A deviant intrusion as connectivity stimulator
University of Groningen initiated a pass-on blog on the topic of "making connections". Here is my take on the topic. Originally published for RUG.
"As a person who has been an ‘academic nomad’ since 16, I have been making connections with new people and places for nearly two decades. As I am writing these lines, I am having a flashback to my first day as an exchange student in a US high school in 2003. There I was, a 16-year-old from Uzbekistan, with a lunch tray in the centre of the cafeteria. I knew no one. I was looking around for a place to sit and I saw clusters of sub-groups flocking together – some were playing ‘magic’ cards, others listening to music and singing along, some were solving equations together, some were playing the guitars, and others were just eating (oh the pre-smartphone age). I was the only person from Uzbekistan in the student body of 2,000 people. Where was my place? Sad as it is, I ate alone on the staircase on my first day. Not to perpetuate this miserable experience of alienation, I decided to change my strategy. The next day I sat at the random table with a random group; the day that followed - with another group; and I kept on cruising around in the days that came after. I had the leeway of being a foreigner, I was outside of this cultural context and my deviant intrusion was perceived as an acceptable exception that ended up challenging the status quo. By the end of the school year, I realized that not only did I connect with the various subgroups, which enhanced my understanding of the US culture, but I was also able to connect them with each other.
Let’s skip forward to 2022. While the global digital divide is still present, some of us are living in a hyper-connected world amid current technological advances, but what is the essence of this connectivity? More often than not, I feel like I am in that cafeteria again, on day one of high school. We seem to be living in clusters of values, cultures, ideologies and information bubbles. As a media scholar, I study online communities and observe intense polarization of political views, to the point that even family members refuse to speak to each other ever again. The nature of algorithmic news feeding makes it challenging to trespass the barriers and defy the bubbles. What could be a solution to this polarization and alienation?
I believe that our university is a place where some of these barriers can indeed be defied. We occupy an important niche in society as we bear the responsibility to educate, while continuously challenging ideas and creating new knowledge. In this pursuit, there are various power positions related to the composition of the student body, staff members, and our collective connectivity with each other and actors beyond academia. This concerns both internal and external strategies. For instance, internally, we could work on concrete steps and opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration, co-teaching, co-authorship, and knowledge co-creation. Externally, we need to reflect on how we engage with the city, the country and the world at large. Diversity and accessibility, in this regard, need to be addressed from all the multifaceted sides. We need to ask ourselves the important questions: Who gets to enter the university? Whose ideas are we teaching in classrooms? Who is not present in this process? When a person, an idea, or a phenomenon that constitute a ‘deviant intrusion’ enter the scene, they can challenge the status quo and create a new reality. Let’s be those deviant intruders, let’s trespass our bubbles and let’s stimulate connectivity."