By Nikhil Adnani
I have a strong nostalgia for my first semester at Kenyon. I was a plucky freshman enamored with the open and social atmosphere of college. Strolling down the halls with doors wide open, I would enjoy countless informal gatherings with my dorm mates. We were different, but the newness of college and the physical proximity of the first-year quad combined brought people from widely different backgrounds and personalities together.
As time progresses, we all feel out whom we share things with and form groups with those people. These social groups create their own communities and histories that get strengthened over time. The floating around that happened at the start of college diminishes as individuals increasingly feel out of place if they sit with another social group with its own shared history. We all start to focus more on our place in our own groups and less on others outside of our groups.
Modern technology, from smartphones to Facebook, has increased our ability to access our social groups and our own interests. To a greater degree, one can self-select how one spends ones time, from checking up on friends through various apps, to accessing entertainment and information on the Internet. One no longer has to deal to the same degree with the physical place, institutions and broader community of Kenyon College. We tend to interact with people who make us feel comfortable, and thus the combination of technology and natural self-selection has created place-based cultures characterized more by niches than by a broader sense of community.
I was at the International Tasting Session this past fall, and the atmosphere was generally positive. It was a lighthearted event that brought some cross-cultural education to Kenyon through various cuisine offerings and small cultural booths. My friend and I were surprised when students started reading monologues from the Open Voices publication. The serious biographical stories cut through the jovial chatter around the room. The editors of the publication might have felt that this was one of the only ways to effectively communicate with the community, by merging students desire for free food and their cause. I discussed this with some students, and they agreed that the monologues seemed out of place at what they perceived to be an entertainment event.
There does not seem to be an effective venue at Kenyon for people to really garner the attention of the community on issues not tied to entertainment. When activist groups hold events on campus, it seems like people who self-select into these groups choose to show up. The other members of the Kenyon community, at whom these issues might be targeted, can be entertained and socially comfortable in their own niches and do not bother to come to these events. The fragmented and self-selected posts on all-student emails, Student-Info emails and Facebook do not create the critical mass of broad community viewership and subsequent dialogue required to have a meaningful and extended campus-wide discussion about community culture and social issues.
There are many options to make our Kenyon community better. People can have noble expectations for what a community should be, but one cannot change the community if the venues for dialogue across social groups have eroded. Glorifying our diversity alone does not bring us together. There must be something at a psychological and social level that we share. There must be a shared experience of place-based community to serve as a platform for meaningful and extended dialogue between various groups at Kenyon.
In the technological age, place-based communities need to get smart about adapting to the individualizing and self-selecting tendencies of people. Kenyon should use the Internet to compile all of the aspects of student life into one location. This would garner enough interest among students to create a critical mass of viewership. Second, the site should tie individual interests and community interests together in one place. This would create a spillover effect where individuals who are searching for a specific thing are drawn by chance to broader community dialogues. The use of the Internet to foster place-based community might be the best method to lead people outside of their own social-technological niches and into a real place-based community both on the web and in real life.
We are all unique. We all want to find a place where we belong. We all find our own niches that enable us to feel comfortable and at home. We want to feel the same way in all of the spaces that we inhabit. We want to create broader communities our school, our town, our nation, the world so that others can feel at home, too. The first step is to create the platform where dialogue across differences truly occurs.
Nikhil Idnani 14 is an economics major with a public policy concentration. His email address is email@example.com.