Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Facebook flash forward

Take Facebook. Add students who crave intellectual conversation. Bring in experts on a variety of subjects. Post and share.

What do you get? Flash Seminars—a new series of quick lectures presented by professors, alums or students on interesting topics designed to create more opportunities for academic engagement outside of the classroom. Think flash mob brainiacs.

Kimberly Nash ’12, working in partnership with Thomas Bruemmer ’12, brought the idea to Wheaton this academic year with support from the Student Government Association (SGA). Nash, who is a member of the SGA’s executive board and the student representative to the Board of Trustees and alumnae/i, says she wanted to start the series to generate additional energy and excitement around learning.

“It has worked out even better than I could have anticipated,” she says, “and in a lot of ways I feel like Wheaton has taken ownership of this because of the level of involvement of students, faculty and administrators in making this work and in creating a really engaging series.”

Seminar topics proposed by presenters are posted on a Facebook group page (which so far has more than 500 members) and the first 15 students to comment are able to attend. Others are put on a waitlist, but seminars are filmed and posted on Wheaton’s website so that a wider audience can see them afterward.

“This is definitely an imaginative way to use Facebook, but at the same time, I think it’s exactly what Facebook is for. For our generation Facebook has become a very integral part of our lives, and rather than using it to gossip, it can be used as a very effective means to get the word out about an event and can be a constructive means to engage with others,” says Nash, who is double majoring in economics and international relations.

Bruemmer, who also is on the SGA’s executive board and a student representative on the faculty and staff Educational Policy Committee, notes that using Facebook to draw audiences for Flash Seminars brings the discussion of academics into a medium where it has not been present. “Now, for people who are always checking Facebook, they are not just looking for their friends’ status updates, they are also looking for the next opportunity for academic engagement.”

So far the seminars have covered a range of current events. Professor of Mathematics Tommy Ratliff presented the first one, “Just Let the Voters Vote: What’s so hard about that?,” about voting theory and how the various methods of voting influence the outcome.

“I love that the Flash Seminars provide a mechanism for students and faculty with a variety of academic backgrounds to discuss a topic that they may not otherwise,” said Ratliff. “As a faculty member, I really enjoy the perspectives that students with different disciplinary viewpoints bring. There’s an abundance of intellectual curiosity in the Wheaton community, and I think the seminars are another important outlet to support this.”

Economics professor John Miller, who presented “Economic Inequality, the Economic Crisis, and Occupy Wall Street,” agrees. “I was thrilled to speak to such a diverse group of students, who were all concerned about economic inequality and the current economic troubles of the U.S. and global economy, and who wanted to know more about Occupy Wall Street. …For me the seminar was a genuine educational experience—the product of the students’ engagement with these issues, their seriousness of purpose, and our dialogue. That kind of enthusiasm is infectious.”

About Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman is the editor of the Wheaton Quarterly and Senior Associate Director in the Communications Office.