It’s a (Mis)match! What Tinder Taught me About Swiping Right on Academia

By: Rachelle Tan

In March 2016, I was invited by Prof. Cecily Devereux to speak on a panel sponsored by English Studies in Canada at the upcoming Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) conference at the University of Calgary. This panel was a roundtable discussion on the topic of proliferation, and participants were asked to prepare a five- to seven-minute talk on any aspect, problem, question, element, or interpretation of proliferation. One could approach the topic in a multitude of ways: the viral, memes, library collections, the sheer volume of email we receive, environmental pollution, human communities. Prof. Devereux had initially suggested that I present a part of the Snapchat paper that I was going to present in a different panel, but I thought that it would be better to choose a different topic instead. The problem here was that there were so many topics to choose from.

Around the time of the invitation, not only was I slogging through mounds of schoolwork, but I was also trying to stay on top of my swiping game on Tinder—the popular, location-based social discovery service application where users swipe to choose between the photos of other users: you swipe to the right for a potential match, and you swipe to the left to move on to the next user.

My dilemma inspired me to craft this talk about Tinder and the proliferation of choices the app presents to its users. I thought about the time when I received offers of admission from the handful of graduate schools I applied to, and about the anxiety I experienced when making a decision about which offer to accept. I thought about my friends in the Philippines, and about how they do not have the same degree of freedom as we do in North America when it comes to choosing which classes to take. Since all of their classes are already selected for them, agonizing over which classes to take is virtually unheard of. I also thought about my parents’ university education, and about how their parents chose their programs for them: they didn’t even get to choose their programs for themselves.

Photo by Francisco Osorio, licensed under Creative Commons.
Photo by Francisco Osorio, licensed under Creative Commons.

As a student in the Canadian educational system, I understand that I am free to choose which institution to attend, which degree program I would like to pursue, and the courses that would meet the requirements of that program. This is where thinking through the Tinder app becomes particularly useful in a way. Using the logic of the Tinder interface, we realize that both prospective graduate students and academic departments represent Tinder users: the former choose which institution to commit to, while the latter makes offers of admission to prospective students. The difficulties that come with the proliferation of choices are not one-sided: both parties supposedly experience anxiety with regards to making a decision because they both think that somewhere out there lies an ideal choice which gets them maximum benefits and minimal-to-no regrets. Here, then, lies the similarity between the socially constructed imperative of making a choice within academia and on Tinder. So, if you thought wading through academic waters was hard, try finding a good quality date on Tinder!

However, I disagree about the simplicity of this model, and instead propose that academic institutions have, in fact, more leverage than students. Institutions surely have more choices. The supposedly mutual process of choosing does not consider the financial, social, and political inequality between the two parties. For example, many academic institutions offer students intellectual support (faculty supervision) and financial support (funding package), but such an offer is not made lightly. Institutions can be and are picky. For example, in order for an institution to invest in you financially, you have to be academically worth investing in the first place. Being able to pay the tuition fees is simply not good enough; you would have to be that standout whom the institution wants to represent itself.

Trying to keep up with everybody else is hard, but to choose not to keep up is to suffer the embarrassment of losing the choosing game. What I find intriguing is that somehow the freedom and the proliferation of choice speed up the choice-making process so much so that we may forget why we swiped right on academia in the first place. We were conditioned to choose and act fast and, subsequently, can only act on limited information that seems nonetheless overwhelming.

But having more choices available to us could be a good thing too, especially for a junior scholar like me. Would I choose to stay in academia? Choose an alt-ac position? Or leave academia all together? It is a decision I don’t have to make just yet, so I am placing my anxieties aside for now. With the assumption that we cannot possibly keep up with the amount of choices we constantly face within the academy, I’d like to hear some thoughts on how you think we can make this Tinderization model work for all of us in a more sustainable or productive way.

Rachelle Ann Tan is a 2nd-year Master’s student and is currently on a co-op work term with Paladin Security. Her research interests include social media and visual culture, and occasional dabbles in critical theory. For more on her research into Snapchat, see the CBC article about her talk at Congress 2016. You can follow her on Twitter at @rtan00.

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