Residential curricula are focused on student learning. Ultimately, curricular approaches primarily concern themselves with what we hope students will know and be able to do once their time with us comes to an end. Community building falls outside the learning-focus of the curriculum but it is critically important for its effectiveness. A switch to a curricular approach does not mean that a department abandons its community building responsibilities, rather, community building is a critical component of a department’s pedagogy.
Community building is important, but it should not eclipse the other important objectives you have for your work with students. A department that is focused solely on community building may be missing opportunities for promoting student learning. A department that focuses on student learning, but ignores community development, will be hampered in the effectiveness of reaching its learning objectives. Community development and student learning are not in competition with one another. Instead, our mission is to find the right work balance between the two so our staff members can be the most effective they can be and our students can have their needs met.
Utilizing a classroom analogy, a teacher may prepare lesson plans, identify readings, and design assignments and activities in order to help students learn important objectives that have been identified for the course. However, even with the most well designed lesson plans, a teacher must also be concerned with the environment that they create in the classroom to ensure this learning happens effectively–doing introductions/icebreakers at the beginning of a course, making sure students have the opportunity to interact and share their perspectives, making sure difference is celebrated and that folks of different identities feel comfortable, etc. In residence life, this is the work of community building.
Community building doesn’t need to be overly elaborate to be effective. It can be as simple as floor dinners, making introductions of students with shared interests, celebrating birthdays, watching a movie together, or doing a joint art or craft project. When I was facilitating a residential curriculum, one of the expectations I had for my student staff members was that they make at least one extra effort at community building per week. I also trusted and recognized RA’s expertise as peer leaders on the floor to give RAs the autonomy to decide what community building activities best suited their residents. These efforts could be simple. They should be simple. If a RA was spending in inordinate amount of time designing a community building activity to the detriment of their curricular work and making connections with students, I corrected it. The community building activities didn’t need to have learning outcomes. They could just be fun. For assessment, I only required them to report what occurred and who was involved.
How do you attend to community building in your curriculum? I’d love to hear about it.