New Environments and New Norms
At the beginning of every semester, students come into our offices looking for professors but not fully knowing how to find them. They walk in, look around at the walls and doors, and ask where they might find someone. Often, they are in the wrong building or are asking for people whose offices are elsewhere. If they are looking for someone who does have an office, they are not sure where to look, so they try to find names or other identifying information.
We do have blue and white name plates clearly posted on the light brown doors. We also have our schedules, phone, and email on 4”x6” cards posted on our doors, usually on bright yellow or green paper. We also have a “mailbox” or wooden cubbyholes next to the door so that students can leave us papers or messages without having to go to the administration building.
Thinking sociologically, it is clear what is happening. These new students have never encountered our offices and in the chaos and pressure that is the first week of classes, they are not always able to clearly decode and read the information we have posted.
We insiders know what is posted so it seems odd that people wouldn’t see it clearly since we’ve made an effort to make it visible and accessible. When you are in familiar territory, you can take such things for granted, especially if you helped create it.
When you are an outsider, everything is new so it’s not always immediately clear how the space is laid out. And insiders may not even notice things that distract newcomers.
When one enters our suite of offices, in addition to the layout mentioned above, there are two large and one small bookcases, a desk that sometimes has a chair, a large cabinet, and many plastic holders with flyers and handouts on our programs. Because the doors to the offices are placed in between all this furniture the students have not only doors to look at but also a lot of other stuff!
Since we work in this space, we posted all this information to have it accessible to students in the attempt to make it helpful and inviting space. I’m not sure we succeed at that, at least in the first few weeks of the semester, since students come in overwhelmed with the paths they have to navigate on campus. Later, once they know where their professors are, they do often spend time picking up flyers and reading the posters.
I was reminded of this when I became the new person at another space. I’ve started working out a new gym and it’s taken awhile to figure out how it is laid out and how people use it. There are a lot of trainers in the room with their clients and one of the first things I noticed was that the trainers, as insiders, know who is where, what they’re doing, and where they (and perhaps others) will be moving next.
As a newbie, I had to observe the patterns before I felt comfortable moving through the rooms. The first few times, I went to the same treadmill – actually, I still go to the same treadmill if it’s open. This is probably akin to how students sit in the same seats in class that they claim on the first day.
It took a few visits before I figured out that there was a second floor that was accessible and open to everyone. I’m slowly becoming an insider at this space, much as students eventually figure out our offices.
Each society, workplace, or group has a set of expected behaviors – norms – that make it easy for people to fit in once they learn and follow those norms. Having been a gym member in the past, I know much of the etiquette or customs but each gym has its own set of norms. From signing in, to machine turn-taking, and interacting with others, exactly what is expected can vary but there are always norms. (See Janis Prince Inniss's post on gyms and gender.)
So far, I’ve made it seem as if an outsider only experiences chaos until they learn the routines. Yet I’d like to conclude on a different note. As an outsider, if one has time to observe, one can see things that insiders might not see at all.
Once you become an insider, you tend to take for granted certain patterns, limiting your perception of what transpires while you’re there. As an outsider, you don’t know yet what to pay attention to so you may notice things the insiders are oblivious to or are no longer focusing on.
For example, one of the things I noticed early on was how particular people related to one another – at the time, I did not know if they were clients or trainers. It seemed that one was particularly interested in the other who appeared oblivious to their attention.
Similar dynamics have happened in our offices. One student noticed another flirting with someone who also seemed oblivious like at the gym while they were all three looking for their professors’ offices. As an insider, I was there during that interaction but didn’t notice it. All I saw were students looking for their professors.
That outsiders can see things that insiders may not is why research methods includes techniques like participant observation. It is also why we train researchers to retain some level of distance or objectivity so that they are not blinded by the insider perspective.
Have you ever moved from an outsider to an insider? What was your experience like? What made the process easier?