Residential halls may be the greatest experiment in American democracy. In the same way that many people argue the military draft once performed a unique function in mixing people together, residential halls may be one of the few places that truly do this in American society. At the very least, they are certainly one of our under-leveraged assets for civic learning.
Each year, students arrive on our campuses and move into residential halls. Typically, we pack lots of students into small spaces. For our first-year students, it will be the first time that many of them have shared a room with another person. It's also the first time that many of our students have bumped up against so much diversity. Over the last 30 years our residential halls have become increasingly diverse, mixing students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, mental and physical challenges, alcohol or drug issues, and a range of other characteristics or issues.
For the most part, too many of us treat residential halls as a functional place for housing students.
This is a lost opportunity. 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.
Take two examples:
A typical roommate conflict takes the following form. Students get annoyed. Rather than tell their roommates, they often text their friends and/or use cell phones to call their parents. Eventually they talk to a resident adviser (RA) or a member of our staff. By the time they confront their roommate, they are angry and often voice the annoyance in a way that few people could hear. Everyone gets angry. Friends take sides, and the hall becomes divided. Paid professionals then step in to solve the problem. Sometimes we move one of the students. Other times we create rules that allow for people to share space by minimizing social interaction. Rather than viewing roommate conflicts as problems to be solved, we should see them as moments to teach students the habits and skills of civil discourse. Roommate conflicts are opportunities for students to learn to voice problems, to hear different views, and to reconcile competing views into an action or policy. Part of living in a free society is learning to live and work with people you may not like. The roommate who is "driving us crazy" will someday be our neighbor, family member, coworker, or ally in a local issue.
A second example is the typical problem of late-night noise on a residence hall floor. Under the current model, students learn poor civic responses that mirror large society. First, the individual approaches the group that is making a lot of noise. When that does not work, students call the local authorities, often campus security or RAs. If this does not work, they lump it by either finding another place to study or learning to live with it.
Another approach would be for our students to be coached to organize their neighbors to solve the problem. Most often, late-night noise results from a few students going too far on a regular basis. Everybody on the hall knows the source of the problem. The majority of students don't want the constant nighttime ruckus and its associated problems. We should help students learn to mobilize their peers to develop and carry out creative solutions. In the process, students will learn to work in groups, develop the arts of creative problem solving and project implementation, and acquire the skills of persistence, communication and conflict negotiation. They also will learn to hold their peers accountable when they are acting against the interest of the community, a skill that is sorely lacking in American society.
Disruption within residential halls is important. Often those making the noise operate from a place of privilege that is associated with class, constructions of gender and its expression, and truisms about college life. As they get louder, the rest get smaller, quieter, and more isolated. By training and encouraging civic action, we help a generation learn to become stronger and louder, not quieter, in the face of clashing culture norms. This is tough stuff, but it uniquely prepares students to be effective in democratic settings.
What do we need to do? We can start by trusting and investing in our residential staff. Much of what I wrote above is known to our students and staff working in residential halls. We have a fantastic generation of people choosing to work in our halls, both as students and professionals.They know a lot about campus culture. We need to recognize them and elevate the work they do in three ways.
First, we need to focus on a different kind of training. Most staff members have received training in student development, which they pass along to our student RAs. But very few have been trained as community organizers. This may seem like a small shift, but it requires training students and staff to use techniques and processes of community organizing. People trained this way know how to canvass a neighborhood and conduct one-on-one conversations with people who hold different views. And they are well equipped to facilitate contentious meetings, set agendas, and keep people organized and aligned over time. They understand the art of framing an issue and are adept at seeking allies in unexpected places.
Second, we should adopt and use the language of civic action. We often use the concept of community when talking about residential halls, but then we juxtapose the language of rules and processes. Effectively, our nomenclature in halls mixes frameworks of civic engagement with language of social control and bureaucratic management. There is a rich language used by people engaged in community work that is powerful, historic, and largely absent on our campuses. We might more forcefully use terms like community council, civic agency, and public work.
Language is connected to action. A community that is alive with civic action is a messy place that is filled with competing views, publicly contested issues, and engaged citizens. Civic action takes time. It also requires space to problem-solve. 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.
I spent the last eight years working for an organization on the front lines of global issues. We worked with young people from more than 140 countries who want to build healthy communities that can address the critical global issues that will shape the future. Our students were fighting for human rights in Yemen, working on public health issues across Africa, and addressing issues of poverty and race in the United States. As I watched them struggle, I was struck by how many of them had wonderful hearts but lacked the skills of civic action and community building. I also was struck by how many of them had spent time on our campuses.
I will admit that I am writing this a few days after my wife and I hosted a dinner for 70 students who serve as resident advisers and head residents, along with our amazing residential life staff. Talking to them, I was moved by their passions and talents. And I was intrigued by the thought of what they could do if trained and empowered as civic actors.
Adam Weinberg is the president of Denison University. Prior to this he was the president and CEO of World Learning. From 1995-2005, he was on the faculty at Colgate University, including serving as vice president and dean of the college.