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People You Haven’t Really Met Yet

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

When I go to 51 Main, I feel as though I am close to a little piece of home (Brooklyn, New York) because I run into all types of people there. Not just students. Not just townspeople. But everyone imaginable. They are enjoying a shared interest, mingling, being together in the same place. Worlds collide there in a way that feels comfortable. But on campus, this sort of mingling does not occur as much as I would like, and I feel we are worse off for it.

Why should we care? I believe that Middlebury, considering its relative isolation geographically, is a place that people have intentionally come to—to live, work, and learn. Some of the most fascinating people have been drawn to Middlebury. As lifelong learners, we have a unique opportunity to meet others and learn from them in an organic way. Furthermore, people generally feel more “whole” when they are part of a larger community that extends across the boundaries of multiple identities.

Community Council is such a group—a melded association of students, faculty, and staff, and as co-chair I feel very fortunate to be part of it. This year, we have discussed the fact that faculty, staff, and students don’t connect more easily outside their usual spheres, and we have wondered what can be done to change that. Luke Carroll Brown ’14, Community Council co-chair, has described his own experience when he opened himself to making new connections: “Some of my closest friends at the College, individuals who have taught me far more than I’ve learned in most classrooms, are members of the staff.”

When I go to the Wilson Café, I see students and some faculty there, but very few staff. At Crossroad Café, I usually see staff and faculty, but many students still view it as “institutional” space. I am not surprised that I don’t see many faculty or staff members unwinding after work over a cup of coffee—and possibly a conversation with someone new. It seems that we all revolve in separate orbits, with just a few intersections. When faculty members aren’t teaching and working with students, they are busy with their scholarship and personal lives. Staff members have jobs to do during the day (or night), and then they go home to the other aspects of their lives. And students are busy with their studies and personal interests and are most likely to associate with fellow students.

Feeling busy is probably a major reason that people don’t spend time breaking social barriers. A colleague told me about an experience she had when her computer broke, and she had to stop everything to go to the Help Desk. She didn’t have time, she said, to spend an afternoon there. But afterwards, she was glad it happened.

While she waited in the Help Desk office as they recovered her lost data, she met students, a math professor, a writing instructor, and a grant writer who wandered in with one problem or another. They all sat around the table, commiserating and chatting. “I met for the first time someone I’d corresponded with for years by e-mail.” she said.

That’s what I’d like to see happen more regularly on campus—more organic connections, like those that occurred at the Help Desk and at 51 Main. The question is, how to get them to occur? Can we create spaces that encourage them? Can we all develop the mindset to find them?

Should JusTalks Be Mandatory?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

One of the great aspects of Middlebury is that it provides almost unlimited opportunities for students to grow—to engage with others, to learn about different viewpoints, and to gain self-knowledge. From guest lectures to symposia to open meetings to retreats, the options go on and on.

By the time students graduate, if they have taken advantage of these, they have gained powerful exposure to a much wider community of people than they had known before. They have hopefully improved their ability to work with others and have developed a better understanding of themselves as well.

However, most of these opportunities are voluntary—you have to opt in to get the benefit. Certainly not everyone can be at everything, and you should be able to choose. But, I often wonder if there aren’t some things that we all should be a part of together. Consider some numbers: Mead Chapel was packed on January 9 when Angela Davis delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address. It was marvelous that about 700 people came out on a cold night to listen to her ideas about justice and freedom (whether they agreed with her or not), to be in conversation with her, and to challenge her ideas as well. Yet, that 700 represents a fraction of the campus community.

Then the following Saturday, 120 students, mostly first-years, participated in the second annual JusTalks program. With the help of a professional facilitator and trained student facilitators, these students courageously put themselves in an unknown environment where they challenged themselves to engage in dialogue about the complex subject of identity. I don’t know anyone who didn’t find the experience to be valuable. Again, the number who participated is a fraction of our total students.

Which brings me to an idea I’ve been considering: Perhaps having a difficult dialogue about issues of identity and community is one of those things that we should all be part of. Perhaps we should require all first-year students to participate in JusTalks as part of their MiddView Orientation Program.  We make other experiences mandatory because we believe they are central to a 21st-century liberal arts education and because they create shared experience. I believe that JusTalks may be one of those.

The program was developed by students who worked fiercely on an issue they care about: their belief that we need to be in conversation with each other—even if the conversations are hard—and the conversations need to be in person and based on mutual respect. They have gone face to face with fellow students and administrators from all walks of life to make their idea a reality.  They developed and piloted this program in collaboration with administrators, faculty, and staff.  And in my view, JusTalks is a compelling example of the kind of learning experience that every first-year student should have.

