What makes Paul Smith’s College such a unique place? Of course, our location among high peaks and shimmering lakes gives our campus a distinctive advantage over more mundane locations. But there is also a sense of being part of a community that, though hard to define or identify, provides a rare educational setting. When I think of the Paul Smith’s community, I think of folk that hold doors for each other, bond strongly, and are proud of being independent, unique, and able to cope with most anything. Why? It’s a complex question, difficult to answer in a few sentences. But when you want to understand why society acts the way it does and why humans do what they do, social research provides a way to find answers.
A new class introduced this semester, SOC 220 – Social Research, used this class to try to discover what makes Paul Smith’s more than an institution. We decided to investigate what makes PSC a community. Using observations, interviews, and questionnaires, students have pieced together an idea of what is important to us, how we see ourselves and others, and how we bond through social and educational interaction. In order to make the assignments more visual and interesting, students also embarked on a photographic essay known as the “I am Smitty” project.
Students attempted to define the Paul Smith’s College community by photographing students, staff, faculty, and administrators. Each portrait used a dry erase board with the subject’s written thoughts on what it takes to be a “Smitty.” Questions developed by the class prompted responses on what experiences connect us, what gives us a sense of belonging, and what we love and hate about being here. Many of the responses mention nature and the outdoors. Some complain about the icy conditions or the quality of food. Sports, clubs, friends, and support are given as ways we feel connected. The words “Education, Experience, Exploration” summed it up for one participant. In the end, the student’s collected 116 photographs of members of our community (including several dogs, horses, and one goldfish).
The I am Smitty project gave us a chance to think about why we are here and what is different about this place that causes us to respond with a smile when someone notices our PSC t-shirt. Is there one particular thing that brings us all together? Judging from the text on the boards and answers to interviews and questionnaires, our appreciation for nature and care for the environment is certainly a big part of the answer. But one answer that hit home was the fact 95 percent of respondents to our questionnaires agreed that Smitties watch out for each other. We may have our moments of frustration and confusion, but SOC 220’s research shows an overwhelming sense of connection. And I hope that means we can work out the rest of our problems.
Deb Naybor is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies, and has great curiosity about what makes human beings tick. After living and volunteering in communities around the world, she has settled into her tiny house in Rainbow Lake and looks forward to staying home enough to plant her garden AND harvest the vegetables.