Our department is in the middle of big changes -- several years of recalibrating the classes we offer and reconfiguring our course structure, finishing up a proposal during the last year for an undergraduate major in the history of science, technology, and medicine to send to the Regents for approval, and an overhaul of our website in which we've encountered one nerve-wracking stumbling block after another for three years (and we're still waiting!) -- all of which entail questions about how best to do outreach to undergrads from the departmental level.
Of course, how best to do outreach depends foremost on what your goals are. The default position is that the goal of outreach is to fill up classes (a bottom line administrative imperative that has become ever more critical as we experience the effects of the Great Recession). How enrollment happens tends to be attributed to an inscrutable amalgam among undergrads of word-of-mouth, conventional wisdom about career paths & relevant coursework drawn from personal networks, the passing along of local lore about departments and classes, the effect of teaching evaluations, and institutional cultural quirks that have a stunningly inertial status, accompanied by, from the other end, individual instructors or departments trying to influence enrollment by the archaic strategy of . . . posting flyers (which now seek out the fickle student eye with colored text and images, however, as opposed to the monochromatic versions of the pre-inkjet era!) or announcements on a department website. Although announcements on the department website recognize that a new communication source exists -- the internet -- most students don't visit department websites. So, broadcasting at -- never mind communicating with -- undergrads along these lines is clunky, at best, and irrelevant at worst.
In chairing the Undergrad Program Committee over the last few years part of my job is to tend to such matters, but -- if the stars align properly -- the track we're on to add a major to our department's portfolio (we currently administer a graduate program and an undergraduate minor) has made me think differently about not just the methods but the goals of undergraduate communication. To be sure, we've worked at making the conventional methods more robust -- for example, I designed an online survey for undergrads that touched on lots of different aspects of our proposed major, our current minor and courses, but also asked some basic questions about traditional and online forms of communication, for example, to see where things stood.
Our newer set of tools includes a facebook group page since the social networking site is popular with our students, and I've been encouraging the posting of relevant departmental announcements by faculty on their CMS class pages as well as utilizing an email list we've cobbled together (our institution can't provide us with accurate and timely information on who has taken more than one class in our department, for example, or who is pursuing a minor -- we have to capture this info on the fly as best we can). So, we've made steps forward that target outreach a touch more effectively accompanied by a toe-in-the-water in terms of social media. . .
. . . Except, these aren't steps that really open up shifts in the communication ecology. For that, the issue isn't how to take our one-to-many broadcast methods and make them louder, but to think in terms of what the emergence of web 2.0 offers (think facebook, blogs, flickr, youtube, social bookmarking, wikipedia for starters): many-to-many, interactive, participatory, and collaborative forms of communication. The point isn't the tools themselves (or their sparkly newness) -- let's twitter because it's trendy! -- but the fact that tools exist that make it possible to consider new goals, to think about communication differently, and therefore to imagine changed relationships: of students as partners, not simply as audiences. What I'm after is not just a discussion of what can happen in the classroom, but at a different location: at the digital interface at which the departmental presence and an individual's attention can meet in ways that enhance the possibilities of mutual engagement, conversation, and innovative improvisations among networks of people that didn't exist before. Not new methods in and of themselves -- instead, new goals, therefore new methods.
But is this reflective exercise even realistic? Or necessary? Or desirable? Academic departments aren't especially good at digital experimentation, and here in our department, like so many, we're under-resourced as it is in terms of money, support, and expertise on campus in regard to the majority of our organizational tasks, let alone computer-mediated communication -- and most faculty consider anything web-related to be synonymous with blackholes. Is there really a compelling interest to be served in screwing around with the current model of departmental webpages as print brochures that have migrated online? Given limited amounts of support and time, isn't thinking of departmental outreach in web 2.0 terms something that's a luxury reserved for those with resources to spare, not for those who live in economies of scarcity?
Over a year or so I've worked through the issues that this proposition presents in as many different ways as I know how, and have come to the conclusion, that, yes, it is necessary to think differently about undergrad communication. I think the departmental-website-as-pixellated-brochure concedes too much to tired ways of thinking about teaching, about research, and about the place of the humanities in the public sphere. That's a lot to pin on a mere departmental website, as opposed to focusing on the more dynamic space of individual professors' classrooms, for example. But how institutions present themselves matters. As the authors of the cluetrain manifesto argued in 1999, in theses 15, 34, and 35:
In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business — the sound of mission statements and brochures — will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
But first, they must belong to a community.
This is even more clearly the case in a web 2.0 sort of world. What would happen if we thought anew about the departmental website, re-imagining it as a newcomer's portal, an open learning environment in and of itself whether or not you are even enrolled in one of our classes? That's what I'm going to walk through in the next few blog entries, as I try and reorient myself to the mix of new threads that I've been working on piece by piece in trying to weave new patterns in our local webworld. (Yes, I'm back digitally, and doubling-down on the bet rather than leaving the table.)
(Know of good examples? I'd love to learn more about what others are trying -- links would be great to have!)
Coming up: Why The Children's Darwin?