Thursday, September 06, 2007

What is a College?

Last year, I asked the question, "What is Education?" My students and I spent the entire semester discussing this question. I think we had more questions by the end than answers. And the same may happen with the current question.

This last week, I have attended convocation and a farewell reception for a departing staff member where people made speeches that all essentially tried to ask and answer the question of what we were all doing here? What is this place we find ourselves in and how do we work together toward some kind of future? The word community was thrown around. People talked about the ability to connect beyond our physical locale via the Internet. The statements have not been empty, but have not completely answered the questions. So I've been thinking about what it means to be a part of a college. I'm not sure I have a solid answer, but I have some ideas.

As a student at my small liberal arts college, I was largely oblivious to the work of the staff. I noticed most painfully the largely African-American dining staff, but I couldn't have told you who worked in the Alumni Office or the Development Office. I barely noticed the work of the faculty except as the people who lead class and graded my work. I did not attend very many events where faculty and students mingled together. I didn't pay much attention to them outside of class or the relatively few office hours I attended, didn't think of them as colleagues ever. I didn't think of the campus as much of a cohesive unit. There was us, the students, and there was everyone else. I suspect I was typical of most of my peers. We were focused on making the best of our four years on campus and not much else. If faculty and staff contributed to that, we didn't really make note of it.

When I went off to graduate school at a very, very big school, I felt even less cohesion. The university was divided by school and department. Our department was huge, so it was further divided by area of specialty. Half the time when I was in the student lounge, I didn't know a soul. My next graduate school, about half the size of the first and more than 10 times the size the my undergrad, felt more cohesive. In part, I felt this way because I took on a new role. I didn't really consider myself "just a student" and I had a new role as a faculty spouse. I knew about my husband's department and its relationship to the school as a whole. He served on campus-wide committees that gave me insight into the larger workings of the school. I also became involved in the graduate student association for my department, eventually becoming its president. The faculty in my department were often involved in things outside of the department and I remember many conversations about broader campus issues. It just seemed that people talked about the university and its mission a great deal.

Partly, I think this shift in attitude from undergrad to my last graduate school is due to my own maturity and my own willingness to become involved in the broader concerns of the department and/or school. But I also think there were differences in the schools themselves. In theory, my undergrad should have given me the most sense of community, but it was a divided community in many ways. We had fraternities and sororities that divided us. We were also divided by living situations and majors. Likewise, the huge university I went to was divided by similar things. My last institution, I think, was particularly concerned about defining itself, so I think there were lots of conversations, both formal and informal about the mission of the institution. I have no idea what the undergraduate student's perspective was, so maybe I'm wrong about that.

My current institution is similar in size to my undergrad. It should feel like a tight-knit community, but it doesn't always. It has its own divisions, different from what I experienced as a student. More than any place I've ever been, there seem to be strong divisions between the faculty, staff and students. In part that may be the usual animosity that most campuses tend to feel toward IT departments, so my perspective may be skewed for that reason, but the divisions are definitely there. Those divisions get momentarily erased at times, at events such as the two I attended this week. And when they do, that's when what it means to be college starts coming to light.

According to the Wikipedia, college originally meant "a group of persons living together under a common set of rules" and of course, that idea in current use usually pertains to the faculty. Without the faculty, there is no college. But without the students, there is no college either, and without the staff, maybe there still can be something like a college, but it wouldn't function very well. I think central to the idea of a college is learning. And I think that it's important to think of that learning as not just happening to the students and not just happening in the classroom. At a college, one can take advantage of resources and people that facilitate learning. For example, there are lectures, films, and performances to attend. There are smart people to talk to. Hopefully, there are diverse people to talk to. Students may learn from living with people different from themselves, from working in dining halls and from going on trips to nearby cities. In an ideal college, I think, learning is encouraged across all groups and at all times. When we start to think of learning as happening only in the classroom or in connection to classwork or in relation to artifacts that are considered "academic," we limit what we are as a college. We become simply a place where one can get a degree or where one has a job.

And that brings me back to my own experiences. As an undergrad, I didn't fully appreciate what an opportunity I had. College for me then was the process of getting a degree. It has only been in the last 10 or 15 years that I've realized that a lot of my education took place outside the classroom but often in connection to the more abstract lessons I was learning in the classroom. At the large grad school, I had a similar attitude and I think the place itself encouraged that attitude. We all felt "processed" not educated. And that, I think was the main difference between the two grad schools. The second grad school took education as meaning something more than granting degrees.

I'm still thinking about how an institution can cultivate an environment that focuses on the idea that learning permeates everything it does. Obviously, there are ways that individuals can contribute to that environment through their personal actions and through the opportunities they open up for others or for themselves. Certainly, it seems, that a focus on the bottom line or pure reputation building or other shallow pursuits will not create this environment, but how does an institution cohere its diverse groups around the idea of learning more broadly considered? I'll leave that for my readers to help me sort out.