The Intentional Design of Community Experience to Drive Culture Change
Words & Media: Jeff Goldenson
Illustrations: Doyung Lee ‘16.5
+ Invite Everyone to the Table
early, often and without agenda
+ Find Room in the Margins
of the curriculum and the academic calendar
+ This is Show Business
not “tell business,” we are designing entertaining
experiences people choose to engage with
Since Olin’s founding in 1997, the curriculum has been “designed for easy servicing” (Brand, pg. 189) by faculty and students alike. The paths to follow and people to talk to are known. Consequently, iterating on and reshaping the curriculum has come naturally and consistently since day one. Reshaping the college, however — the antiquated hierarchies, power dynamics, and politics that keep the trains running — there’s no “easy servicing” there. Where in a college, any college, would you even go to do that work?
At Olin, you’d go to the Greenhouse. The Greenhouse is a different kind of college interface -- not an office, a department, or even a traditional greenhouse — but a community of staff, students and faculty from all corners of the college committed to maintaining, repairing and reshaping Olin. We share a table, a studio space, a set of values, and the belief that college is a joyful design opportunity yet to reach its institutional potential.
Find us Wednesday mornings at 9:15 in the Academic Center Room 102, we’re the first thing you see.
Our meetings took place during Faculty Meeting — it’s a wonderfully expansive two hours on campus, you feel like you have the run of the place. We catch collaborating faculty and senior leadership in the less-hurried moments in the hour before and after. We start by brewing some coffee and playing some music while we catch up with each other. When a quorum is present, we circle up. The agenda is only loosely set. The key is we show up, making time in our schedules to build — if nothing else — relationships. Trusting relationships across constituents are the foundation of everything Greenhouse.
So what do we do? In the Greenhouse we stage demonstrations, or “demos.” We don’t demo products, we demo culture — our culture. Greenhouse demos are explicitly designed human experiences to honor and reinforce a set of values and a way of being in college together as a community of co-creators. Faux-mencement was a demo.
We stage these demos in the margins — the less contested times outside the academic calendar and curriculum. Often the demos are a kind of “pop-up” - the temporary takeover of a familiar space with unfamiliar conviviality. Pop-ups are high-leverage - for the brief time they’re happening their “leave-no-trace” ethic allows them to take center stage and be the center of attention.
Ask an engineer what a demonstration is and she’ll abbreviate it to a “demo” and tell you it’s “a practical exhibition and explanation of how something works.” Ask an activist, and she’ll describe “a public meeting or march protesting against something.” A Greenhouse demo explicitly designs human experiences that embody generous hospitality, listening, and consciously leaving official roles and titles at the door. It’s a soft demonstration.
How do we stage an organic, compelling demonstration of culture?
- Invite Everyone to the Table
- early, often and without agenda
- Find Room in the Margins
- of the curriculum and the academic calendar
- This is Show Business
- not “tell business,” we are designing entertaining experiences people choose to engage with
Though compressed into 26 hours, Faux-mencement follows these steps. It began with students and staff around a table, and drawing in the Interim Provost when we had a plan. It was staged on the lawn over lunch, in the margins of space and schedule. With homemade regalia, diplomas, and a live-stream for the parents back home — Faux-mencement was a show — it was meaningful entertainment for us all.
In early December 2019, just a few weeks before winter break, I was driving to Olin listening to National Public Radio. Because Olin is an underwriter, occasionally their promotional messages are read by the radio hosts. Somewhere along I-90 that morning, as I listened to the Olin message being read, I realized it had changed. The new message announced Olin 20/20, our celebration of Olin’s first twenty years as we look ahead to our next twenty, all in 2020. It took hearing the announcement over the airwaves on my commute to understand the significance of the moment for the college.
January is a quiet moment in Olin’s academic calendar. Students are at home, the college is calm — there’s room. Since Olin’s founding, the idea of doing an on-campus January intersession experiment had been in the air, but never happened. With Olin 20/20, we had our opening.
I went to the Greenhouse, made some coffee and made a pitch: let’s honor Olin 20/20 with a “back to our roots” January experiment in student, faculty and staff co-creation! Y’all want to do it?
The students were in and I stepped back. It’d be a heavy lift, it was December 10th, just seven days before students would leave for winter break. The idea was to add seven days of “open space” to the calendar beginning January 15th. Fortunately, the idea would be a win for the Advancement folks — it was an audacious and authentic way to kick-off Olin 20/20 in 2020.
A meeting was called in the Greenhouse and Olin’s leadership was excited. If students could demonstrate interest and commitment to executing all student-facing dimensions of the experience, there was a possibility. That week, while finishing up classes for the semester, the Greenhouse students took on the notion, called it “Build Week,” and made it their own. To convince administration, they drafted the Build Week Constitution: A Case for Build Week:
We’re approaching the year of Olin 2020, which calls
for additional contemplation and planning for the
future of Olin as a community and institution. Reflection
during the semester schedule is encouraged and valuable,
but the hectic nature of the semester doesn’t allow
in-depth time for it. Olin Build Week is a time dedicated
solely toward building community, reflection, and goals
for the next 20 years of Olin.
(The Build Week Constitution)
In a month that included the winter break, what began in the Greenhouse quickly became an Olin-wide idea that the students made a reality. But it wasn’t the reality I envisioned. A few days into the break, a call with Dieter Brehm ‘22, one of the lead student organizers, provided a necessary correction. All the grand framing I thrust on Build Week in service of Olin 20/20, and my own results-driven definition of success, was exactly not the point.
In mid-January, forty students returned to campus for a seven-day demonstration of institutional caretaking.