Building community in university halls

Interesting ideas for growing community in halls of residence.

An interesting essay in Inside Higher Ed calls for a more ambitious concept for residential life. The argument is that halls of residence provide the ideal location for developing students’ civic learning. The benefits include preparing them for life in an ever more challenging world:

The next generation is going to inherit a world filled with civic challenges. In addition to the usual challenges of community building, they will inherit communities struggling under the weight of large social and political institutions that are not up to the task of the modern era. They also will inherit communities grappling with complex global issues manifesting themselves as local problems, including a lack of jobs, water shortages, and racial/ethnic/religious divisions.

To meet their civic responsibilities, our students will need the capacity to thrive in diverse environments, embrace change as a daily reality, think outside boxes and across categories, and possess a mix of personal attributes, including humility, confidence, persistence, empathy, and communication and conflict negotiation skills. Residential halls are great places for some of this learning to occur.

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All fair enough and difficult to argue with. But there are some significant steps required in order to deliver this:

To transform our residence halls into sites for civic learning, we would need to de-layer our halls of rules and processes. We would move away from approaches where professionals act on people — and move toward civic approaches, where residential hall leaders understand the art of coaching students to engage in community building. We would take an experiential approach, giving students space and time to learn by doing. Sometimes our students would get it wrong. This would lead to some messiness and, often, to some conflict. We would see these as positive learning moments and not messy moments to be avoided.

All of this would require some give and take across the campus. In tight budget times, we would be asking a range of constituencies to support an intentional channeling of resources to residence halls as educational sites that complement and leverage learning elsewhere. We also would be asking our residential hall staff to embrace new ways of thinking, including giving up some of the rules and processes.

These are interesting ideas but perhaps not that radical. Indeed this really doesn’t seem very far away from Ernest Boyer’s Principles of Community as set out over 20 years ago. However all that messiness may be a bit too much to handle and the need to sustain a sound framework for both support and discipline just to ensure that life can go on normally may militate at times against this kind of experimentation.

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4 thoughts on “Building community in university halls

  1. One of the most valuable features of residential halls at univs, especially for parents of freshers, is the potential for some structure to be imposed, eg meal times, whilst allowing new students living away from home the freedom to establish many of their own behaviours and norms. It is how these behaviours are created and worked through with others that can often lead to the established patterns of behaviour in later life, for the benefit of society. Knowing that there is likely to be someone that our children, now learning about the relaiasities of independent living, can potentially touch base with residential tutors, wardens etc, is somehow comforting. The civic benefits aspects may be quite hard to define nd often are not going to be discussing things like global water shortages, important issues though they may be, but about developing the rounded individiual, able to communicate and work well in teams or independently. This surely is part of developing ‘graduateness’, as the graduate attributues so many of our universities espouse demonstrates.

  2. Since when were Unversity halls established for the benefit of students? Halls of residences should be the initial building blocks of the university community – the University of Nottngham had it right many years ago with JCR committees lead by returning students funded by every student in that hall. They created a sense of community, policed the community – that sense of ownership was eroded by bean counters and administrators. But easy to reverse.

  3. Since when were Unversity halls established for the benefit of parents ? Halls of residences should be the initial building blocks of the university community – the University of Nottngham had it right many years ago with JCR committees lead by returning students funded by every student in that hall. They created a sense of community, policed the community – that sense of ownership was eroded by bean counters and administrators. But easy to reverse.

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