Perhaps I’m naive but I fully believe that the best student university experience is one that is integrated: academics, sports, health, housing, student growth – all aspects of student life. That requires breaking down or minimizing barriers between those functional areas on campus. How many faculty cross the physical threshold into student housing? How many faculty hang out with staff or students outside of formal meetings? Do faculty job requirements and incentives promote such cross-over or discourage us from doing it?
I’ve got a very bright 14 year old daughter (and an equally smart 11 year old son – there I was the “equal Dad”!) who will likely (hopefully) attend a university before too long. What type of experience do I want her to have? Do I honestly believe that she would get an amazing experience at my institution? The best possible experience? And if I don’t believe that why do I think that a sub-par experience is acceptable for other parents’ kids?
Its easy to look at this situation and say that change is out of our hands; an institution is an unmovable force best left alone. Realistically what can one faculty member do to promote change on their campus or even more broadly, on campuses across Canada? Not much sadly, but I am confident that one faculty member promoting change is likely to accomplish more than no faculty members promoting change. As Parker Palmer reminded me in The Heart of Higher Education, across North America campuses are full of individuals that want a better student experience. If they each think they are the only one on their campus they will keep their heads down and never connect with other like-minded people. If we each raise our hand and say “I’m interested in promoting change and improving the state of education” perhaps small communities can form where the wheels will start turning. At the least we will be able to take comfort or cover as we run into walls and resistance.
Let me bring this back to the topic at hand which was building community and improving the student experience rather than faculty revolt or faculty revolution. If we want to bridge the divide between faculty and students and faculty and staff and begin to build true “community” there are small, relatively easy steps we can take. First, we need to lead by example; that is, faculty themselves must become a community rather than merely a set of people. A community involves support, encouragement, valuable and constructive feedback, laughter, and ultimately sharing in each others peaks and valleys. Let’s stop shaking hands and give each other a hug once in a while. Start dropping in for random chats with faculty down your hall or even way across the campus. Make connections that are outside your comfort zone. If we want students to grow and be comfortable with the unknown we should probably model courage and tackle the unknown as well, even if that unknown is a really odd faculty member with leather patches on the elbow of their tweed jacket.
I admit that building community is much bigger than simply being friendly towards our colleagues but before we run we need to crawl.