My Back Pages: A Student Without His Own Computer

Author: Liam Farrell '04

Liam Farrell, alumni editor

Notre Dame recently had its annual Junior Parents Weekend, an event that I’m sure is a nice bonding experience for students, their parents, and the variety of friends and their parents that will gather together for dinners and what have you.

Not that I have any personal experience to back this up.

I was in Dublin for my spring semester, and missed JPW (My older brother did the same, thereby securing my parents as the rare case of sending two kids through South Bend without a single JPW). Statistically, I have no idea if I’m in small company, doubtful considering that the cohort of students studying abroad remains very strong. But the occasion of JPW always makes me think of my own private Notre Dame, how individual choices or circumstances render us outside the typical.

For example, along with everyone else in the marching band, I spent four years here without a single game day tailgate. I worked on the North Dining Hall dish line, so I know what you people left on your plates (Disgusting, fellas. Disgusting.). I also lived off campus but didn’t have a car, so I became intimately aware of all of the dogs housed along Bulla Road, and actually do get to tell my kids I walked to school in a foot of snow.

Day to day, however, there was no more impactful subculture for me than being A Student Without His Own Computer.

Our numbers were strong at the beginning of my college career in 2000, and I adopted numerous coping strategies. The library computer lab was OK, but wasn’t 24 hours, and the LaFortune computer lab was barely worth the bother, since it was always so crowded, due to its proximity to food. The best place to make my late-night paper writing stands was in the DeBartolo lab, with its vast supply of computers and distance from various quads.

Depending on the night, especially around exams, you could be greeted with a horrible sight — a line. I remember standing in the foyer, staring at an electronic board on the wall as the red lights with “FARR” on them slowly moved up in the queue. In those moments, your own deprived comrades were your enemy — why has the guy at Computer 43 not been back for a half hour? Why is the girl at Computer 21 doing nothing but chatting with instant messenger? I bet that guy over there really has a computer at his dorm but is too lazy to go back!

Eventually, I figured out the rhythms. I wouldn’t bother going to the lab between classes, as hordes of students would go in to check their email, and my sojourns for writing papers weren’t undertaken until 10 p.m. or later. I was a night owl, anyway, and the half-hour when they closed the lab to clean it around 2 a.m. gave a nice opportunity to catch a nap on the cheap couches in the adjoining lounge. I would bring every conceivable book I needed for a reference to avoid an unneeded return trip to my dorm or apartment and a full flipbook of CDs to drown out the idle chatter in the room.

By the time I was a junior, my survival skills for negotiating computer labs weren’t really necessary anymore. The subculture was shrinking fast, and by the time I got a laptop as a gift during my last semester at school, you could basically get a machine anywhere at any time.

My generation of Notre Dame compatriots, who arrived at the end of the 1990s or early 2000s, essentially spanned two generations of technology. At the start of our college years, people used ethernet cords and landlines. By the end, people had wireless connections and cell phones. There was no greater measure to me of how deep and personalized technology was becoming than the shrinking ranks of us who had to venture outside our dorms to access Microsoft Word.

Students still go to the labs now, and I’m sure some are still in the same situation I was. The electronic waiting list board is long gone from DeBartolo, though, as is the big desk where lab staffers would try to solve every computer problem with telling you to reboot it (as if you hadn’t already tried this). They changed the furniture in the lounge, too — I could have used one of those bean bags in the fall of 2002, man.

My experience probably sounds logistically nightmarish to most current students, but it provided many fond memories. Like when I was stuck on an essay for my “Why Did God Become Human” class and finally got an epiphany while walking in circles around DeBartolo in the cool fall air; randomly running into my brother and taking breaks over 3 a.m. pizza in Reckers; putting the finishing touches on a paper just as the sun was coming up, and walking back to my dorm through the silent stalagmites of snow piled up on either side of me, campus as my own personal wilderness.

It’s funny coming back to Notre Dame as an alum to work and realizing just how frozen in amber the campus will always be in your mind. Every time there is JPW, I’ll be in Ireland; and every time it’s late at night, I’ll be walking to a computer lab.