A College Community of (COVID) Consociated Contemporaries

A College Community of (COVID) Consociated Contemporaries

Anthrodendum welcomes back guest blogger Christian Elliott, a recent graduate in cultural anthropology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

A College Community of (COVID) Consociated Contemporaries

by Christian Elliott

On Thursday, March 12th, I piled into a rental van with a dozen other student writing tutors from Augustana, a small liberal arts college in western Illinois. We were bound for the Midwest Writing Center Association’s annual conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After a few hours of cornfield-lined interstate, we pulled into the DoubleTree hotel’s parking garage. We crowded into an elevator, joking about the oatmeal cookie smell in the air, courtesy of the Quaker Oats factory next door. COVID-19 had started to make national news, but still felt far away from Iowa’s second-largest city. We knew something was wrong, though, when we entered a deserted hotel lobby devoid of the Midwestern writing nerds we’d been expecting. Our faculty chaperone logged onto a hotel computer to check his email—sure enough, the conference had been cancelled due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, just an hour before it was scheduled to begin. With time to kill, we wandered around the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art admiring Grant Wood paintings, then all gathered around one table in a local restaurant for dinner. Sharing a restaurant table with others now is a strange and unsettling thought. I haven’t seen those twelve colleagues and friends (except in Zoom calls)—and have rarely left my family’s home—since that night. That weekend, Augustana announced classes would move online for the remainder of the term.

The front of the t-shirt that Augustana College mailed me reads “Class of 2020: We Made History.” I’m not sure how likely graduating via a YouTube video from a small liberal arts college in Illinois during a pandemic is to make the history books, but it’s a nice sentiment. Today, as I sit in my room scanning job boards and LinkedIn pages back at my childhood home in Iowa, I find myself reflecting on how radically my college experience changed in the three short months leading up to graduation. Now, with time to think, I’ve been reading social science research in an attempt to put into words, from the perspective of a recent college graduate, how different “distance learning” felt and why the success of current and future college students depends on a return to in-person learning as soon as is safely possible.

In the early 20th century, Austrian phenomenological sociologist Alfred Schutz coined the terms “consociates” and “contemporaries” to describe the differences between direct face-to-face social interactions (copresence) and indirect, mediated relationships (noncopresence) respectively (1967). Schutz believed face-to-face relationships possessed a directness, a vividness of experience not otherwise possible in indirect interactions. A group of college students sharing a classroom (or a rental van) as consociates grow older together, if just for an hour, and experience each other’s consciousnesses in an intimate continuous way until the moment they go their separate ways. The instant they separate, they exit the world of each other’s direct experiences and become contemporaries. As soon as I stepped out of the crowded van and left college and my friends behind, I was a slightly different person. As the weeks passed, I had new experiences and gained new perspectives—I began to possess a new self, different from the “yesterday self” that lives on in the memory of those I’ve left behind. I certainly possess a different self now than the one left in a Cedar Rapids restaurant with my fellow tutors almost five months ago when we last saw one another in person.

Schutz was inspired to make these distinctions because in his time, indirect and increasingly anonymous social interactions were becoming more and more common—a person could have relationships with people they read about in newspapers, with collective entities’ unknown individual members, or via telephone with people they’d met in person in the past. Contemporaries are people with whom one knows one coexists but does not experience directly anymore. In 2004, sociologist Shanyang Zhao coined the term “consociated contemporaries” to describe a novel emerging “mediated social realm” he observed—“cyberspace” communities in which individuals may share a community of time without sharing a community of physical space. For the first time, space had been torn away from place—instead of being physically present to interact with others, people could communicate “face-to-device” in what he called “telecopresence,” a condition of “electronic proximity” through which they remained within reach of the “mediated senses” of others extended by computers (Zhao 2004). We take these types of interactions for granted now, but to phenomenological sociologists in the early 21st century, they represented a dramatic restructuring of the social conditions of communication.

