Thursday, November 18, 2010

Talk's Cheap? Columbia's $500 F2F Experiment

Did the Office of Student Life at Columbia University misfire Monday when it offered a $500 prize to the undergrad who can collect the most secret passwords from fellow students?  Will this game achieve their goal of engaging students in nonacademic f2f conversation?

[Image:  Ivygate]

Media have jumped all over this story:  FoxNY, HuffPo, NYT's CityRoom blog, the Harvard Crimson.

Says Eve Binder, Managing Editor at the Ivy League blog Ivygate, "Instead of having a citywide meltdown, maybe we should be commending Columbia undergrads for assimilating so well into the ethos of New York City. After all, the rulebook does indeed say that you’re not allowed to talk to anyone who smiles, wears colors, or is not from New York."

Sure, but according to an unsigned article at Insider Higher Ed, a dearth of walking-across-campus sociability is not limited to mawkish urbanites at Columbia:  "[E]ven rural campuses, including those that pride themselves on a culture of sociability, have had to contend in recent years with the threat posed by mobile devices."  The article cites examples of the Speaking Tradition at Washington and Lee in Lexington, VA, and at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the “Passing Hello” which has been "institutionalized as one of the university’s most cherished traditions."

For some faculty and admins age-35+ whose college years were mobile-phone-free, the sight of undergraduates mashing buttons or sliding fingers over screens as they walk to class suggests a loss.  Did they meet their future spouses as they strolled across the campus?  Maybe.  Did random campus conversations contribute meaningfully to their sense of the college experience?  Absolutely.  Steven Johnson offers one reason why.

"Liquid networks" generate innovation and creativity.  Cities, college campuses (or both, in the case of Columbia) permit random connections among people who are loosely joined together.  Innovation is more likely to happen when sparks from outside one's customary orbit blaze new neural pathways to the puzzles your brain is working to solve.  That IR major you recognize from a party last night and who you bumped into on the library steps today might remind you of a conversation you'd had at the party, but forgotten--until this random connection reactivated it, and shot it into the forefront of your consciousness.

We can agree that this f2f randomness is potentially meaningful. A good result of proximity.

But do you actually have to be f2f to get that same thrilling brush against difference?

Nope.  Twitter has yielded for me more surprising, diverse information than I found bumping into others on the quad.  But the conversations I have in the halls with my colleagues are deep, sustained and continuous.  The mix of both makes for the most creative thinking.  

Why do Columbia's well-meaning admins assume that students' screen socializing is inferior to the exclusively f2f socializing they did when they were in college?  

"We are appalled at the absurdity of this game,"declare Columbia undergraduates Tom Miner and Liz Lund in an Op-Ed for the Colubmbia Spectator.  "It is certainly a noble goal to get students to better interact with one another, but when you attach a $500 prize to a game whose winner must inherently be a systematic, blunt, and tactless maniac, the purpose becomes lost."

They concede:  "The administration is right, though: Columbia students—perhaps more than most college students—have issues socializing."

Wouldn't it be smarter to create f2f experiences that screens can't replicate?

And to involve students in the creation of such experiences?

At the University of Washington, the Seattle Times reports, about 900 people play Humans vs. Zombies Tag, or HvZT.  "It's a complex game that sweeps through the UW campus every quarter. 'The best part of it is you meet a ton of people,' says student Malcolm Badewitz-Brown, one of four overseers, or game organizers."  HvZT is a trend across universities and around the world.

At the University of Southern California, more than 1,500 students participate annually in the Visions and Voices program, which treats students to a huge range of arts performances and lectures both on- and off-campus.  It facilitates guided discussion after each event.

The brouhaha burbling out of Columbia's Social Experiment underscores the technology divide between students and the people in charge of educating them.

Ironically, although some faculty and admins profoundly distrust how students socialize on screens, they rarely bother asking students whether they perceive a lack of sociability.  In fact, students just might be up to their ears in social experience.  Going to college doesn't mean leaving behind their K-12 network, as it did before social media.  When we think about how to create community on campus and in the classroom, we must keep that in mind.  Each learner at the seminar table is not just one person, but a web of many people that moves and breathes with that learner everywhere she goes.
Wouldn't $500 be an excellent prize for students who invent a cool new game that promotes f2f on campus?  Trust the students to describe their experience and figure out a new way to connect.  My guess:  the game would be a hybrid, something that would use screens to enable f2f in ways most of us over 20 couldn't imagine. Which is why we haven't.

1 comment:

Janna said...

I found your blog intriguing. I teach at a major urban university and I get so frustrated by all the texting and non-communicating I see on campus. In fact, how many times do I tell a student, "Watch where you're going, please," because he/she is looking down at the phone and nearly crashing into me. How many times do I see students -- clearly friends -- walking three or four abreast along the main university street, each of them looking DOWN at their phones rather than interacting with each other?

And yes, my husband and I fell in love while talking at the "roach coach" when we were at AFI (me as a staffer; he as a student). If we had had the texting culture, we would not even have spoken.

However...I just had a funny conversation with my son the other day. I asked him if he speaks regularly to the guys in his band (who are going to college in Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee) and he said yes. I said, "So, you talk to them regularly on the phone?" And, he looked at me and said, "Mom. You have to understand. Being in touch with someone doesn't always mean you're TALKING to them. We text. We Facebook. We email. We iChat. Being in touch doesn't always mean talking."

To me, this is a generational thing. Kids of my son's generation (the millenials) not only don't look at f2f speaking as a viable communication option, but they are more comfortable with the visual form of communication -- texting, iChatting, Facebooking.

Call me a dinosaur but this is something I will never understand!