The Cornell booths: A frustrated love letter

I consider myself a reasonably level-headed person. Neither a powdery iced chai nor an especially swampy Mertz field can ruin my day. But two weeks ago, as someone clambered over me to exit a Cornell booth for the third time in 10 minutes, I lost my cool. Why is there no easier way to exit the booth? There’s space available to make a walkway between two booths, so why isn’t it there?
I drew up a couple diagrams of my proposed change and posted an impassioned appeal in the Swarthmore College 2017-2018 Facebook page. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support I received and wanted to share more of my thoughts about the Cornell booths and other study spaces at Swarthmore.
When the renovations to Cornell First were announced a few years ago, I waited eagerly to see what it would look like. I sat in the sample chairs and left helpful reviews; I watched as the bookshelves were slowly drained of their books until their wooden skeletons stood empty.
When I finally saw the new and improved Cornell I was blown away — space! Tables! Light! And, most importantly: Booths! The high, lime green backs and the soft cushions looked idyllic. Here was a place where I could sit comfortably with two to seven friends. Gone were my days of sitting in hard wooden chairs or balancing my laptop on my lap in an armchair. I had found the Promised Land.
The first time sitting in a Cornell booth is a singularly disappointing experience. The booths are a bit like those humane mouse traps that lure the mouse in and trap it in a tube, keeping it alive so that you can release it into a park and feel good about yourself.
You slide into the booth like a mouse following the smell of cheese, drawn in by the green upholstery and the promise of productivity. But then someone slides in after you, and it’s like the door of the mousetrap snapping shut. You are stuck, but you don’t yet know it. From where you sit, it looks like the only way out is through.
But, alas: you scoot yourself off the far end of the booth and find yourself trapped between the booths and a glass wall, nowhere to go, no way to escape. You stumble to the end of the row, hoping to find some small crack to squeeze through or some empty booth to crawl across, but you’re met only with the disapproving stares of the inhabitants of the other booths.
The final words of your friends echo in your head: “Roll thru I got a booth.” You have rolled too far thru. You wander back and forth for what feels like hours, stuck in your glass tube. All the booths look the same. Which one did you come from? Where are your friends? Did they forget about you and leave you here alone? Will some great celestial hand soon come release you into an eternal park?
Even if you do manage to find an empty booth to escape through, getting out is still difficult. You have to choose between awkwardly crawling on your hands and knees like the girl from “The Ring,” sitting down and slowly inching sideways, or walking on the cushioned seat like some kind of barbarian.
Getting out isn’t the only issue with the booths. Sitting in the booths causes one of the hardest decisions of my daily life: do I sit comfortably with my back against the booth, approximately 3,000 yards from the table; or do I sit where I can actually reach my laptop, perched on the edge of the seat, not taking full advantage of all the comfort the booth has to offer? Most often I end up scooting back and forth, reclining briefly and then moving up to the edge of the seat in a kind of perpetual dance.
Despite all of their flaws, the Cornell booths are consistently occupied. Why are Swarthmore students so content with sub-optimal seating? Those tall green walls of fabric contain a seating arrangement unlike any other on campus. It’s hard enough to find soft, couch-like seating with a proximal table, and nearly impossible to find a cozy study space with room for a large group of friends. Despite their flaws, no other space accommodates casual group studying as comfortably as the Cornell booths do.
Additionally, the booths often seem more full than they actually are. Even though they are able to seat up to eight people each, an entire booth is frequently taken by a single person or a pair of people. This means that four to eight people can claim an area that could seat up to 32. Sitting alone in a booth makes exiting much easier, and you’re unlikely to be joined by someone you don’t know. Somehow, a booth with one stranger seems just as full as a booth with eight. Sitting with a stranger in a booth feels much more intimate than sitting with a stranger at a table or in adjacent armchairs. Maybe this is part of the allure of the booths: their high backs and soft lighting give them a feeling of privacy, even in a very public space.
So what do we do about this sub-optimal-but-better-than-everything-else seating? Luckily, the solution to the problems that plague the booths is very simple: compressing each booth by about six inches creates a central walkway between the two middle booths while simultaneously making the tables a more favorable distance from the seats.
The few times I’ve adjusted the booths to this optimal arrangement, they’ve been reset by the next day. As much as I’d love to be Swarthmore’s resident Sisyphus and readjust the booths every day, I am hoping that we as a campus community can come together to agree to maintain the central walkway from this day forward.
This holds true for many spaces on campus: even though individual students may not have the budget to buy soundproof cocoon-chairs, we have the power to change our spaces to fit our needs, or, at the very least, to express our discontentment. As comfortable, nap-friendly armchairs are steadily replaced by lime green and orange furniture with modern silhouettes, the way that we use our common spaces also changes.
I’d like to encourage us to think critically about the spaces we frequent and how those spaces could be improved. Together, we can change the booths.

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