After agreeing to write an article for this Special Feature on Academics in Residence Halls, I spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on why more collaboration does not exist between residence life professionals and faculty. I also spoke with several of my academic and residence life colleagues. Sadly, I have come to the potentially unpopular yet very probable conclusion that most of the responsibility lies with those who work in residence life/housing.
In other words, those in the residence life profession bear the primary responsibility for fostering greater faculty involvement in the residence halls. True, it may indeed be a "two-way street," but residence life professionals have farther to go than do faculty in order to reach their destination on this particular route.
In 1994, the American College Personnel Association released the Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs. This position statement asserts that although personal development is important, the learning process is really at the heart of the student affairs profession. Historically, our profession has had a tendency to take a relatively simple idea and complicate it almost beyond recognition. In a very real sense, the Student Learning Imperative is merely a restatement, and perhaps a reiteration, of what many of us never lost sight of in the first place.
The truth is that for the last two decades, American higher education has been careening down the wrong path at a quickly accelerating pace. Until fairly recently, however, the leadership within the student affairs/residence life profession have appeared to be totally unaware of the imminent threat to higher education enunciated by Allan Bloom, John Silber, Charles Sykes, Derek Bok, and a growing list of others who are calling for increased accountability. And even when we do acknowledge that problems exist (usually when the flames are up about waist high), how do we typically respond?
We put together a "blue ribbon" task force to study the situation. Or we throw together a conference to promote "dialogue" on the relevant concerns. Or we turn the entire matter into an exercise in academic self-gratification by having the same people write essentially the same stuff that no one outside their tiny circle of influence ever reads or takes seriously. Our collective understanding of what is really happening in higher education today is clouded and therefore our response invariably lacks coherence and seems to change arbitrarily.
As residence life has become more accepted as a viable career option, many of those within the profession have developed an "inferiority" complex. They walk around and bemoan the fact that the faculty does not treat them as equal partners in the educational enterprise. If there ever is to be true collaboration between residence life professionals and college faculty, it will come only when and if residence life professionals accept the notion that although they play a prominent role in the academy, the irrefutable truth of the matter is that they essentially perform a support function.
The preamble of the Student Learning Imperative states, among other things, that "...the key to enhancing learning and personal development is not simply for faculty to teach more and better, but also to create conditions that motivate and inspire students to devote time and energy to educationally-purposeful activities, both in and outside the classroom."
This notion is central to how residence life departments should conceptualize their contribution to the overall educational mission of the institution. We facilitate student learning primarily by setting the stage for learning to occur and by modeling desirable outcomes. For example, our programming and judicial efforts should be oriented so that they precipitate and maintain an environment that provides students with the maximum opportunity to learn and develop.
The residence hall is one of the most dynamic entities on any college campus. Few would argue that the classroom, the laboratory, and the library are not integral to the learning process. In many instances, however, knowledge is simply introduced at these locations. It is back in the residence hall that this knowledge is discussed, analyzed, dissected, questioned, and yes, often discarded. It is through provision of the appropriate support structure that knowledge is transformed into a valuable commodity that has meaning for the individual student.
As a general thesis for this article, I have chosen to focus on the first "characteristic" of the "learning-oriented student affairs division" as found in the Student Learning Imperative:
"The student affairs division mission complements the institution's mission, with the enhancement of student learning and personal development being the primary goal of student affairs programs and services."
If residence life professionals are genuinely interested in "building bridges with the faculty," then we must recognize, accept, and act with the understanding that it is up to us to provide the impetus and the momentum for such collaboration. We must be the primary instigators. We have to decide upon an acceptable design, do the engineering, hire the contractors, purchase the materials, and oversee the construction. Our role is to essentially provide the bridge and then the motivation for faculty to cross it.
If we truly want faculty involvement in our residence halls, then we cannot sit and wait for the faculty to come to us. We must be proactive and take the initiative. It will not happen any other way.
In order to foster meaningful collaboration with faculty and thus present a more unified front to our students, there are a number of things that residence life professionals can do to extricate the process. We must always bear in mind, however, that there is no absolute guarantee that true collaboration will ever be a reality on a particular campus, nor is there any proven "6- step" process for promoting greater harmony between residence life professionals and faculty. It will, however, take effort, and most importantly, effort exclusively by us.
First, residence life professionals should articulate a genuine respect for the educational mission of the institution at every available opportunity; it must be one of our defining qualities. In far too many instances, when faculty do have an occasion to hear us talking about our role within the institution, we are usually complaining about our budgets, lack of staff, or those "prima donnas" who only work a relatively few hours a week and head to the golf course at every available opportunity.
Instead of putting them down, or blaming them for our lack of resources, faculty need to hear us affirming their key role within the institution. If we are really interested in fostering greater faculty involvement in our residence halls, then we have to let it be known in a straightforward and non-condescending manner that we respect their efforts. We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, doing them a favor by inviting them onto our "turf."
Similarly, we need to curb our territorialistic tendencies. The friction that exists between faculty and residence life professionals is often self-generated. Departmental identity should be secondary to institutional identity. In my experience, most faculty members are less concerned with the organizational chart than we seem to be. An obsession with who does what and who reports to who tends to distract from the sense of unity that is necessary for student learning to achieve its maximum potential. In short, faculty tend to be turned off by our attitude much more than we are by theirs. Unfortunately, we also seem to contribute more substantively to their attitude than they do to ours.
As residence life professionals develop and implement programs designed to assist students, they must be extremely careful not to venture into areas where faculty have greater expertise and clear superiority. Holding up the latest copy of the Journal of College Student Development and preaching about how we know how to do conduct competent research, too, only serves to make us look foolish in the eyes of most faculty. Seldom, if ever, do I see my faculty colleagues walking around in such a defensive posture.