Meeting with an advisor online

As an unintentional online college student this past semester, I spent long hours at my desk with a cup of coffee, sending dozens of emails, posting to discussion forums, sharing my essays online, and meeting for Zoom advising sessions. When I replied to fellow students’ forum posts, I interacted with them through telecopresence—our two separate “worlds within mediated reach” coincided briefly, and we spoke to one another, however asynchronously, with written words as consociated contemporaries. Yet, in doing so the flow my consciousness was always split—part of me was synchronized with the other student in telecopresence, while part of me remained in my room, at my desk, synchronized with my family, with whom I share my home and a relationship of corporeal copresence. We experienced, to use a term coined by biolinguist John L. Locke, “being alone together” (Locke 1998). Since Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, artists have used the term to try to capture the isolated experience of being together but alone, especially in cities. Sherry Turkle used the term to explain how technology (social media) replaces actual human connection with an unsatisfying simulacrum—McDonaldizing friendship (Bakardjieva 2014). The same phrase has now become a favorite hashtag of my college’s social media account managers and now carries even more meaning. Being alone together in this new way—communicating only through the internet—is a complicated experience, and one that has destroyed the work/home life binary. We’re all “BBC dad” now, a recent New York Times article claimed, providing some recommendations for how to prevent distractions created by children and pets in video conference calls. As a remote learner, suddenly I could no longer share a classroom with my fellow students—instead, we all lived in our own, distant physical worlds and the online one maintained through electronic mediation at the same time. We were simultaneously “linked to and buffered from” one another in complicated and challenging new ways.

More recent studies of communication, like Zhao’s, which address online interactions, have largely affirmed Alfred Schutz’s “pro-proximity” stance for the superiority of direct face-to-face interaction. Spoken language possesses an “inherent quality of reciprocity” and comes with a “rich array of bodily indices” that make face-to-face interactions uniquely reciprocally synchronous (1967). Nevertheless, the development of online communication technologies represents a fundamental change, a “new normative order” of social interaction (Zhao 2004). Electronic mediation changes both the structure and conditions which lie beneath all symbolic exchange. Through distance learning, students have been forced to navigate these new and complicated realities. For the last three months of spring semester we, along with students in colleges across the country, functioned as a community of consociated contemporaries, creating knowledge together in real time through brief connections facilitated by our laptops and internet connections. We perhaps defied Alfred Schutz’s dated definitions, but we certainly felt the loss of our pure consociate relationships with one another. To grow older with other like-minded individuals, to directly experience the sheer diversity of others—each with their own perspectives and backgrounds—in the same classroom, is a special thing, and a sad one to lose.

Some might argue that our proven capacity to learn at distance means the kind of college experience liberal arts schools like Augustana offers is overpriced and irrelevant. The Harvard Business Review, in a recent article claimed that basic-level college courses (think big lecture halls) already lack a face-to-face “social experience,” and could easily be replaced with videos and forums to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and save students time. Other articles have reconsidered old arguments for McDonaldizing college through “modularized and gamified” online programs and “boot camps”—more fiscally sensible replacements for expensive in-person college. Furthermore, the economic crisis and demand for room and board refunds have jeopardized some schools’ endowments, and others have opted not to admit a freshmen class this fall. Nationwide, colleges are set to lose $23 billion in revenue, and small private institutions are among the hardest it. Is online the inevitable future of higher education?

I’ve heard from some of my Augustana classmates, through video chat and text conversations, that they actually preferred the online class format—it was less of a time commitment they told me, you didn’t have to get dressed to “go” to class, and no one knew if you were scrolling through social media instead of watching a lecture online or responding to a forum quiz. As children of the internet, current college students are, in a way, uniquely prepared to learn online. Research has shown 95% of teenagers own smartphones today, a significant increase from just a decade ago, and 45% are online “almost constantly.” Though social scientists have been slow to take online relationships seriously, they’ve now begun studying how critical the internet is to teenage identity formation. In a 2005 follow-up paper to the “consociated contemporaries” article, Shanyang Zhao develops the concept of the “digital self,” constructed through online interaction. To make his point, Zhao builds on a long tradition of symbolic interactionism traceable to sociologist Charles Cooley. In 1902, Cooley described how our conception of who we are develops through our interactions with other people—we present ourselves to them and “come to know ourselves” by how they react to us. As a teenager, I know my identity was generated partially online. I’ve maintained an online relationship with my best friend, who lives on the other side of the country, for over a decade. I’ve laughed at and shared memes my parents couldn’t begin to understand—they bristle at “okay boomer.” I had my first email address in middle school—online communication is second nature to me and to my peers. I faced few significant issues completing assignments, peer reviewing papers, and watching video lectures online.

