My college roommate, Grace, came to visit for the long weekend, and while she was here, we did the kinds of things we liked to do best as undergraduates: grabbing samples at the Carrboro Farmers Market, going to Cosmic a fabulous number of times, relaxing into a protracted Weaver Street brunch, walking through the Carrboro neighborhoods between Greensboro and Main Streets. I have a conversation almost weekly about what it is like to continue graduate school at the same institution (and in the same department) that I attended for undergraduate. I then hem and haw about how town establishments have succumbed to corporate monsters, gripe about how I feel as though I have never left Chapel Hill, and grumble endlessly on the changing culture of the institution. But it’s a conversation I never tire of because I love talking about the University. Walking with Grace through our two towns, my partner texted: “How’s the nostalgia tour going?”
One thing (out of many) Grace and I agree on is how capital-g Great our alma mater is. Through no conspiracy between the two of us, we got wrapped up in institutional studies, education as it was and is in Chapel Hill. Though we never shared a single professor, we shared enough of the experiences of attending UNC that I know that we ended up on the same simplified square of understanding by graduation: UNC is great in part because it makes North Carolina great; North Carolina is great in part because UNC is great. There are complications to all that, but even writing down that logic pattern feels satisfying to me. That pattern drives me down the rabbit-hole of understanding our institutional history, doing the kind of navel-gazing that I know can be redolent of snobbish self-indulgence.
As I was graduating two years ago, I did an oral history with one of my writing instructors, a Chapel Hill native, a UNC alumnus, Kenan professor–a consummate North Carolina Great. I asked the final question, “Is there anything you want to talk about that we didn’t get to?,” and he said this:
“And, you know, it was certainly almost impossible to be, or to know, or even dream, as an undergraduate, how much meaning different elements, people, and you know, teachers that I really admired at the time, how in future years, when I started going into the classroom on my own, how I would not just borrow, but lean heavily on—channel is the word—their ways in terms of how to be. And you know, that might have been the case no matter where I went to school, but that I’ll never know because this is my place.”
I try to think of this last sentence when I’m drowning in memory and in the process of memory-making, trying to make meaningful my interactions and my relationships while I am still here. I am guilty, especially when on a nostalgia tour, of aggrandizing this place, making it capital-g Great. I don’t mean that I have not been in the business of critiquing the University, but I am susceptible to imagining it not only as a special place, but the special place. The place that defines the state. The place that defines myself. Only in the last year have I recognized this as problematic.
Institutional reputation has a lot to do with it. For Grace and I, there was first embarrassment, then heaps of pride about attending Chapel Hill. It was not, is still not, Bowdoin or Yale, our top choices for college. “All the best people came reluctantly,” Grace joked on Sunday night. But you throw off your snobbery, settle into a understanding of what a state institution is, and you fall in love with this place. With that love comes a kind of reverse-snobbery, a love for the local, the small, the intimately connected. Reverse-snobbery makes me proud to say I am from Boone, but I am not as proud to be from Winston-Salem (Grace, I’m sorry). We spent a while this weekend trying to identify this phenomenon and feeling: “of the earth,” “people from like, Kannapolis,” “when someone does an oral history with their grandmother and calls it scholarship.” We might as easily call it Howard Odum, E.C. Branson, Bill Friday, but I’ll save it for my dissertation. (See that right there, that’s straight-up snobbery.)
So much of what makes my love of the University border on hero-worship is the humility of its reputation. I reckon we do go about shouting “best public university in the South” and making jokes about our liberal oasis, but we also hold tightly to our small-town feeling and intimate Carolina Way. We do not identify with power, elitism, or even, I’d argue, intellectualism. But this is all part of a cultivated public reputation. Even still, despite the combustion of athletic power, devalued academics, aggressive sexual assault cases, and an outright ignorance about feelings of the marginalized communities on campus over the past five years, the University’s reputation is still sunlit. Indulging in a nostalgia tour very easily lets me take up the disguise of reverse-snobbery to throw over the ugliest parts of campus: the number of enrolled black students, the total lack of transparency or punishment for the men’s basketball team in the wake of the ath-ac scandal (don’t yell at me), the rightful indignity that many students have for the administrators that voted to whitewash the University’s dirty history.
How do I get at the pride and confusion, self-aware enmity and overwhelming love an alumnus of this university can have? How nostalgia for the life you are already living can manifest itself in the most mundane of activities: walking down Franklin or sitting on one of the benches at the top of McCorkle Place? How do you adore and criticize, worship and cut? Glut on wistfulness for time not so long-gone, and drown too in a future of optimism, equality, restrained ambition, clarity, and dissolved pretensions? We’ve got the rest of our lives, I reckon (see that there, that’s reverse-snobbery).