May 5, 2023

KUBINEC | In Praise of Lingering

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Cornell’s most famous structure is not a classroom or a library — and certainly not a baseball field. The building we love most is a giant clock. We grin and point whenever the clock lights up pink or green. Aspiring chimesmasters go through olympic trials every spring for a chance to play music from the clock. The clock has more followers than I have on Instagram

Not to go all opinion-writer-run-amok, but recently, I haven’t had the rosiest feelings for McGraw Tower. Its quarter-hour clanging feels obnoxious. I get it! Time is running out! No need for the constant reminder!

And at a deeper level, I’ve been realizing my time at Cornell unfolded under clocks — not just beneath the four-sided face of McGraw Tower, but under Google Calendars, Canvas deadlines, and the ever-present sense that time is running out. 

Cornellians have a tortured relationship with time, and our clock tower is a reminder. After losing touch with who they were, the ancients built the Tower of Babel. For much the same reason, we built the Tower of Time.

In the mid-1800s, colleges faced an existential crisis. America was industrializing, the scientific method was ascendant, and universities where students skimmed the surface of a predetermined variety of subjects with a theological veneer seemed outdated. Enrollment was in decline, and reformers began pushing for universities to offer more elective classes, build more laboratories for scientific experiments, and teach practical subjects like engineering and agriculture (for more on this, check out Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University).

It was in this environment that a feisty upstart University in Ithaca declared, counter-culturally, that it would provide any person instruction in any study. Cornell was at the forefront of making college a place where students could pick up useful skills and prove themselves worthy of gainful employment. This is a good thing, but it has also made education a commodity where the most savvy are able to extract the most possible value from their 120 credits. You only get four years at Cornell, and you’d better make the most of every second, so you can set yourself up for a lucrative career.

College being a means to an end is why a cascade of students in lecture halls always pack up two minutes before class ends. It’s why I click away at my laptop during my 30 minute lunch breaks, hoping to knock out some task now to free up time to watch the new episode of Succession later. It’s why we overcommit and flake out on obligations. We’ll never do enough. We’re in a race against time, and we’re losing. 

But in the midst of this, there is a group of Cornellians I’ve never been able to understand. I’m going to call them the lingerers. You surely know one — the kid who sticks it out at boring parties, who you haven’t seen actually doing work, who never pats his knees and says “Well, I should probably get going” after precisely 45 minutes of lunchtime chatting. 

Lingerers aren’t glorified at Cornell, but I think you should admire them. In fact, I think you should want to be more like them. Lingerers watch everyone around them marching on towards Wendell Berry’s Objective and choose human connection instead. They’re the ones who will take a bad prelim grade to be with you during a breakup. Lingerers are able to defy the cruel logic of the clock.

In my year of column writing, I’ve harped on all manner of things wrong with Cornell. Why Big Red Bucks are a scam. Why our love lives don’t work. Why we shouldn’t have razed our baseball field. But for my final column, I want to present my vision for how you can be positively formed by Cornell: Spend more time lingering. Stand under the Johnson Museum roof late at night. Listen to the silence of the Arts Quad on a snowy morning. Let your conversations trail off and restart and trail off again. 

Even in our captive state, there are a few instances under the clock’s dominion when time becomes sacred. If Apple calls to set up an interview, we clear our calendar. If a professor is taking attendance, we don’t skip class. If a close friend has a health crisis, we make the time to be there. But I wonder if someday we won’t look back at all those little moments of mundane sweetness in between — the surprise birthday parties, the afternoon runs to Purity, the late-night delirium — and realize those times were sacred, too. 

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. This is the final installment of his fortnightly column You Don’t Know Jack.