That said, I need your help thinking about this: What would be the personal cost if people were going into JusTalks feeling they had to be there instead of being invited and wanting to be there? What are the pros and cons of making JusTalks mandatory?

And if it were mandatory, do you have suggestions for getting full participation?

I look forward to hearing your ideas and to discussing this with you further.

Light of the New Year

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

It’s that time of year, when the darkness descends and the days seem to retreat into a long dusk.  Add to that the “List of Things To Get Done”—before finals, before the College closes for break, before the holidays, and it can lead me into a frazzled, dazed state.

What lifts me up is knowing that decent, human warmth exists in many hearts, in many places. Random acts of kindness, it seems, aren’t really random; they are commonplace. Generosity and joy are all around us—but we often don’t notice because we are overwhelmed and preoccupied with our own busy lives.

And that is the key (something I try to remember to do): to look purposefully for these things, to notice and celebrate them—to give them more weight than the darkness and our daily obligations.

Each time I find kindness, generosity, selflessness, love, gentleness, openness, wisdom (add your own adjective here), it feels as if a candle has been lit in the night. If I find enough of them, they propel me forward and inspire me to focus on what really matters—human connection.

I’d like to wish everyone well in completing those end-of-the-year lists and all of the other matters vying for attention. May your travels to home, family, and friends be safe and restorative.

Have a wonderful winter break, and I look forward to seeing you in the light of the New Year.

It’s About (Face) Time

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Anyone who knows me knows that I believe strongly in the value of dialogue. I believe that sharing ideas, opinions, and feelings directly with others is what keeps people connected—to their communities and even to themselves.

Lately, it seems as if there is an unusually high level of frustration simmering under the surface of human interactions all over the globe, occasionally exploding in scary and unproductive ways. I believe this is partly the consequence of an absence of dialogue. Annoyances, misunderstandings, and anger can be ameliorated when people simply talk with each other.

It sounds so simple, but it is becoming increasingly rare that people interact directly instead of tweeting and texting or making anonymous posts. The long-distance approach, with its delayed, often hostile, responses in the absence of real “face time” is, in my view, becoming the norm, and it is creating a numbing effect.

Everyone has probably had an experience like this: Someone has done or said something that has made you very upset. The more you think about the situation, the more upset you become—until you and the person in question talk. Suddenly you have new information and a fresh perspective that is more balanced. Even if you still aren’t entirely happy, your dismay is replaced with understanding. When we look into the eyes of another, we get immediate feedback; we sense their mood, and we have an opportunity to respond sincerely without delays—to be human together.

Here at Middlebury, we are very lucky. We have room to reflect. We have access to tremendous amounts of information  and expertise. We have the technological advances to be in touch with experts around the world. We also live in a community where we can come together and own our thoughts, be accountable for them. There is a tremendous opportunity here at Middlebury to embrace interpersonal interactions, conversations, and dialogues of all kinds. This allows us to grow.

The irony of course is that I’m saying this in a blog. But what I really want is for people to come together and talk. Often.

With that in mind, I’d welcome hearing your ideas about interesting ways for us to learn from each other in ways that are effective and respectful. You can post your thoughts here, but I also enjoy personal conversations.

 

Our Collective Wish

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is having the opportunity to learn more about our incredible students—the personal stories that make up their lives, what they hoped for before they arrived here and hope for in the future, what their families have sacrificed in order for them to attend Middlebury. By the time our seniors graduate, they have become so much more to me than names on a list or faces passing by on campus. They are friends and colleagues—people for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration.

When they come up on stage during Commencement, knowing that the entire Middlebury community and their loved ones are watching as they move into the next phase of their lives, an almost magical thing happens: A collective wish of wellbeing emanates from the hundreds of people in attendance. It is palpable—and powerful. If thoughts have energy, then every single student leaves Middlebury with a gale wind at her back. Every student is practically willed into a positive place as he begins his future.

When these new graduates connect with other Middlebury people in the workforce and elsewhere, they will become part of an organic, worldwide network, formed in common experience. This can serve as a strong antidote against the disconnection and isolation that can sometimes occur in today’s world. This common bond and the force of the hopes and dreams of the Middlebury family can help sustain and enrich all of its members for a lifetime.

It is my hope that every student walking across that stage on May 26, 2013, will feel this abiding love and support, and tap into it whenever needed.

 

 

To Blog or Not To Blog?

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

This month marks the conclusion of my third year blogging for One Dean’s View. It seems like a good time to assess the blog’s future. Where should it go from here? I would like your opinion.

