 1 p.m.—love the café.

OK, but what’s a Socratic space? “In the dialogues of Plato, Socrates would leave the city and go to a special, quiet place,” Wellbery explains. “That’s where the dialogues take place. Socratic dialogues really set the pattern for learning in the humanities. Classics Café is just that kind of space, a space for teaching and learning.”

While the vast majority of the signatories (which reads like a Who’s Who of the Humanities Division) contributed only their names, those who wanted to could make further arguments in the comments section. Among grad students, pragmatism was a common theme. “Forget ‘utopian space,’” wrote Hannah McKeown, “it's the philosophy grad-office space! Either keep the café or build us offices.” Less crankily, Rocio Magaña, pointed out, “It's impossible to estimate how many dissertation topics have been conceived and brought to fruition in this place.”

Among the professors, several acknowledged the politics of the issue. “Being a professor in the linguistics department, I fully understand the need for more and better seminar space,” Jason Riggle wrote, “and I would love to have such space so close to my office. *BUT*, eliminating the open room of the Classics Café is absolutely the wrong way to go about this.” Herman Sinaiko added, “Don't damage the whole Division just to placate a departmental need.”

There were also critiques of the petition’s language: “I do not regard the back room of the Classics Café in quite the same light (‘utopian,’ a ‘singular milieu’) as my fellow signers, nor would I express those beliefs with such prolixity if I held them,” Jonathan Williams commented, “but nonetheless I feel quite strongly that the University gains more from that space as it stands than as a lecture hall.”

Still others opted for brevity: “Is nothing sacred?” “Worst idea ever,” “SAVE THE CAFÉ!” “'adamantly’ isn't strong enough,” “Leave my coffee alone!!!!!!!!!!!” “Please!!” while someone named Mr. Anonymous wrote plaintively, “Save [C]lassics....because it saved me first.”


According to the Dean of the Humanities’ office, the decision to close the back room of the café has been put on hold.

Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

August 24, 2009