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September 24, 2010

reflections after a videoconference

I just finished three consecutive meetings that addressed versions of the same questions: How can universities prepare young people for active democratic citizenship? And how can such efforts be measured and assessed? The first meeting involved Tufts faculty from various departments. I either knew the participants before the discussion began or had network ties with them. We are part of the same organization, with a common work culture. We met in a room where I have spent hundreds of hours. I know exactly where this thoroughly familiar place fits in the broader physical space of Tufts, Medford, Massachusetts, America. We shook hands, helped one another to coffee, and watched each other's faces as we spoke.

Then two young leaders (from the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network) met with me and a colleague in my own office. Now the space was quite small, piled with my own stuff, and extremely familiar to me--although not to my visitors. I understood their backgrounds and the broad outlines of their work lives, but I cannot picture their offices or exactly how they spend their days. The flow of conversation was fluid among the four participants. We talked about potential projects and next steps. We were getting to know one another, which is an important precondition of collaboration.

And then I went to a basement space with a video link, to participate in a virtual conference with colleagues from Tecnológico de Monterrey, a major Mexican university. Now I was in a strange underground room somewhere beneath a physical space that I know well. I was interacting with a face projected on a large, high-quality video screen. I do not know where he sat on the surface of the globe, let alone what he would see if he walked off camera to his right or left. Behind him was a glossy world map, coincidentally showing my real location immediately over his right shoulder, although Mexico itself was obscured. My face appeared in a fuzzy frame below his right hand. He and the several other participants spoke mostly in Spanish, a language which I unfortunately have never studied; but I was able to keep up (to a degree) by pasting their PowerPoint slides into Google Translate on a laptop.

Google's translation revealed remarkably similar themes to the morning's discussion at Tufts. It felt like one conversation, as if you could walk through the screen and find yourself sipping coffee with colleagues in Mexico who would know your friends from Tufts. The video monitor created the illusion of an open portal. Yet thousands of miles, an armed political border, and a language gap separated us. I felt stiffer, more formal, less humorous, and less responsive in the last situation than the first two. It's one world now, but propinquity still matters.

September 24, 2010 4:06 PM | category: none



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