There are many efforts on campus to bridge the gaps between students and faculty/administration. They frequently turn on making connections. Undergraduates are encouraged to get involved in research. Faculty can serve as advisors to the undergraduates associated with a particular part of a dorm. These, and other initiatives like this, are very important to fostering a culture of understanding as well as creating a community.
But some divides remain, and I would suggest that some should remain. We want to connect, but surely one of the most crucial experiences of being a student is the independence that that brings. So this raises a question, how do we the faculty support that and understand what that experience is like when we fundamentally can not be a part of it. And that’s where indirect observation comes in. And this is where the Tech Trolley comes in. It’s one of the best places on campus to observe and experience the student culture, to learn from them, without having direct interaction. And there’s lots to be learnt.
Why the Tech Trolley you might ask. Well because it’s a reasonably confined space (unlike say the area outside the student center where you’d have to get close enough that I think the students would think you were completely weird — OK perhaps that’s not such a stretch from being a faculty member…). Also, unlike the other three bus routes the configuration of the seating makes it far easier to see everyone else, the stuff that they are holding, and so forth. The Blue Route for example, the seats are arranged in a traditional bus style (rows of two seats divided by the middle aisle, so books and bags can and are obscured by the seat backs), by contrast the Tech Trolley’s seating is bench style down either side of the longer-narrower bus. It’s also a better audio space. Well when the engine isn’t going flat out trying to get up the shallow hill.
So, what have I learnt by riding the Tech Trolley.
I think I understand “the ratio” better. The ratio is the ratio of women to men at Georgia Tech. By the combination of numbers and degree offerings our ratio trends towards men. I’ve watched more than one failed attempt by a man to chat up a woman on the Tech Trolley. I’ve facebooked about the funnier ones, but I do have a serious point. The ratio is part of the experience. As is the traditional patterns of men asking women (I have yet to see it the other way around).
Sometimes I count the numbers of men and women, sometimes I count by race. These numbers are not generalizable of course, and Tech keeps its overall facts and figures on a website, but they remind me to think about the experience of being in a minority, and what it might be like to feel like you are the only one of your kind. Of course there are other minorities that ride the trolley who are imperceptible. But, I still think that there’s a valuable exercise, and that’s to try to get a bit closer to the visceral experience. The Tech Trolley in its confined space, allows me to do that, at least for a short time. The effects of doing it last far longer than the journey though.
The orientation towards the sciences is also something that I see on the trolley. A fabulous example was when I was watching a man staring at a rather good looking woman on the trolley. At first I thought that the ratio was about to kick in again, and I did wonder whether it would work out (it’s always nice to see romance blossom on the trolley as it also is in TSRB, but that’s a whole other post). But then I realised it wasn’t her, it was her homework that he was interested in. She was looking at a Math problem, and I could tell that he was trying to solve it. Actually, I had to get off, I have no idea whether this is an approach to the ratio challenge. Brilliant, and sort of an “only at Tech” approach.
But that’s just one example, it’s everywhere, in the books being held by the students, in their notepads that are full of calculations, and in the discourse that permeates the Trolley. This can lead to some entertaining mishearings. For example, there was the time when I heard a student say that they were going nuclear, which I believe to be a phrase to express anger. No, it turns out that they were going to a class in Nuclear Engineering (going to nuclear). But more generally, the discourse of science is experienced on the Tech Trolley, it’s in the many conversations and that seems to me to be one of the most evocative visceral incarnations of our science/engineering culture on campus.
The orientation towards technology is also apparent on the trolley. It’s not just that half the trolley has their headphones in, some while engaging in conversations with other people on the trolley. I am still trying to work out how they can hear each other with earbuds in, and when the protocol will shift from being one where earbuds are a sign of not wishing to talk to someone to you are available for conversation.A significant number of the discussions appear to be about taking full ownership of a device through hacking or personalizing it. A sense of technological victory, a mastery, shared through tips and suggestions, and through deep pride in possessing the skills it takes to really own a system.
Also, there are discussions comparing and contrasting various devices, plans and so forth. Discussions of cellphone plans remind me about living on a student income, about managing budgets, and for some of the students this is among their first exposure to taking that type of responsibility. The combination of years of experience and enough money so that I can make things work even if I don’t pay close attention to the cents (although I am a fiscal conservative, which explains my 17 year old car…) has dulled my senses to the newness of being a young independent adult trying to balance all sorts of responsibilities when all of them feel new. Watching those conversations, I see the newness of managing financial responsibilities, and at the same time the excitement about figuring out the best technological strategy in the midst of constraints.
It is obvious to me that the students know I am a faculty member. I think like many others, if asked I would tell you that I have aged externally but I dont feel a corresponding internal mapping. The students read the external well and sometimes students will offer me their seat. They are too young to know that this delightful form of politeness only increases my anxiety about being middle-aged. I sometimes want to say “I’m only 40 please sit back down” but instead I take the offer (because trying to decline it is an exercise in even more politeness exchanges). This reminds me of the ongoing divide, the divides that turn on a calibration and orientation to age. I can’t help playing a role in that, my body participates in this relationship without the care or consent of my head.
Why does any of this matter? I think understanding the lived experience of the students is helpful for understanding where they are coming from with respect to their engagements in all facets of campus life. But, another, and sometimes almost peculiar piece in my mind is that while I age, they do not. Yes, sure, each student ages for the 4-5 years they are on campus, but then they leave, and I do not. New students arrive, once again struggling with new responsibilities, this time armed with new technological gadgets. I consistently age, but the student body as a whole stays remarkably young, and so this gap (one of experiences stays in place and is repeated). And it is for this reason, more than any other, that I advocate for riding the Tech Trolley, to expose ourselves to the lives of the students, at least for a short time, and to use the opportunities to reflect on their experiences by temporarily surrounding ourselves with them as we ride around campus.