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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?

Today’s Students Are Changing Colleges

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

When the trustees were here last weekend, I shared a compelling article with them— “Ways Today’s Students Are Radically Changing Our Colleges” from AGB Trusteeship magazine. The article reviews the findings of a six-year national study involving 33 campuses and thousands of students and concludes that students today are “different from their predecessors in ways that have profound implications for colleges.” Three similar studies were conducted between 1969 and 1993.

I would like to share some of the findings with you because you might find them interesting. To me, they raise a fundamental question, What is Middlebury’s role in educating today’s 21st-century students, and how flexible do we need to be to meet their “needs”?

The article states that the primary differences between students today and their predecessors are

  •  “Today’s undergraduates are the first generation of digital natives.”
  • “Undergraduates are older, fewer live on campus, and more attend part time.”
  • “Students are products of the worst economy since the Great Depression.”
  • “They are more immature, dependent, coddled, and entitled.”
  • “They are the most diverse generation in higher education history.”

For this column, I would like to talk about two in particular.

Digital natives: Operating in a 24/7 universe, in which almost everything is instantly accessible, is an unprecedented societal change. The article notes a “mismatch” between the students and institutions of higher ed that conduct business in real time and in real locations and use more linear, passive learning tools, such as lectures and books. Digital natives, however, “prefer active and concrete learning involving applications, games, and collaborations.” They tend to gather information as needed and “don’t understand that plagarism is wrong” because, for them, sharing in all forms is routine, highlighting another possible incongruity as we struggle to enforce our academic-honesty policies. How should Colleges deal with the fact that their students exist in an entirely different realm of experience than the faculty and administrators?

Additionally, digital natives are more comfortable texting than talking. Many people have observed that students today are not as skilled in interpersonal communication and that they don’t have the necessary tools to cope with conflict. Again, does Middlebury have a role to play here? It’s intriguing, for example, to think about interventions that would raise awareness and encourage face-to-face interaction: instituting campus-wide digital-free days or weeks, requiring conversations like JusTalks,  establishing device-free zones.

Immature, dependent, coddled, and entitled: The article describes students who rely on their parents more heavily than previous generations did; they are not as independent or self-reliant. Two-fifths reported that they “phone, e-mail, or text their parents daily” and one-fifth reported being in contact three times a day or more. The article also noted that students report feeling isolated, lonely, having “overwhelming anxiety,” and being “psychologically exhausted.” They “require significantly more psychological and emotional support.”

My colleagues and I are concerned about the psychological stresses students face, often well before they get to college, and the resiliency that many students don’t possess.  I would like to understand this better from your perspective and experience. Your observations, reactions, and suggestions about any of the topics raised in the article may help us find ways to respond to students’ emerging needs.  Most importantly, are there aspects of these findings that call for students to push themselves to claim a different experience in college?  Do you want something different from Middlebury or something different from yourself and your peers?

Copies of the article are in my office for anyone wishing to read it. It is not available online, so come by and see me in person (smile).

 

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.

 

Seeking Fresh Voices, Ideas, and Task Masters

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Hello, everyone. My guest bloggers this week are SGA President Rachel Liddell ’14, Assistant Director of Student Activities Jennifer Herrera, and Student Activities Programs and Events Manager Dave Kloepfer, writing about the social scene on campus. We look forward to hearing your comments and ideas!
—Shirley M. Collado

Welcome back! This last week, the new academic year kicked off in a major way with events like the First Chance dance party in the Bunker, Pub Night in Crossroads with WRMC, the DMC and WOC welcome-back BBQ, and McCullough Fest. Plus, Crossroads presented our palates with some pleasant surprises, such as creative, tasty smoothies and milkshakes and fresh-made sushi. When the Student Activities Fair was rained out last Thursday, McCullough became a hot spot for hanging out and reconnecting. For the first time in a while, it looked and felt alive with students—as it should be. Every seat, table, and booth was filled.

McCullough is the student center, your hub for anything, from checking your mail, to munching on a delicious snack like a “Dr. Feelgood” or a tempura shrimp roll, to studying, and even dancing the night away at Café con Leche Latin dance party. These are some of the amazing events at McCullough. Plus, they represent a fraction of McCullough’s potential. The possibilities are endless. And this is where you come in; it just takes your ideas and initiative to realize them.

We want students who are willing to “roll up their sleeves” to make things happen to come forward with ideas. We’re eager to hear what you have to say and want to do.

  • What ideas do you have for making McCullough a more attractive, cool, and fun (less institutional) space?
  • What kind of events and live music do you want to see here in Crossroads?
  • Do you want to be involved with enhancing the social scene? Tell us how.
  • Let us know what ideas you may have for improving outreach and communications about the rich activities already available, and those to come.

Feel free to contact Rachel at sga@middlebury.edu, Jennifer and Dave at student_activities@middlebury.edu, or leave comments here on this blog. We welcome ideas for new programs or events or anything else related to social-life programming that you’re burning to tell someone about.

 

A View from the Bubble

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

My guest blogger this week is Jamie McCallum, assistant professor of sociology. Being relatively new to Middlebury (he moved here from Brooklyn in the summer of 2011), he makes some interesting observations about life here and things that separate us. I hope you will join in this discussion in the comments section—we’d love to hear what you think. —Shirley M. Collado

I moved from Brooklyn to Middlebury last year. As a newish professor, I’ve experienced some of the same bewildering frustrations facing many new students—the urban-to-rural transition, learning to ski, the paucity of Mexican food, etc. I can deal with all that (I think). But no facet of life at Middlebury causes me more lingering consternation than The Bubble.

Whenever I ask students about their lives, they often discourse disdainfully about life in the bubble, which is shorthand for the stomach-roiling feelings of parochialism, security, bliss, and terror that come with living in a kind of glorious walled city. For a place with such an international presence and a deserved reputation for foreign-language learning, our borders often seem simultaneously invisible and impermeable.

Faculty, especially newer and junior professors, live in bubbles too. Most of us live close to work and keep work close to home. A typical Venn diagram of student and faculty life overlaps only a sliver, the time we meet in the classroom each week, plus some office hours and the occasional extracurricular activity. Our respective bubbles contribute to that separation. While recognizing the fact that we do live different kinds of lives—I’m the type who enjoys his own company and personal space—the faculty-student divide deserves some attention.

At a campus event on faculty diversity last week, students expressed a sincere interest in engaging professors on what was continually referred to as a “human level,” reiterating concerns voiced at the recent PossePlus retreat. I take this as a desire for greater opportunities to learn about each other’s lives outside the classroom and outside the bubbles. Both events were primarily places where students could openly elaborate about where they are coming from. Forums where faculty members are able to convey as much to students might also be useful.

Recently I asked a student what he meant by saying we live in a bubble. He said, “It doesn’t keep us safe; it keeps us apart. And it even keeps us from ourselves.”

I think I know what he means. For every lacrosse player who rules the weekend party scene, there is one who wishes the pressure to drink excessively was not there. For every hardline divestment activist, there is one who sees the issue as part of a generalized struggle for justice for all. There are economics majors who would rather be studying dance, but they are too scared to stand up to their parents and too insecure to admit it to their friends. And just as there are students terrified to speak up in class, there are professors worrying about how their lecture will be received. In other words, things are not as they seem.

Can students and faculty gain a deeper understanding of each other’s lives? Although no one seems to think that bubbles are a good idea, too often we, myself included, act as if there is no alternative. I have certainly not provided a concrete solution here. But someone once said that the point of philosophy is not just to understand the world but to change it. So maybe the point of education is not just to recognize the bubble but to burst it. More