Academic Lens: Creating Space for Connection

Posted by Scott Allenby


Today’s blue skies, warm sunshine, and clear pathways will soon give way to more than an inch of rain and unseasonably warm temperatures tomorrow and Friday. The weather patterns this winter have been changing at the same breakneck speed with which we navigate the Winter Term at Proctor. Sunrises, classes, assembly, afternoon programs, races, games, rehearsals, extra help sessions, study hall, college counseling meetings, sunsets blur into a life that is equal parts invigorating and exhausting. In order to set our eyes on the invigorating, and not solely on the exhausting, we must intentionally carve out time to press pause and connect with each other.


We each seek this connection in our own ways; for some of us it is exercise with friends, forcing ourselves outdoors in subzero temperatures to suck up every drop of Vitamin D the stingy winter sun shares. For others, it is sharing a cup of coffee at Java Hut or gathering in a book group to discuss a favorite read. Understanding our individual need for this connection and balance is essential to creating a healthy community. And for our students who are living life at an equally fast pace, we must help facilitate connection and make space for face-to-face conversations that are increasingly easy to avoid in today's digital age. 


This stretch of January has been ripe with opportunity for very real conversations with our students; some proactive, others reactive. Recent discipline involving technology, a visiting speaker discussing the impact (and unknowns) of vaporizers, e-cigarettes, and other smoking substitutes, and the presentation of Hays Speeches in American Literature classes are just a few of the conversations for which we have made space over the past two weeks since returning from break.


As adults in the community, we often lament the connected teenager, glued to a smartphone as they navigate walkways around campus with the type of laser focus on their phones we wish was reserved for their English assignments later that night. But then moments occur in advisory, in the classroom, in the dorm, sitting at the lunch table when we put our own technology down and make room for conversation with our students and they eagerly accept the invitation to simply talk. They weren’t necesarily avoiding the conversation by looking at their technology, they were simply waiting for someone to ask a question.


During Tuesday’s advisory period, I experienced this phenomenon first hand. As I asked my advisees about their reaction to the guest speaker last week and recent discipline incidents, their phones went away without my asking. Computers closed. Opinions varied as each of my six advisees gained their voices and spoke honestly about their experiences at Proctor. A quick glance around the dining commons where we gathered for advisory saw the same phenomenon occurring at multiple tables. Real conversations took place. Technology was absent. Eye contact was made. Connection felt. The fears of a lost generation of iPhone addicts alleviated, if just for a minute.


In an interview for a recent video project, Social Science faculty member Fiona Mills discussed the importance of making room for hard conversations in her classes (see video above). She stresses the importance of the scaffolding she works to create with her students in her classes; hard conversations don’t just happen, they require a foundation of trust. It’s this foundation we seek to nurture each day as a flurry of responsibilities, activities, and distractions orbit around us. Understanding the need to pause of simply talk to each other is the easy part. Making space for those conversations to take place is the challenge we must embrace. 

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