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Students’ spaces October 27, 2006

Posted by jennimi in Academic Librarianship, library 2.0, social software, Web 2.0.
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This afternoon I did something I do every once in awhile: I ate my lunch at the student union on the campus where I am a librarian. I sat at the strewn tables in the loud lunchroom eating the expensive and not so savory food that many students eat out of necessity. I thought about how much my sandwich would ultimately cost if I had bought it using student loan money. Quietly I observed the hectic goings on around me. In the short time I was there in students’ space I observed fraternity pledges “forced” to chant loudly a hearty bit about their greatness. I wondered if in ten years they’ll be just as excited about their greekness. Good thing for their sakes the revelry won’t be etched permanently in the ether that is the Internet. Unless of course it was recorded and put on Youtube. I thought, what a strange word to use for the Internet: “ether”. It falsely implies impermanence.

And between moments of awe at the fact that I was once that young, I noticed several arguments, outbursts, and bully moments. I heard a young woman demand that her friend give her one of her shirts to wear to class tonight, and another wiped her sparkly eye shadow off quickly as she was critiqued by a whole table of other girls. One young man demanded another’s homework from him. It’s not that I had special radio frequency recording equipment. These conversations occured all around me as openly and accessibly as a MySpace profile. Even more so, since I didn’t really search. I just sat down. I realize these were just a few of the happenings in the room. The loudest are the most noticeable…

And before I dared entertain the idea that this generation is any different than mine I remembered a loud and heated conversation I and another student had in a campus cafe in 1991. We disagreed about how to deal with Kosovo. I had a young brother, she didn’t. Thinking back, everyone in the building probably heard our “discussion”, but we didn’t care. Or, it’s perhaps not that we didn’t care, but that the question didn’t really concern us. The cafe was our space. The campus was our space. School wasn’t just about classes, it was about passion, ideas, ego development, and the safe space to be loud and even to make mistakes.

I accomplished some great things as a college student but I also made some mistakes. Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different, or if it would be different, if there had been MySpace or Facebook or a blog in which to document all these things for posterity. Would I be declined an interview by someone who disagreed with my political stance in 1991, even if it may have tempered or changed over the years? Or would potential employers keep in mind that they were young once too, that they found there own spaces in which to grow, and that some adult somewhere may have heard everything – but resisted the urge to intervene?

Lots of discussion these days about how students forge their online personas, much of which admonishing folks to “watch it”. The IT folks at Cornell have posted a really good piece, called “Thoughts on Facebook” (http://www.cit.cornell.edu/policy/memos/facebook.html), that delves into these issues accessibly without talking down to the students. It’s a must-read for anyone working with students involved in web 2.0.

But as I sat in the student union today, realizing I participate in all manner of social software products (likely soon to drop MySpace as all the wonderful free music cannot, for me, trump the increasingly invasive corporateness of its new owner, Rupert Murdoch), agreeing with the push to teach students how to be careful, and cringing at some of the things I heard around me, I secretly applauded the students’ willingness to be themselves. To learn to be themselves. It’s their space. I’m not advocating a free for all, and I certainly want any student I have the honor of meeting to understand what it means to communicate on the web or in-person. And I want the campus library to be a comfortable place to learn these things and more. But we all need space to grow. In a student union or online. Everyone is a work-in-progress.

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