Disengaging the Sewanee Community

Cartoon by Maddie Wilson (C’19).

By Vanessa Moss and Joseph Marasciullo
Staff Writers

My first shock when settling back on campus after being abroad for a semester? Not culture, not courses, not the cold. But realizing that I have a QR code.

Where did OrgSync go? What was wrong with it? I liked that system. There was a vague, campus-wide negligence so group leaders could mostly ignore the system, spreading word on events the normal way, through posters and Facebook and sneakily finding someone with “cstudent” access.

But I suppose Student Life disagrees. They have some weird vested interest in compiling all events on one platform, and all students registered in one system. Pitched as an improvement for students (you can find all of the events on campus in one spot! How convenient!) a lot of people are ambivalent about Engage. It’s easy. Whatever. I’m going to Chi Psi. Stop asking me about an app, you weird-o.

Austin Polun (C’19), vice president of community service for the Interfraternity Council (IFC), was asked about the benefits of Engage. He talked about how it streamlines the process of keeping Greek and social events on the books, as well having a record of unsuccessful events on file. Best yet, the “QR codes make for efficient statistics.”

Which raises a question, how are these statistics being used? Are club funds going to be allocated based on how many students scan in to club meetings? Or how many events a club hosts each semester? Will the “open door policy” that Sewanee Greek life brags so much about start having QR bouncers at the door, in order to know which students are where each night? How do you quantify event success?

Maddy Wilson (C’19) was deeply disturbed by Engage and her new, flashy QR code when she arrived on campus in August, calling it “Orwellian” in nature. After discussing it with other student leaders and Suvi Piipponen, researching the details of who actually owns Engage and all of our information with it, she wasn’t comforted. And responded the best way we women who want to live in the woods to escape society know how: Angry poetry.

“Engage isolates subsets of the community to an online space,
and commodifies social interaction through automations
simply unnecessary for a community of this size.

They manage our data, to manage us better, to make
not greater minds, or a stronger community,
but a better product. Screw that.”

Aside from inspiring sweet lyricism, Wilson’s frustration-fueled curiosity led her to find details about Engage that will give any mild conspiracy theorist a field day.

In 2016, OrgSync was bought by Campus Labs, a college-based information company who are the creators of Engage. Campus Labs had been owned by a larger organization called Higher One Holdings, but that year Higher One Holdings was bought out by our beloved Blackboard.

Blackboard, notorious for being hard to navigate for students and professors alike, is owned by a man named William Ballhaus, the Chief Executive Officer and President of a different company, CSRA Inc. CSRA “provides information technology services to U.S. government clients… Its largest market, national security, included the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and intelligence agencies.”

I’ve been made fun of already for caring about this, “God forbid the government knows I went to an event at the Q&A last Friday!” But that’s not the point. I know the government is already tracking my Facebook and Instagram, and who knows what else. It’s disturbing and weird to think that I’m just a data point in the grand scheme of some information mogul’s bell-curve, but it’s too late to change that now. (Unless I pull a Ron Swanson and start burying gold and live in the woods. Which, you know, I don’t think would surprise anyone).

What’s most disconcerting to me, as expressed by Wilson, is the effect that Engage could have on Sewanee as a community. The “convenience” that Engage supplies changes the way students interact with one another and even with faculty. Who has emailed Barbara Banks this year, asking to send out an email? Or messaged personal invitations to an event? Or relied on looking at the walls of posters hung across campus, or talked to acquaintances in the hubbub of McClurg to find what events are going on that weekend?

Engage’s purpose isn’t to bring the Sewanee community closer together, or even really to give students a convenient platform for events. It’s a way for the administration and Student Life to watch campus. I signed an honor code with the understanding that it’d be reciprocated through trust from the people in charge.

I think a lot of students give Sewanee a hard time for not being a leader within the liberal arts community; we resist change, are pretty slow to catch on to new national trends (like curbing drinking culture, having a women’s and gender studies department, etc.) and then the school scrambles to catch up. So let’s take initiative, just this one time. We could be the pioneers of college-based data mining!

As each student steps around the seal and bends down to sign the honor code, a vague suited figure quickly inserts microchips behind our ears, set to protect us and empower us for four glorious years. Behold how good it is, when all faceless QR codes dwell in unity.


Leave a Reply