The scene is familiar, even if you haven’t seen the film. It’s the first day of class and a professor pronounces: “Look to your left. Now look to your right. At the end of this class, only two of you will be left.” The sentiments behind such statements (supposedly characteristic of rigorous law school training) waft in and out of most classrooms and they lodge deep in our minds: “Am I good enough? Is my seatmate smarter than me? What if I don’t make it?”
What lies behind that intimidating phrase might be “rigor and challenge.” But it is also competition and anxiety. These things breed what we also find in that half-remembered, half-imagined film scene: people one-upping each other and cheating on friendship in an atmosphere of general nastiness.
I have better ambitions for my classroom and my campus, and I suspect that you do too. How about this phrase instead: “Look to your left. Now look to your right. If any one of us is not here (and not thriving) at the end of this class, it will be our collective failure.” That’s a very different attitude. It emphasizes not competition, but responsibility. The University, at its best, is a responsible community of teachers and learners. Our ideal should be that we look out for one another, that we take collective responsibility for every single one of our members.
That is an ideal that always lies in the distance. Because we’re busy. We already have our friends. Because this kind of care takes work. Because some of us — many of us — are shy, nervous and fearful of rejection. As I walk across campus, I try to make eye contact and smile. Too often, no one looks up. I say “hello.” Silence, or surprise. It’s all a little awkward, isn’t it? And I’m no better. Too often, it’s easier for me to look at the ground as well, or to stare straight ahead into nothingness because I’m so very lost in my music or my thoughts. I think we can do better. We should aspire to do so.
I’ve been thinking lately about “paying it forward” in the form of “drive-through generosity,” in which people in fast-food lines pay for the food of the car — or the person — behind them. There was, for example, that moment in Manitoba when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward at a Tim Hortons drive-through.
Along with some friends and colleagues, I’ve been wondering what it would look like for us to venture something similar at the University. Those thoughts have been echoed by a generous donor — an LSA alum — interested in driving positive change on campus. He encouraged us to take a chance, and he supported us in doing so.
Today, Feb. 10, marks the first day of a project sponsored by LSA, #powerof5, which aims to explore the possibility that a group of individuals can build a movement to effect change in our campus environment. The #powerof5 project begins with 1,000 students in five large classes in psychology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy. Each will receive the means — one $5 bill and five cards encouraging acts of kindness. Five smiles, five hellos, five handshakes, five high-fives, five thank yous. It could be that someone buys your meal or your coffee this week. Or does something else — out of the clear blue — that makes your day. That person might be shy, nervous and fearful of rejection, and so he or she will hand you a #powerof5 card, which will ask you to pay it forward, to extend a simple social gesture to a fellow human being. It could be a smile, a few words, a greeting. Better, though, will be for the two of you to talk, if only for a moment. Nothing permanent. No lasting obligation other than to receive kindnesses and to continue to pay them forward to someone else.
The power of five: Five classes. Five dollars. Five acts. Five passings of a little blue #powerof5 card. It could get exponential. It could get viral — and not online, but in the real world where we live with one another. We could, collectively, take a crack — during the coldest and snowiest season on campus — at creating a thick, pervasive atmosphere of warmth at the University. Why not? And why not take the conversation online too, by using the hashtag #powerof5 to share your stories and experiences, or submit them to our Tumblr?
The next time you are in class and look to your left and to your right, think of yourself not in competition, but in support. You are a responsible member of a community that extends kindness to all its members. So you pay it forward, five times and then five times after that. And then let’s see what happens.
Philip J. Deloria is a Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History and American Culture and the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education.