by Diana Senechal
Washington, D.C.—For years, colleges and universities have taught cocktail party skills—that is, the production of small talk on a range of subjects. Over the past decade this tradition has suffered a 21st century beating. It is no longer enough to look someone in the eye and mention Simone de Beauvoir; one must tend to the digital world at the same time. To meet this challenge the consortium C21L (Colleges for 21st Century Learning) is selling a new cocktail course for undergraduates. As of the writing of this article, 1,012 colleges and universities have purchased it.
“We live in an era when people tweet and shoot videos while making repartee,” said C21L president Jaslyn Jay. “If our students enter a 21st century cocktail party unprepared, they will spill their Bloody Marys all over their phones, messing up a retweet in the scramble.”
The 21st century cocktail course emphasizes three principles: swiftness, coordination and moderation.
“Swiftness is key,” said instructor-consultant Arty Snel. “You have to be ready with a comment on any subject. You can’t be figuring out what to say while texting your roommate at the same time. The words have to come bing-bang-boom off your tongue.”
Every student in his course receives a pack of flash cards, with a topic on one side and a ready-made comment on the other. Students practice these phrases in role plays. Speaker A brings up a topic; speaker B provides the response. We saw some of this in action in a classroom and have provided a partial transcript with permission of C21L.
Speaker A: I’m taking a course on Moby-Dick.
Speaker B: I’m so glad whales are protected today.
Speaker A: My family is Muslim, so we don’t eat pork.
Speaker B: I’ve always wanted to go to Mecca.
Speaker A: I teach multidimensional calculus.
Speaker B: Differentiation is easier than integration, don’t you think?
Speaker A: Economics is a misunderstood science.
Speaker B: Microloans are the up-and-coming model, I gather.
Speaker A: I’m enjoying Twitter more than I thought I would.
Speaker B: Just wait till you discover hashtags.
Speaker A: Fancy meeting you here!
Speaker B: I heard they’d be serving oysters.
Once students can offer up these responses without hesitation, they progress to the next level, where they give these responses while checking their messages. Next, they give their responses while sending out a text or tweet. By the end of the course, they give their responses, send out a text or tweet, shoot a video, search Google for a followup remark and sip their fancy nonalcoholic drinks, all the while smiling and posing for Facebook pictures.
“That’s where moderation comes in,” explained Snel. “No matter what you’re drinking, it’s the same principle. You sip, wait and sip again. What’s more, you’re so busy you don’t have time to get drunk, even if your drink does have alcohol. Now how amazing is that!”
C21L plans to bill the 21st century cocktail course as the solution to everything.
“In these cocktail exchanges,” reads a white paper, “you have creativity, problem-solving, globalization, media literacy, financial literacy, communication, ignorance, social media and even responsible drinking. Students who take this course will find themselves prepared for the 21st century workplace. The four-year college will soon be obsolete.”
Participating colleges, said Jay, would cut their undergraduate programs down to one year. “Faster graduation rates mean more federal funds and less waste,” she explained. In a few more years, she predicted, the cocktail course would be the sole course offered everywhere. “At that point,” she said with a wink, “we might serve oysters for real.”
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