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Gen X faculty, community, and social media

Posted by Melissa on March 4, 2010

This week COACHE (the collaborative on academic careers in higher education) released a study of Generation X faculty, “New Challenges, New Priorities: The Experience of Generation X Faculty”, based on interviews with a small group of faculty and administrators at three mid-Atlantic institutions.  One of the themes that emerged from the study, particularly interesting in light of my last post, is the strong desire for community.

“It is perhaps the lack of community, and X’ers’ attempts to find it, that truly define the generation, providing a unifying theme for their experiences, and encapsulating what has changed for them from previous generations… Even once they have landed geographically, work-life balance is a serious challenge; the ever-increasing demands of work often leave faculty with little time and energy to build the relationships and connections necessary to establish a sense of community — particularly when combined with having to balance dual careers and childcare responsibilities.”

I’ve been thinking about how this desire for community intertwines with current trends in social media. I hear conflicting messages about whether social media (blogs, facebook, twitter, etc) bring us closer together, or replace genuine personal interactions with less meaningful virtual interactions. Like the faculty members surveyed, I long for a more genuine sense of community, but I acknowledge some of the difficulty in establishing connections is my own fault as I try to deal with a seemingly overwhelming list of obligations that eat up my energy and my time.  However, I do find having colleagues as facebook friends allows me to solicit advice or keep up with people who I may not run into for days at a time. Reading blogs, some with authors I know personally while others I only “know” virtually, helps me remember that my experiences are not unique and puts my own situation into perspective. In many ways, I feel less alone on account of social networking, but feeling less alone is not the same as feeling connected. Do social media allow us to be lazy about making time for informal conversations with colleagues? Or with the current reality of overbooked schedules and family responsibilities does moving interactions into the virtual realm make sense?

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5 Responses to “Gen X faculty, community, and social media”

  1. quantummoxie said

    Good question. I think, to some extent, it is how you use the social media. I primarily use it to stay in touch with people that I normally don’t see all that often (if ever). Since my e-mail Inbox has gotten so unbelievably full, it is my preferred way to stay in touch. But I don’t let it substitute for real, live personal contact if possible.

    I also find time to squeeze in those things that are important. Maybe I have a more insane life than other people as a result, but, to me, it’s worth it.

  2. Mija said

    “i have mixed feelings about social media. i do agree that tools like blogs and facebook allow us to connect in an ambient way to others that we otherwise wouldn’t see regularly (because they are in another building or state or country).

    But this ambient community of “friends” obviously isn’t the same as having real life “friends”. One major difference as I see it is that relationships on social media can be, and often are, asymmetrical and opaque. While both people have to be “friends”, Person A may share more information thereby allowing Person B to get to know them better. Person A may want to get to know Person B better, but if Person B doesn’t update their status often, then no dice.

    More importantly, the relationships don’t have the quality of mutual knowledge. Even if Person A posts lots of information, Person A has no idea if Person B is attending (at least if they don’t comment on it). Feedback in communication is important; that’s why we like to “like” updates and we like it when other people “like” our updates. When you have a real life interaction, the mutually shared information is commonly known. Without that collection of mutually shared information and experiences, people cannot develop meaningful relationships.

    So, yes, social media can be a useful tool for forming and maintaining social relationships, but generally (i think), it’s just as much work as doing it in real life. it’s just a little more convenient when people are far apart.

    [There. I’ve just made our relationship more meaningful by indicating to you that I’ve read your thoughts and thought about them. We now have some additional socially shared knowledge, but it did take some effort on my part. Phew!]”

    [The big irony is that everything above was posted as a comment to this post that ended up on Arjendu’s FB. I rest my case about the confusions of relationships and shared knowledge in social media!]

  3. Melissa said

    I agree that social media is what you make of it, and in my mind, it will never replace meaningful real life interactions.

    Mija, your point about the mutual knowledge aspect of social media is a good one–we can broadcast but we don’t know whether people receive that information–and the level of sharing can be asymmetrical. I also wonder if myriad of on-line status updates by others with whom we don’t make an effort to maintain meaningful social relationships adds to a feeling of hollowness with regards to community, as these represent social linkages that demand no investment and from which we get no return.

    [And yes, I’ve noticed Arjendu’s facebook feed for this blog is strange… sorry for the confusion!]

  4. Mija said

    I read this article this morning, and it made me think of some of your comments. Certainly this example of neglecting the real world in favor of the virtual world is extreme, but the article’s author seems to take it as a logical conclusion of social media – a conclusion I don’t really agree with. http://www.slate.com/id/2247465/

  5. arjendu said

    Melissa: We wouldn’t be collaborating on this blog, I don’t think, if it wasn’t for facebook.

    And without my weird fb feed, Mija might not be commenting on your post.

    And Mija, that was a very sad article. As you, I don’t agree with that conclusion at all. Pathology surfaces in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of addictions or excuses to avoid troubling situations.

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