You may have missed them entirely or even walked right through one. FOX5 TV came out to the Fairfax Campus and filmed one for the 5 o’clock news. You could say they came and went “in a flash” this semester. But what are “they”?
They are flash lectures. Following in the pop culture trend of flash mobs in which people gather in public places to dance, have pillow fights, or organize protests, a number of Mason professors offered flash lectures in spots across the Fairfax Campus this spring with topics ranging from domestic violence to climate change to happiness. There was even a flash yoga session.
Sociology professor Angie Hattery was one of the first faculty members to give flash lecturing a try. Her topic was the effect of domestic violence on the family, and she began her lecture by standing in front of Fenwick Library and shouting, “Let’s talk about domestic violence.”
Needless to say, students who were walking by were taken by surprise and had no idea of what was going on. Others did know, thanks to the social media tool Twitter.
Planning for these lectures began in the fall after Provost Peter Stearns  suggested the series. Stearns had heard of similar programs at the University of Virginia and Duke University and wanted it to become a student-led initiative at Mason. That’s where the Student Government  and Mason senior Leslie Cook came in.
Members of the Student Government asked their peers for speaker recommendations. Students recommended professors based on topics they had previously spoken on, interesting classes they taught, or how charismatic and engaging they were. Then a number of professors from various disciplines were asked to give 15- to 20-minute lectures on different topics at random locations on campus.
When the provost first suggested the series, Cook was quickly on board to get them going. For her senior thesis, Cook, a government and international politics major, examined how Twitter was used to disseminate information about the Occupy Wall Street Oakland, California, and Washington, D.C., movements. Her research gave her great insight into how information is disseminated via social media and how influential certain individuals are to different movements, events, and news stories.
Using Twitter , she decided to incorporate hashtags and retweets into the promotion of the lecture series. Lectures were only announced on the Student Government website and via Twitter (@MasonStudentGov), hinting about location and speakers 20 to 30 minutes before the lectures began. Those in attendance were encouraged to tweet during the event and use the hashtag #gmuinaflash.
“I thought it sounded like a great way to link students and faculty outside the classroom, which has been a consistent student interest,” says Stearns, who gave the last flash lecture of the semester on research findings from his new book Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society. “It is also a good way to encourage timely discussion of key issues in the university community.”
Professors were scheduled throughout the semester, and students tried to make sure the topics reflected a theme or special week at Mason. Cook also explains that it was a great way for professors to lecture on their outside research. For example, anthropology professor Cortney Hughes  spoke during Women’s History Month about her fieldwork on reproductive health care among working-class women in Rabat, Morocco. Dann Sklarew , associate director of Mason’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center , spoke about climate change during Earth Week.
But despite the fact that Cook had mobilized a group of students to retweet and repost information about the flash lectures online, she initially found it hard to secure a crowd for the talks. As the semester moved forward, the word began to get out about the series, and more and more students stopped and listened. Cook says she even saw students approaching lecturers and asking questions afterward.
The lecturers also used a number of devices to grab the attention of passersby. Sklarew donned a scholarly cap and stood on a footstool. Stearns used a microphone and a small amplifier. The overall response to the series was positive, and there are plans for continuing it in the fall.
“The flash lectures contribute to campus as a place of intellectualism, intellectual challenge, and growth,” says Hattery, “which can take place anywhere, not just in the classroom.”