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Old Gold & Black

Old Gold & Black

OPINION: Men’s Basketball just won’t back down
Abigail Taylor, Contributing writer • February 27, 2024

Liquid Networks

by Dr. Laura Barbas-Rhoden and Dr. Anne Rodrick—

Liquid networks. Steven Johnson, a bestselling author who writes about change, points to what he calls liquid networks as the spaces where “let’s try something” and “let’s imagine something” happen, and ideas get born, developed, adapted and then widely adopted. At the heart of liquid networks are people, the relationships among them and the way those people cluster around challenges with optimism and resourcefulness (and lots of coffee). In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson cites 19th-century examples like Darwin and Edison, thinkers and inventors deeply embedded in networks that we associate with genius ideas.

When we read Johnson’s book together, we thought, “Our college campus, open to the world beyond our gates, is just this thing.” And we asked ourselves, what if our campus took the ethos of relationships-and-people-first that gives Wofford its community feel? And through this created more connections and cultivated more relationships, so as to draw people together to solve community challenges on all sorts of scales, from the local to the far away? And what if more of us told problem-solving stories the way Johnson does, emphasizing not the solitary geniuses grade school textbooks misremember as stand-alone geniuses, but rather the resourceful, hardworking networks of people whose good ideas solve challenges?

Those questions are part of what motivated us to experiment with a learning community this past fall. Our goal was to link an established space for community-based learning in the Spanish program to a class focused around the problems faced by 19th century civic leaders who were trying to solve almost impossibly big questions about poverty and wealth and the mutual obligations of living in an overcrowded urban space. We wanted to ask ourselves, “How can we draw lines of connection between the past and the present, and between an enormous urban center—Manchester, England, one of the earliest modern industrial spaces of Europe—and our own smaller city in 2014? What do they have in common? What has changed about the ways we try to address the problems of urban growth and poverty?”

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So we linked one HUM101 section with one SPAN 303 section, and professors, students and community interlocutors began to explore big questions. It turns out that there are a lot of similarities in the ways people have thought about poverty and community development over time, even as there are some enormous differences between the world of 1850 and the world of today. Over and over again, we found connections that surfaced because our classes were networking with each other and with diverse groups in the larger Spartanburg community.

That experience exemplifies for us what makes Wofford special. We are all part of a liquid network—part of a community that is constantly changing, engaging and challenging us. Impromptu conversations in hallways or coffee shops grow into new curricular and co-curricular opportunities. And as our world of conversations and interlocutors expands, the possibilities for learning multiply.

Collaboration is exhilarating because no one member of the network knows all the answers or has the perspective. In fact, in our own personal experiences as professors, we know we often don’t even know the right questions to ask, and talking about our limitations honestly with students, community members and fellow colleagues helps connect us more meaningfully to them. When members of a network have a mindset of listening and learning, everyone’s perspective, everyone’s strength, finds a space to contribute.

Then, amazing work happens, and it’s not bound by who we are or who any individual partner, student or civic leader is. The ideas are as good as our networks, and that’s very, very good. For example, the Arcadia Volunteer Corps leadership team designed the Nutrition Now healthy eating initiative for the ARCH after-school program as part of a liquid network. Students built on input from after-school program directors about budgets and kids’ tastes, drew on the learning they gained in psychology classes about incentives and decision-making and finally used the scaffolding of the ARCH program that had been developed in the community-based learning work that students do in Spanish 303. And on a much, much larger scale, networks of grassroots citizen leaders like the Northside Navigators, former mayor Bill Barnet, current city administrators, student volunteers and non-profit leaders are transforming the neighborhood across the street.

We all have stories of working together, of asking questions that nudge us to build something unexpected or nurture a small idea into a big project. We’ll never see a marketing slogan that says, “Wofford: A Liquid Network,” but that’s really what we mean when we say “Wofford: It’s Your World.” What liquid networks are yours, readers, that maybe you haven’t noticed? And with whom else can you expand them, so that you’re all learning, growing, doing? How big is your world?

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