In the last 15 to 20 years, I’ve noticed that communication between people has become increasingly indirect. There’s been a steady erosion of interpersonal contact in favor of texting, tweeting, facebooking, and e-mailing. We can feel engaged and involved without having to “do” anything.
I remember a time when students couldn’t send me e-mail because e-mail wasn’t available; so they would come to my office or meet me somewhere in person. We would talk, resolve things, meet over a cup of coffee, and forge understanding. And when people needed to talk about something important, there were few options other than to engage with one another directly. It wasn’t possible to deliver messages indirectly the way it is now. And it wasn’t possible to be anonymous.
Is this a sea change?
This societal change has allowed people to avoid taking personal responsibility for conveying their ideas, opinions, and needs. It allows faceless, nameless posts in a universe of empty noise. And it sometimes encourages what I consider irresponsible or avoidant behavior: putting ideas out there without owning what you say. I’m concerned that a time may come when we won’t know any other way. The unfocused, hollow methods of communicating will become the norm, and people will not have the interpersonal skills they need to lead effective lives.
Beyond our communication style, we seem to be losing something else critically important—human connection. A recent article in the Atlantic cited research showing that although people are highly networked today, they are lonelier than they’ve ever been.
Last week, a group of students came to the first Campus Open Forum to talk about sexual assault. These forums are hosted by Community Council, SGA, and the Office of the Dean of the College and are designed to provide an open space in which members of the campus community can honestly discuss student life topics of interest and any issue they wish to address. As I listened to the discussion, I realized that everyone there was longing for this type of personal interaction. They were there to be heard and to engage candidly with others. That’s the beauty of a residential campus like Middlebury: we can make these connections happen when we choose to.
Lots to talk about
There are many meaningful discussions underway on campus right now: how the endowment is invested, what activism is, sexual assault, quorums at faculty meetings, involvement in student government and other initiatives, faculty/staff-student-community relationships, finding venues for social life, and more. The College is committed to finding ways to encourage members of this community to come together for meaningful conversation and action.
Last year, I encouraged students to turn off their social media for one week to see what it is like. Needless to say, I received a great amount of resistance to this suggestion. But it’s not necessary to “go dark” in order to have face-to-face connections; it is necessary, however, to make these connections a priority instead of following the path of least resistance.
I hope that we can all get into the habit of asking ourselves whether we can hold a particular discussion in person instead of remotely, and I would like to encourage everyone to get involved in the many conversations underway on campus.
I’d love to hear what you think. Do you agree or disagree with me? Do you feel that we are living with more noise and less understanding? And are you willing to put yourself out there in order to have better connections with others on campus?
Other Places for Conversation
- In addition to the Campus Open Forums, other great conversations happen weekly at the Fireside Chats, hosted by the Institutional Diversity Committee. These are informal discussions with a weekly theme that intersects with identity, diversity, community, or education and the Middlebury experience.
- SGA holds open office hours each week in Crossroads Café.
- Community Council holds open meetings on most Mondays at 4:30–5:45 p.m. in Axinn 220.
- PALANA House hosts topic-based discussions two–three times per year called PALANA Uncensored.
- Several student organizations are also having topic-based discussions during their weekly meetings.
- Check Middlink for other upcoming conversations, and post any you’d like to host.
- Middblog and The Campus offer opportunities for thoughtful discussion, and students are encouraged to submit opinion pieces that foster dialogue.