Casey Newton Column

Casey Newton

I took a campus tour this week.

After three years of living here I’ve pretty much gotten the lay of the land at Northwestern. In fact, I had hoped to give campus tours this summer. But a woman in the Office of Undergraduate Admission told me my services wouldn’t be required – they already had enough tour guides.

So on Wednesday I went to find out who had stolen my job.

Posing as a high school student, I infiltrated the admissions office and waited in the foyer with a docile herd of would-be Wildcats and their parents. Shifting uncomfortably in their seats, the youngsters were silent – apparently afraid that anything they said could be used against them in the admissions process.

At noon my nemeses emerged. Four bright-eyed tour guides, their faces brimming with purple pride, divided us into groups and took us on an 80-minute tour of South Campus.

And though overall my guides – a veteran and her trainee – were friendly, easygoing, and offered solid answers to our questions, they also made a bunch of mistakes.

Here then, for anybody visiting campus for the first time this summer, are a few clarifications.

First of all, there are not, as our guides told us, four El stops on campus. Strictly speaking, there’s not a single El stop on NU’s campus, although the Davis, Foster and Noyes stops are within walking distance. As for that mysterious fourth stop – well, if Central qualifies as “on campus,” then so does most of Wilmette.

Second, don’t get your hopes up should the tour guide tell you that University Library features “study carousels.” A merry-go-round at the libes? Now that would be news. To think that during all those visits to Core, I’d somehow missed the weary students studying atop their trusty mechanical steeds. Whoa, nelly!

But hold your horses – closer inspection revealed he was referring to study carrels.

Third, beware the phantom major. As we were walking by the site for the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation Journalism Center – or Bobby McC’s T.F.J.C., as I call it for short – a guide told us that the Medill School of Journalism is launching a “new-journalism major.” Visions of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson team-teaching a Gonzo 101 course briefly danced in my head.

But according to Medill Assoc. Dean Richard Roth, the guide probably was referring to the school’s new-media sequence, which began in 1999.

Other elements of the tour weren’t wrong per se, but would benefit from further explanation. For example, guides often laud NU’s “smart” classrooms, with their Ethernet connections and state-of-the-art audio/video technology. What they neglect to mention, however, is that NU has fallen behind in hiring “smart” professors, here defined as those academics capable of operating any equipment in a “smart” classroom beyond the light switch.

But the truth is that, quibbles aside, my tour guides were very good. I had hoped, of course, to catch them in an outright lie – “The winters here are lovely,” say, or “Tuition is a bargain.” But instead I got sensible advice from smart students who clearly enjoy their jobs.

So visitors, take it from an embittered tour guide reject: You’re in safe hands with these people. And on a campus this nice in weather this good, that’s almost enough to ease the sting you’ll feel when the study carousels they’ve promised you never arrive.