110 What Does “Free” Mean to a Student? Ideology and First Fire
I attended the First Fire 2017 last fall. It’s a ceremonial tradition of lighting the hearth in the Hartman Union Building for the first time each season as it starts to get cold. Liz Ahl reads one of her poems, the fire is lit, and everyone gets free mug, coffee to fill it with, and a doughnut to eat with the coffee. The whole thing lasts about ten to fifteen minutes. And yet the HUB is packed.
I love hearing the poem each year. Though they are all written about fire, the poems are always unique. And this year was especially different. Liz included her Poetry Workshop class in the reading. She stood at her usual spot in the Fireplace Lounge, and her students were scattered throughout the crowd. Liz would read a stanza, and then students would jump in to read the next few lines. Voices sounded from unexpected places, sometimes solo, and sometimes in unison. It was a great idea to have so many people working together to read a collaborative poem. It represented exactly what the First Fire is supposed to be about: community.
Except you could hardly hear them.
I was situated above the Fireplace Lounge on the second level of the HUB. I could hear the ceremony itself really well with the help of microphones. The Poetry students didn’t have microphones, and they were raising their voices pretty loudly. But I couldn’t make out the words over the buzz of chatter. The other attendees in the HUB could not keep quiet. Because, unfortunately, most of the students attending didn’t come for the poetry. They didn’t come for the ceremonial fire lighting, or even the sake of tradition. They came for the free mug.
As soon as the official bit ended, the crowd rushed to form a line at the many tables stacked with mugs and doughnuts and vats of hot beverages.
There is something about the assumption of “free” that really gets people going. I have heard of students going from one line to the next to get another mug, or even going through the same line again. If you want any kind of even to be successful, then offer a complementary souvenir.
I connected this to Althusser’s thesis of Ideology: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”
In this case, the individuals are us, the students. The conditions of existence are the coveted coffee mugs. And the imaginary relationship is the idea that we aren’t paying for them.
While it’s cool to collect a set of four mugs over four years, they aren’t really free. We as students contribute to events like this one through our tuition money. But the illusion of not having to pay for something as simple as a mug is a big deal.
Gathering as we do each year is a sweet little Plymouth tradition, and in some ways by doing so we subscribe to an illusion of what Plymouth is. While there is a small-town charm to the campus community, we don’t exactly sit by the HUB fire in giant groups sharing poetry every day. There is so much more to our school and our community, both positive and not so positive. But First Fire represents the marketable Plymouth, the one that we become so attached to on Accepted Students Day, the one photographed in the brochures. The imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence is believing that PSU can be defined by something so narrow and so idyllic.