• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Throwback Thursday

Communication, old school.

November 5, 2014
 

In the age of group texting apps, robocalls, email, electronic bulletin boards, social media, and untold varieties of wireless communication, we’re finding we get some of the best results by using…

Postcards.

Yes, the same postcards that colleges sent twenty years ago.  Ink on paper, snail-mailed to students’ homes. 

Postcards have several advantages.  They’re relatively cheap, they’re easy to mass-produce, and they’re well suited to simple messages.  But they also have two advantages that are unique to them, and that set them apart from most electronic forms of communication.

Anyone in the home can see them, and they’re easy to stick on refrigerators.

Letters are sealed, and therefore less likely to be read by others.  Electronic messages, in whatever form, are easily lost in the shuffle, whether that takes the form of a spam folder, an avalanche of other communications, or students’ changing phone numbers.  But postcards do a pretty good job of tracking students down.  And almost nobody prints out text messages and posts them on refrigerators.

Sometimes, the older methods still have some life left in them.  It’s worth keeping that in mind as we look for ways to address nagging challenges.

My personal fave happened a few years ago.  The library set up a quiet study room with no tech at all.  It’s really basic: desks, lamps, chairs, not much else.  I’m told it has a smallish, but devoted, clientele that enforces the expectation of quiet on newcomers.  For students with chaotic home lives, just having a reliable, quiet place to study makes a difference.  It’s hardly cutting edge, but it still works.  The rest of the library embraces technology in forward-thinking ways, and the group study area -- complete with single computers with multiple keyboards and large displays -- gets plenty of use.  But there’s still a market for the classic clean, well-lighted place.

With much of the latest tech, we’re at the stage of trying to figure out where the tech can help, and where we need to preserve or enhance the high-touch human element.  Anyone who has watched an email exchange degenerate over time knows that sometimes you have to interrupt the circuit and go to phone or in-person conversation.  The same holds for anything asynchronous.  Asynchronous conversation allows for convenience, and in the best cases, for reflection before and during engagement.  But it can also allow for stewing.  Having the option of switching back to an older mode -- even if you don’t use it all that often -- provides a safety valve.  After a half hour of “if the problem is with your home phone, press 5,” I just want to speak with a human being.  We’ve all been there.

Wise and worldly readers, what throwbacks have you seen redeem themselves by being surprisingly useful?

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