In contrast, I have noticed that many of my student affairs/residence life colleagues have become quite good at the fine art of self-promotion. Yes, we have people in the profession who are making marvelous strides in the areas of research and publication. If we were a tad more humble in our pursuits and aspirations, however, we might find that our stock with faculty would increase exponentially.
As I have said on numerous occasions, we have to abandon our addictive preoccupation with allegiance to the "department," the "profession," or the prevailing "orthodoxy" and focus our attention exclusively on the educational purpose for our existence. Individual departments, be they residence life, career services, or financial assistance, must place greater significance on the needs of the entire institution as opposed to their own narrow special interests.
In general, we need to stop complaining. Negative dialogue, when it becomes our modus operandi, tends to precipitate inaction and does not serve to further the educational mission of the institution. Over the years, I have watched many of my student affairs/residence life colleagues become increasingly cynical about just about everything. Faculty members within my own department have also picked up on this and have asked me on several occasions, "Why do so many of the student affairs folks walk around with this attitude of gloom and doom?"
Faculty do not want to be involved with other professionals who are perpetually talking about how bad things are. By constantly accentuating the inauspicious, we are distracted from focusing our energies in a more constructive direction. Faculty want to be involved with people who are optimistic about what they are doing to enhance the future.
Just a quick note for clarification before some misguided soul accuses me of violating my own directive. This admonition should not be confused with the ongoing need for more constructive criticism--something our profession severely lacks. It seems that we are always eager to pat ourselves on the back for the most trivial of accomplishments while we exhibit an irrational fear of legitimate faultfinding. Again, a good dose of humility would go a long way toward making faculty want to work with us in areas where their contributions would make a difference in the learning process.
To reiterate, we must somehow get beyond our self-indulgent fascination with abstract ideological constructs such as "student development" and come to terms with the fact that we serve, first and foremost, a support function within the institution. This realization does not signify, as some would suggest, that we are inherently "subordinate" to faculty in any profound sense. Nor does it necessarily mean that we are somewhere "down there" in the pecking order. But we do need to stop worrying so much about our status as a profession. Faculty are not impressed when we whine and complain about how we do not get the respect we deserve.
In the same spirit, we need to learn how to accept true responsibility for our actions. We must learn to deal with issues instead of people; with concerns instead of personalities. Faculty tend to support good ideas regardless of their source, whereas we tend to evaluate an idea primarily based on where it originated and/or where it was published. Many of us could use a course in how to keep our egos in check since I know of only a very few within our profession who have the right to an ego of even modest proportions.
In the classroom, for example, I tend to use material from sources such as the Talking Stick simply because the information I find there is typically much more useful than what I routinely find in our refereed journals. Many of my student affairs/residence life colleagues seem to judge the value of a particular article more in terms of where it was published than in terms of what it actually says. Faculty want to collaborate with professionals who have a firm grasp on reality, not with those who are incessantly rationalizing their legitimacy through the publication of a body of literature that is largely extraneous.
Moreover, we need to stop trying so hard to be student development "experts" and student learning "authorities" and spend more time listening and trying to truly understand the institution from the faculty perspective. Constantly thinking of, and referring to, ourselves as "specialists" in the areas of student development/learning only builds resentment among the faculty. Most faculty members, contrary to the conventional wisdom held by many within our profession, have a very solid and authentic understanding of the learning process and how it can best be facilitated.
In fact, we could probably learn a lot more about student development from faculty than they could from us. Today's classroom encompasses a lot more than just a row of desks and a blackboard. Faculty are interacting with their students outside the formal classroom more than ever before and they are much more in touch with the educational process in a broad sense than was the case only a few years ago. We need to recognize and accept this reality and adjust our thinking accordingly.
Finally, residence life professionals need to forever be cognizant of the fact that one of our most elemental functions is that of administration. When everything is said and done, we are still evaluated primarily in terms of efficiency and the ability to design and implement systems that are responsive to student needs. If we want to garner respect among the faculty, then we must be, first and foremost, good administrators. Faculty have tremendous respect for those individuals and departments who seem to be doing a good job of accomplishing their goals and objectives within the context of the greater institutional mission.
By the same token, faculty do not have a lot of faith in professionals who are always babbling on and on about some abstract concept that potentially has merit but is not really at the core of what we are supposed to be doing. When I ask someone what time it is, I do not really care to learn how a clock is manufactured. Faculty want to collaborate with individuals who know their place within the organization and are comfortable with who they are and competent about what they do.
As stated in the conclusion of the Student Learning Imperative, we must "...seize the present moment by affirming student learning and personal development as the primary goals of undergraduate education." It has long been my contention that many of the leaders in our profession are far too preoccupied with protecting their particular piece of the ideological pie and, consequently, making sure that their reputations remain solidly intact. Faculty recognize this for exactly what it is and understandably have a reluctance to associate themselves with these types of individuals. It is incumbent upon those within the ranks to do whatever it takes to regain control of our profession and act in ways that increase respect among faculty.
The Student Learning Imperative provides a good framework from which to proceed. Faculty and residence life professionals need to find ways to work together for the common good of the student and for mere survival. We must reverse the detrimental trend toward increased specialization and departmentalism and begin to look at the institution as a whole instead of seeing it as the sum of its parts.
Everyone within higher education must see learning as being central to our existence. When we achieve this unity, and when we are all comfortable with our particular place within the overall scheme, then maybe, just maybe, residence life professionals and faculty members will be able to collaborate in a genuine and mutually-beneficial manner.
I remain, as always, optimistic.