The blog has had very good readership over the last three years, with people visiting from off and on campus. But my hope that One Dean’s View would become a dynamic forum for open discussion hasn’t materialized the way I’d hoped. Over the last many months, readers have stopped commenting publically, using e-mail instead. I know of one instance where the discussion took place on a social media site.

My goal for the blog was to create a space that allows a wide variety of people to express very different ideas and to encourage a campus-wide conversation that welcomes and respects difference. Being based in the administration, I hoped it would allow us to talk about topics that might not be possible in other venues and that it might help break down barriers between the administration and student life.

The world is moving quickly, and this blog needs to evolve with it. The question is, how? It could go to sleep, reappearing only when necessary, when an important issue is at hand. It could ramp up to be more interactive, for which I would need student assistance. Or it could do something else altogether.

To inform my thinking, it would be very helpful to hear from you. What do you think about the blog? Additionally, I would like to know if there are any students with blogging, multimedia, or Web experience who would be interested in working with my office next year, to assist with the blog—with content and presentation. Please send me an e-mail if you are interested.

I’d like to thank all of the faculty, staff, and students who have written guest posts, the readers, and those who have chimed in, whether here or elsewhere, with comments.

Your opinions matter a great deal to me, and I welcome your ideas about One Dean’s View, whether you have general reactions or very specific thoughts. Please tell me what you think in the comments section. Thank you.

Cutting the Umbilical Cord to Facebook

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere


This week, my guest blogger is Leah Fessler ’15. As a Narrative Journalism Fellow and contributor to
middbeat.org and the Campus, she’s learned a thing or two about interacting face-to-face. Please join in the discussion; your comments are always welcome. —Shirley M. Collado
 

“I’m actually not on Facebook anymore.”

Not too long ago, I’d roll my eyes upon hearing this statement, instinctively dismissing the speaker: their loss. When I entered high school in 2007, Facebook was a rite of passage, a patiently awaited privilege. I undeniably associated my acceptance to “the Wellesley High School Facebook network” with maturity and social opportunity.

Six years later, I frequently receive vexed looks upon announcing I’m seven months “Facebook free.” Many deem my social media “breakup” hypocritical. Maybe it is. Nevertheless, it appears that I’ve joined a rapidly growing “trend” of college students deactiving their Facebooks.

I hesitate to label this recurrent pattern a “trend,” because I’m somewhat irked by the mindlessness it implies. But some people do believe that it’s just the “next cool thing to do.”  Many argue that students are now getting off Facebook for the same reason they got on: because everyone else is doing it. On some level, they’re right. Any social movement requires an impetus, and the “if they can do it, I can too” mentality only increases as more people hop on board. But beyond friends’ positive reviews, I, and most who have deactivated, acted with cogent reasoning.

I “logged off” because I believe interpersonal interaction on Facebook is, largely, an allusion. As social beings, we’re fundamentally motivated to be connected, whether to friends, family, crushes, exes, acquaintances, etc. It’s far too easy to feel as if we’ve sustained such connections with 10 minutes of minified scrolling, photo swiping, or wall-to-wall reading. Yet, these actions truly entail little to no thought or effort, and, at least in my experience, can be more honestly classified as “acceptable” procrastination. Intentions may be sincere, but the majority of Facebook “interactions” fuel one-sided relationships. I found myself viewing friends’ abroad albums, crushes “liked music,” or my little cousin’s high school escapades, and feeling, whether consciously or not, closer to said person, despite their utter absence from the “interaction.” So, what did I receive? Instant gratification: the root of most addictions.

I don’t mean to come off as the psycho anti-Facebook crusader, either. Facebook is useful for “checking in” with acquaintances, event planning, and news publication.

But recent studies show that, on average, Americans spend an astonishing eight hours per month on Facebook (compare to two hours on Google). I sincerely doubt the majority of these hours are spent on event planning or news literacy. Despite its guises, Facebook truly cures two ailments: boredom and laziness.

We’re all busy. But why not spend your 10-minute Facebook “break” calling a friend and actually conversing? I’ve found a few minutes of tone, inflection, and laughter (or lack thereof) communicate far more than a wall-post, photo, or even a lengthy inbox ever could. Why not grab a meal with a Midd friend, or chat for a few minutes face-to-face? We live in (overwhelmingly) close proximity. There’s really no excuse.

I’ve got no agenda to tell you how to live your life. But having experienced life “off the book” and the more genuine social interactions it’s forced me to pursue, I’d strongly suggest trying deactivation. Even a temporary break can help develop healthier communication habits. You have nothing to lose.