The scent of freshly baked cinnamon sticky buns wafted through the room above the heads of some of the greatest minds in Minnesota. Women and men gripped styrofoam cups filled with cheap coffee and chatted between the blue walls of the unusually named Red Room.
It was 10:20 a.m. and chapel had just ended. The next twenty minutes were free for professors and faculty to spend however they wished, and most spent it in this room. Professors of every department talked with one another in between bites of discounted pastry – an opportunity that was often hard to come across during the rest of the day.
The Red Room no longer exists, and its loss contributed to a loss much larger than the size of the room itself. The room was a gathering place – its beauty found in the fact that it was not intentional or organized. The conversations were casual and spontaneous, driven solely by the desire to be in community with the rest of the college.
The lack of the Red Room is just one of the many indications that the community at Concordia is shifting. With the increase of technology use inside and outside of classrooms, the way Cobbers interact with one another looks different than it once did. But, while the current Concordia community might be different compared with the fond memories of alumni, this change isn’t necessarily a negative one.
Dr. Mark Covey, a psychology professor who studies social psychology, described three key criterion of cohesive communities: shared identity, meaningful interaction and valued interaction. Concordia’s community fulfills this criteria, but it is struggling with another crucial aspect: physicality, or face-to-face interactions. This lack affects relationships campus-wide.
Dr. David Sprunger, English professor, said that since his first year at the college in 1992, the most significant change he’s noticed over the years is the lack of physical community.
“I’m not a very extroverted person who’s going to necessarily go out and meet a lot of new people unless I’m brought into contact with them,” Sprunger said.
The Red Room provided a place for that contact to occur and an opportunity for Sprunger to foster those inter-departmental relationships. Now, a designated faculty gathering space on campus is nowhere to be found.
Eric Johnson, director of alumni relations and a 1982 alum, said that it wasn’t the Red Room itself that drove everybody to one place at one time, but the daily chapel services beforehand.
“Chapel was much more attended … They would actually shut down the library [during chapel time],” Johnson said.
Covey also remembers a time when the Centrum would fill with people for morning chapel. He said it was an unstated expectation that at 9:50 a.m., professors dropped everything and attended the service – and if they didn’t, they hid in their offices and closed the doors.
Chapel is no longer the well-attended event that it used to be. Covey said that nowadays, the seating arrangement is altered to make the room feel full like it once was.
“I guess as chapel goes, so goes community,” Covey said.
Johnson said that this change isn’t necessarily a negative one – the college just needs to find new ways to create community. He suggested that Anderson Commons, which is probably the most prominent gathering place for students, could become a space in which faculty could find community with each other and with students.
Some colleges and universities reduce the cost for faculty and staff to eat meals in the school cafeterias, but Concordia requires faculty to either purchase their own dining plan or pay for meals individually, which cost $13.10 per plate at lunch and dinner.
“If the college was serious about creating community for faculty and staff with one another and with students, they would reduce the cost,” Johnson said.
Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad, associate dean of the college and a 1991 alum, said that she thinks the cause of this shift in community can be attributed to a generational difference.
“We had different mechanisms that we used to be in community [when I was a student]. We had to walk down the hall and knock on doors. We had to make plans with people in advance,” Sethre-Hofstad said. “There was none of this, ‘I’ll text you later.’ We had to sort of create opportunity for being connected in different ways.”
Both Covey and Sethre-Hofstad agree that a driving factor in this change of communication and loss of physical interaction is the constant use of technology.
“We used to be able to greet everybody – usually by name. But, that’s kind of gone,” Covey said. “A lot of people just look at their devices to avoid that kind of one-on-one.”
Covey said that on a sunny day, he used to go out to the campanile and see people having conversations, but now he sees people “worship their palms” instead.
Sethre-Hofstad fears that students are not practicing the necessary skills to have hard conversations or hear hard feedback in a face-to-face encounter. She’s noticed that they would rather read it in an email than hear it coming out of a person’s mouth in front of them.
“I think that the digital space allows us to keep a distance that I don’t know is always healthy,” Sethre-Hofstad said.
This space fosters “inch-deep interactions,” according to Sethre-Hofstad, rather than deep, quality relationships.
Covey said that quality relationships are based on two things: depth of knowledge and breadth of knowledge. Relationships that have little depth or little breadth don’t typically last, because they aren’t stable or particularly meaningful.
He said that the digital space Sethre-Hofstad described can often affect the depth of a relationship.
“What can you possibly express in 140 characters?” Covey said.
Covey said that he came across some research showing that even emojis are being misinterpreted – which is ironic, because emojis are intended to communicate affect, or emotion.
“I winked at somebody – semicolon, right parentheses – and they wanted to know why I was leering,” Covey said, laughing.
Sethre-Hofstad said that this constant screen time prevents students from finding opportunities to “bump into” interactions the way that she did as a student.
“I feel like we are constantly engaged with people who aren’t actually here … and we’re missing opportunities to engage with people who are actually here,” Sethre-Hofstad said.
Residence Life has been getting questions from students about how to make friends, Sethre-Hofstad said. For people in her generation, that’s a very strange question. She said the answer is simple: put down your phone, look someone in the eye and introduce yourself.
“If you’re constantly looking at your phone while you’re walking down the sidewalk, you’re not bumping into new people who have an opportunity to befriend you,” Sethre-Hofstad said.
Jessica Shamdas, senior, agrees that social media is affecting the Concordia community. She said that while the community’s online connections are strong, they don’t transfer into daily, face-to-face interactions.
Shamdas worries that the increase in online courses offered will only continue to create barriers between students and faculty, and negatively affect the sense of community.
Sethre-Hofstad said she doesn’t think that the quality of relationships has changed over time, but that the tools used to foster them have.
“The shared value, the honoring and support, the being there for each other when times are hard, the hard truth-telling, giving feedback and affirmation … all of these qualities are still what matter in a quality relationship, but how we invoke those things might have changed,” Sethre-Hofstad said.
Sethre-Hofstad said that if someone values a relationship, but never spends any time on it, the relationship will eventually stop growing because it’s not being nurtured.
In this way, the Concordia community functions similarly. Without the nurturing of its students and faculty, it will stop growing. Sethre-Hofstad said that considering a new approach to the way the community gathers and interacts should be the next step for the college in years to come.