Friday, February 11, 2011

College as an experience

Last weekend I was in Atlanta, Georgia at the Annual Conference for the First-Year Experience.  One of my favorite things to do in between conference sessions is to wander around the downtown area of the conference city and explore a little bit.  If nothing else it gets me out of the hotel and gives me a chance to clear my head.  But, I also find that I learn a fair amount about the personality of a city and stumble across interesting places.  So, last weekend before the conference began I had a couple of free hours and just started walking through downtown Atlanta.  

About 30 minutes into my walk I came upon The Varsity, "The world's largest drive-in restaurant."  I'm a sucker for local burger joints (and I was hungry), so I went in.  It was an intriguing experience and one that left me asking questions about why people are drawn to places like the Varsity.  The food was mediocre at best, the seating was uncomfortable, and the cashiers scream and yell at customers.  And, there are probably dozens of other burger joints in Atlanta that serve food equal to or better than what I ate that afternoon.  So, what's the draw?

The thought that occurred to me--and I admit that it is far from original or earth shattering--was that The Varsity isn't selling burgers, fries, or chili dogs.  They are selling an experience.  Although I could have gone to a lot of other places to get a burger, including the hotel restaurant, The Varsity gave me a unique experience that I couldn't get any place else.  As I thought about it on the way back to the hotel, there were some key components in place that seemed to contribute to this type of "experience":

1.  A clear theme running across the entire experience.  The Varsity is built on the theme of school and athletics, hence the name, the desks arranged in a classroom set up that patrons sit in to eat, the jerseys on the walls, and the multiple flat screens playing nothing but college athletics.  Any one of those things in isolation would have been strange or uncomfortable, but they all played into the underlying theme and helped to tell the story of the place.

2.  A distinct uniform.  All of the employees at the restaurant wore distinctive shirts and hats that were connected to the theme (like Hot Dog on a Stick, but far less embarassing).  And, what was even more interesting was that The Varsity subtly invites visitors to become "part of the team" by providing complementary hats identical to the ones worn by employees (you can also buy t-shirts there at the restaurant as well).  

3.  A unique language or discourse.  Each customer is greeted by a cashier with the phrase "What'll ya have?" which like I mentioned above is generally yelled.  Even the employees running the "gift shop" where the t-shirts and memorabilia are sold use the same phrase to welcome customers.  There are also more sublte aspects of this language, for instance virtually everyone refers to onion rings as just "rings."If definitely falls outside the standard fast-food script and would be viewed as rude or obnoxious somewhere else, but it's part of the fabric of The Varsity and adds to the distinctive experience.

4.  Signature items that would be hard to find anywhere else.  Like I mentioned above, the burgers and fries are pretty average, but The Varsity does have a unique line of desserts (fried fruit pies, the "Frosted Orange,") as well as "chili burgers."  It left me thinking that an eatery doesn't have to have an entire menu of fantastic foods (although some do)--sometimes it's enough just to do a couple of things very well.

5.  Simplicity.  Deciding what to order at The Varsity is a welcome contrast to the sometimes overwhelming task of placing an order at some other restaurants (e.g. The Cheesecake Factory, whose menu boasts 200 selections).  While choices aren't always a bad thing, The Varsity's menu simplifies things tremendously with just a handful of relatively basic options (again, peppered with a few signature items).   The simplicity of the choices allows customers to focus on other aspects of the experience without getting lost in complexity or becoming overwhelmed with sorting through a lot of different options (See Barry Schwartz' interesting book The Paradox of Choice for a great discussion of this concept).

Now it's time for my obligatory connection back to higher ed (and I realize that this might be a stretch).  What if we thought of our campuses, not as places where we deliver instruction, but rather as place where we stage experiences?  I'm not advocating for a fun and games approach to learning whose sole function is to entertain, but for campuses that have distinct missions and objectives (similar to the themes at restaurants like the Varsity) and who design physical spaces, messaging, programs, and curricula that are connected to those missions.  For example,  a campus who makes their values public in the way classrooms are designed, the language academic advisors or peer leaders use in talking with students, and the unique learning experiences they provide (e.g. study abroad, case-based learning, service-learning, etc.) seems to be closer to offering a unique educational experience--one that has the potential to leave lasting impressions on students and, subsequently, help with retention efforts.  But, again, the key here is for all of these elements to be aligned with a clear mission and embedded in various parts of campus.  

The Varsity (and places like it) tell a coherent story about who they are and why they exist and they invite visitors to participate in and become part of that story.  So, what kind of story do our campuses hope to tell and how well are we telling it?

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