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Exchanges Between Students in the Bryn Mawr College Community


Being at a small college where almost all the undergraduates live on campus, it is easy for students to buy and sell gently used or unopened products from each other. Most of these interactions are facilitated through the use of Facebook. One the groups within the online Bryn Mawr community is called “For free or sale!” where students can post pictures and descriptions of items to sell and others can respond by comments or private message. The system is first-come, first-serve and the buyer will message the seller for dorm location then go to check out the item and usually purchase it. The majority of the items on this site are sold for much cheaper than retail value. Other student consumer interactions are conducted through free boxes which are placed near the trash and recycle bins in the stairwell. Items are put in and taken out without direct contact with another person. Khadijah and I, Madi, will explore this topic but I will mostly focus on a subtopic of student consumerism, acquisition of textbooks.

At Bryn Mawr, there are several ways that students obtain textbooks. On Facebook, there is a page called “Textbook Exchange” where students sell textbooks and school materials from semesters past and others comment to request the items. However, the most reliable source on campus for textbooks is the bookstore in the Campus Center. Recently independent, this store sells students new or used copies of every textbook required for every class, and students can sell back books in good condition at the end of the semester and receive a portion of the value back. Many students choose to go online to compare prices with those presented in the bookstore. Sites like Amazon and Chegg sell and rent new and used books for sometimes a few dollars each.

Khadijah and I will work independently on our own topics but check in with each other. I also may help her with hers, since mine goes into detail about a certain type of exchange. Some of the questions we came up with are based around why this system of student exchange works.

We will both ask questions such as “Do we actually benefit from the interaction between buying and selling with others on campus?” and “When did these methods of exchange (such as the Facebook groups) start?” We would both explore more the psychological aspects of these interactions such as “Do people feel compelled to buy certain things because the price is right?” and “Further, do people necessarily need the items they buy or not?”

Khadijah will look at the role of the Honor Code in this context. The Honor Code is an important part of all interactions in the Bryn Mawr College community. For student exchanges, sometimes when people go to pick up items from others after claiming them on the Facebook page, the item(s) are left outside the seller’s room and the buyer is told to slip money under the door. Is this sort of exchange a result of a level of trust that people feel because of the honor code?

Another category of questions addresses the Bryn Mawr “market” versus consumer/donation interactions in the off-campus world. We will question what motivates students to sell/buy/exchange through the Bryn Mawr community rather than with the online world (through the internet like Ebay, Amazon, Chegg (for textbooks), etc).” Since many of the items sold on the Facebook page are clothes, Khadijah will explore how much students profit from these sales, as opposed to taking the items to Goodwill or Salvation Army, like they might do if they were living at home.

Khadijah will also investigate the items themselves to determine information about the success of sales within the Bryn Mawr community. She will look at the Facebook page and determine which goods are most commonly sold. To consider the effects of the quality of the items being purchased, Khadijah will look at the correlation between items that are sold, and how new or used the items are. She will also investigate items that are put up for sale, but not bought.

How we will pursue the question:

For the sub-topic about textbooks, I plan to talk to the people who manage the campus bookstore. I know that there is a new owner of the bookstore, now that it is independent but I want to talk to people who have worked there previously too. I will ask them if sales have increased for students buying books at the bookstore or they have stayed the same as previous years.

I also create a (probably online) survey for freshmen and maybe one of the upper classes, either the juniors or the seniors. Since most freshmen probably were overwhelmed with the idea of buying textbooks for the first time, I’m wondering which methods they thought were most useful to them. For upperclasspeople, they have had a lot of experience with buying textbooks and most know the best-bargain way to acquire them. Since some students choose not to buy or rent textbooks and instead use them or borrow them at the library, I will include a question that pertains to that in the survey.

To determine what items are bought and sold on the Facebook page, Khadijah will categorize the items listed on the page into categories such as clothes, accessories, and school supplies. Each category listed will contain two sub-categories to distinguish between new and used items. Once the items are separated, Khadijah will determine what type items appears most often on the Facebook page, and what percentage of items in section are actually sold.

To learn about student’s thoughts towards, and potentially motivations for using the Facebook page and the free box, Khadijah will create a few survey question based on the list of questions we came up with. The goal is to first off establish why students do or do not use the Facebook page and/or the free boxes, and if they do, find out what they are most likely to buy and sell. It would be useful to survey students from every grade and survey students who use and those who do not use the Facebook page or the free boxes.

We will keep record of the information we find in a shared Google doc that we set up. We will not only record about facts and opinions we hear but write reflections on those conversations. For my project, I will also research the “true costs” of the textbook industry, meaning how much it costs to make each textbook and does the value of the textbook (at retail price) reflect that work accurately?

We think that the student exchange of personal items, clothing, and textbooks is a key aspect of the Bryn Mawr community between students. We know that we do not want to pay full price for items that we know we could buy for less from other students, and believe that others have that same philosophy.



Anne Dalke's picture

Madison and Khadijah--
Wow; this is exciting, and also going in lots of (probably too many?) different directions @ this point. I don’t see a guiding question emerging yet—can you try to define that this week? You are tracing various marketing practices, but why? With what end in mind? What are your own curiosities and investments?

Let’s also try to break this down a bit in terms of specific tasks. Madi, you’ll start by interviewing Jim Huang, the new Director of the Bookshop? E-mail him and try to schedule an interview this week. Draw up a list of questions before you go on, perhaps focusing on the question of actual costs (he’ll tell you why we should all stay away from Amazon and support the bookshop!). You might also want to talk with Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Berenson and one of the faculty members (Don Torday, Director of Creative Writing and/or Lisa Saltzman in History of Art) who initiated the move to “take back our bookshop,” and served on the committee that hired Jim; in doing so they really, and rather remarkably, reversed the usual trend in this area:

I’m also a little unsure about the survey you describe; I can’t imagine you’ll get much response to a general one. Might it make more sense to do smaller, targeted groups (for example, all the women in our two sections of the ESem, then maybe compare that data with, say, that you could gather from the women who took the same ESem with Jody and me last year? Or seniors I taught four years ago in /exchange/courses/esem/f12 ?

One bit that interests me in Khadijah’s part of things is the “For free or sale!” Facebook page, which of course breaks down the binary you later discuss (and which Jim is likely to highlight for you) between “the Bryn Mawr community” and “the online world”--since here the online world facilitates BMC connections, actually more directly than the free boxes do, where (as you also acknowledge) “items are put in and taken out without direct contact with another person.” I’m not sure how you can measure the difference, though, and I think this is a challenge you’ll need to solve: how to ask questions that you can actually answer?

At this point, your questions seem pretty vague, and probably (as they are now formulated) pretty unanswerable; how can you answer one like “do we actually benefit from the interaction….?” without defining “benefit” or “full cost” or “hidden costs”? (the “hidden cost” of so many folks buying from Amazon, for example, included the near loss of the BMC bookshop…) I have similar questions about the answer-ability of your psychological questions: “Do people feel compelled to buy certain things because the price is right,” and “necessarily need the items they buy?”

In Khadijah’s section, I find myself most interested in the question of the relationship between the Honor Code and various marketing activities…might there be a way to expand on that? Does the Honor Code speak specifically to market exchanges? How might the sort of exchanges we engage in affect the sort of community we have here?

And Khadijah, what are your first steps for this week? Creating a data table re: what is offered for sale and what is actually sold via the Facebook page? Why is WHAT is sold significant…?

You’ll also be interested to see that Angela’s planning a very similar project:

maybe you all could work together in some way?