A phenomenon brought into focus

Photos are coming soon.

The idea broadsided us on a leisurely Saturday afternoon, as such ideas delight in doing. Tasked with performing a cursory inquiry into a potential local research question, we had planned on making a trip to the Ave to flesh out our fragmented ideas of studying something related to physical location and ethnic makeup on a street defined by location in its proximity to a particular university campus and its ethnicity, embodied by its smorgasbord of culture-specific restaurants and boutique shops. We never got there.

Instead, as we crossed the Quad in a distracted state searching for friends, we suddenly saw a phenomenon which most students and the University have gotten used to in due time in a different light – the Quad was covered in chalk. This particular campus meme began with the self-promotion of Qdoba’s new location several months ago by means of simply writing the name of the subject in white chalk all over campus. It was remarkably effective in obtaining mind-share, and reasonably permanent – one particular instance upon a pillar in front of McMahon hall persists to this day.

Thus, we retooled our research premise and began photographing chalk markings around campus instead of taking the journey over to the Ave. Two patterns emerged: first, nearly all of the chalk markings were advertisements for campus events (with a number of rather obscene exceptions), and second, most of these events pertained to either cultural or philanthropic events. These two observations, along with the very nature of the markings themselves, serve as trailheads for potential research questions.

Perhaps the most relevant and immediate question pertains to the effectiveness of this means of communication. When I have mentioned these advertisements in the past, some people note the same general observations I do, while some people haven’t the faintest inkling as to what I am referring to – they simply do have not noticed the proliferation of messages appearing on the ground upon which they walk.

The most direct way of addressing this question is to address the human subjects – this would involve utilizing Lynch’s subject observation method to a great extent. We could approach this several ways – we could ignore the chalk’s existence and lead the subjects in a walk around the Quad and the HUB, taking note of whether they observe that the chalk is there, and if so, whether they bother to examine the actual message of each instance, or we could address nothing but the chalk and simply show subjects photographs of the markings, asking them to verbalize their immediate observations. Of the two of these approaches, the first is much more relevant to the question, noting the extent to which subjects read into the chalk without being directed to do so, but the second method is also interesting for analyzing the content itself of the markings.

The results of this small inquiry have very little bearing upon my initial research interests, those being related to news and news mediums. However, the concept of observing chalk as a communication method, or potentially as physical traces, is similar to another idea we considered for Amsterdam, which was to address graffiti in the city; we got no further than the initial idea, however.

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