Welcome to Campus, Now Get Lost

About half my life has been in the age of the computer. As I?ve learned to use machines designed by other humans I have learned to think as others think.? To figure out how to find what I?m looking for, instead of using my own reasoning, I?ve learned to try to think as geeks think.


It?s a perpetual challenge, like getting up in the morning or losing weight.

Sticking with challenges like this pays off, I?m forced to concede. The value of finding information on the internet is worth the mental struggle to guess the key search words to find it.

Likewise, the very poor signage on the campus of George Mason University is ultimately a good thing. Finding buildings on campus forces newcomers to stop and ask.? Maybe I?m wrong. Maybe it is because I have a friendly face, or perhaps because I refuse to pay hundreds of dollars to park on campus and consequently spend lots of time walking or pedaling around it. I get stopped a lot to be asked for directions.

What seems logical to me, placing a sign where someone approaching campus on foot, bicycle, in a car or bus might see it, is not logical to whoever decides these things at Mason.

The first time I noticed it I was looking for Thompson Hall. I approached, naturally, from the nearest parking lot. The building I suspected might be Thompson Hall should logically have a door at this corner as none was in sight either direction south or east. Sure enough, behind some dumpsters I spotted the Mason mark of entry point: a cigarette disposal device-yes, one of those fireproof trashcan thingies. It took me a while to figure what those were for too because … right. No signage.

I wandered south along the length of the building to the next corner where I spotted in the distance a sign for the next building, Aquia. I wondered if that building might house a swimming pool. Clearly the local sign-maker was only marginally sober and therefore likely to misspell things. I looked at my map then I looked at the sky. Think logically, I told myself.

I deduced that because the sun always sets in the west, the building behind me must be Thompson Hall.

To be sure I went back to the dumpster corner and walked up the north side. Nope, no signs here either. Finally, using logic again, I started digging through the dumpster. Here I found something addressed to ? a mailstop number, no building mentioned. I had to walk all the way through the building, out the front door to find confirmation.

I?ve made a bit of a study of it, trying to figure out the target audience of each sign I see on campus. My conclusion? Somewhere lurking in the fluorescent meeting rooms of the inner decision-making chambers at this fine institution is a closet sciurophile. Yes, someone who loves squirrels.

Signs are facing trees. Signs are lettered so that only a creature positioned on the spongy bark landscaping mulch in front of them could read them. Signs are small. Signs are really hard to find. Like nuts.

I?m okay with that. As long as we?re all immunized and the squirrel population is reasonably healthy, I can support the habits of a sciurophile. And furthermore, the forced social interaction of asking for directions is a good thing. In this world sterilized by computer interfaces, getting us out of our screen-zones is always a good thing.

My argument therefore is going to focus on internationalization. Mason?s goals, according to its weighty strategic plan, include welcoming foreign students to campus. I?ve noticed, and as a former foreign student myself, I can attest, it is easier to consult a map or a smartphone to figure things out than it is to ask questions of strangers in a foreign language. So I think it might be time, if only to better serve foreign students, we reconsider our sign placement criteria. Perhaps it is time to provide signs for people rather than for rodents.

Besides, I?m not sure some of those squirrels can even read.

By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.