Nevertheless, I find my fellow liberal arts school students’ affinity for online learning concerning. I faced questions when I first chose Augustana as a high school senior and soon to be “undecided major”—why spend thousands of dollars to attend a small liberal arts college when I didn’t even know what career I aspired towards? My father went to a trade school and my mother a large state university for a very specific program, and neither exactly saw the appeal (though they were supportive). I didn’t even know what a liberal arts school was until I visited, but once I did, I was sold on the concept and it’s safe to say my college experience would not have had the same trajectory otherwise. Over the past four years I’ve tried new things and experimented widely—taking classes in geography, French, philosophy, and Muslim literature—before finally finding cultural anthropology. Online, I would have missed the irreplaceable chance hallway encounters and drop-in doorway conversations with my professors (during which I made many decisions about my education), the camaraderie of the cafeteria table, the clubs and organizations (like Lives of the Mind), the late nights, the field trips, the annual ritualistic rites of passage. There’s more to a college experience than efficiency, than acquiring credentials and receiving knowledge—young adults like me need four years with one another to grow as people and lifelong learners if we are to succeed in this rapidly changing world. Once the pandemic ends, one way or another, in-person residential college must continue if future students like me are to experience the rich, face-to-face education that I have at Augustana.

The Harvard Business Review authors, later in their article, cite a number of barriers to ending face-to-face learning for good. IT infrastructure does not currently exist at the scale necessary for widespread online learning, and video conference software can’t deliver the same “personalized experience” that face-to-face classes can. Furthermore, they admit, students can’t learn as efficiently online because of multi-tasking/attention span issues. Digital divides remain a problem too—online learning amplifies the gulf between rich and poor students, and faculty often aren’t prepared to teach with new technology online. This fall, as many schools plan to offer hybrid online/in-person programs, low-income students are predicted to fall behind. Despite these challenges online classes are, for now, the only safe option. Professors at my college, despite their passion for in-person teaching, have taken to Twitter recently to share their concerns about being forced by administrators to teach face-to-face in addition to online this fall. Donald Trump’s administration has pressured schools to reopen immediately. I care deeply about in-person education, but now is too soon.

Years ago, experts predicted “massive open online courses” would kill residential universities, yet face-to-face college education has “stood the test of time.” Following this pandemic and corresponding massive uptick in online education adoption (with teachers transforming their curriculums and new infrastructure being constructed), it seems likely that more colleges than ever will continue to offer online alternatives permanently. I agree with those who have argued, convincingly, that small institutions dedicated to deep relationships between faculty and students (think liberal arts schools) must continue post-pandemic, because online education misses “the human touch,” and “…those colleges that survive (with strong and supportive communities) will become more attractive as students will crave their focus on learning and the attention they give to each and every student.” For now, teachers can only do their best cultivate human connection online (even at the expense of course content, some have urged). Doubtless, regardless of how the pandemic plays out, the debate between commoditized online and slower, less “efficient” in-person education will continue. But as I’ve learned, a college community of consociated contemporaries cannot learn together, cannot grow older together, in the rich, deep way that students sharing a campus face-to-face can.

References:

Bakardjieva, Maria. 2014. “Social Media and the McDonaldization of Friendship.” De Gruyter Mouton.

Cooley, Charles H. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. NY: Scribner’s.

Locke, John L. 1998. Why We Don’t Talk to Each Other Anymore: The De-Voicing of Society. New York: Touchstone.

Schutz, Alred. 1967. The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

Zhao, Shanyang. 2004. “Consociated Contemporaries as an Emergent Realm of the Lifeworld: Extending

Shutz’s Phenomenological Analysis to Cyberspace.” Human Studies 27: 91-105.

Zhao, Shanyang. 2005. “The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others.” Symbolic Interaction 28(3): 387-405.

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