Friday, March 26, 2010

How is community really built?

In a number of recent conversations with colleagues on my campus we have been discussing the implications of structural changes to the Freshman Mentoring program at BYU and, specifically, what it means for our work of building academic communities among our incoming students.  For the last six years or so, students participating in the program not only had access to an upperclassmen peer mentor, but were also enrolled in a cluster of linked courses.  This learning community model--shared academic interests, common enrollments, close proximity in housing, and a peer mentor who served as a connector of sorts-- meant that over the course of the semester students were more likely to become part of an academic community.  Essentially, they spent enough time together and had enough common experiences that a community began to emerge quite organically (although the peer mentors and faculty members did plenty of intentional things to try to nudge that development).

For the coming year, the mentoring program looks much different.  For instance, students will enroll in only a two course cluster where at least one of the courses is likely to be quite large (200+ students and in some cases as many as 800).  Additionally, these are general education courses, rather than major specific courses or thematically linked courses.  Finally, there is only a loose housing connection within clusters such that there is only a slight chance that any of a particular student's classmates in one of these linked courses will even live in the same residence hall (although they will be in the same complex of halls).  

This has left me and others wondering what role community building should play in our work.  Is it realistic to expect community to form around these linked courses, and if so, what can program administrators and individual peer mentors do to help it to happen?  

In Better Together, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein lay out a set of principles of community-building gleaned from 11 case studies (one of the best books I've read in the last 10 years).  One of the themes that emerges from the cases is that most successful communities get that way through face-to-face interactions, small groups (although they may be nested within a larger organization), and shared interests.  That worries me a bit because of what I've just described about our new Freshman Mentoring program at BYU.  Peer mentors will have fewer opportunities for the sorts of informal face-time they had in the past, they'll be expected to mentor upwards of 60 students, and the students in their "community" are not likely to share academic interests like they may have in the past.  

So, are we better off treating this as a program based in isolated relationships between mentors and students.  Or, are there ways to build community within these constraints?  

One idea that I need to explore a bit more is the relationship between individual relationships and community.  Is community just a collection of one-on-one relationships or is it more than that?  



lionofzion said...

This makes me really, really sad.

I was part of the Freshman Academy program last semester, and most of my close friends on campus this semester are from my Freshman Academy-- there's a group of five of us who get together every week for lunch.

I'm also still pretty close with two of the three professors we had. I've gone back to visit them several times across the semester.

I think the great thing about Freshman academy is that, like Gary wrote last week, it offers many opportunities for connection. Invariably, many will fail. But the ones that don't will probably help students for a lifetime.

With fewer, larger classes involved, students are simply less likely to have good connections with faculty, fellow students, or their mentors, simply because fewer chances for real connection exist. In big groups, students having problems will fall through the cracks more easily. Mentors with 60 students to worry about will connect less effectively with all. Only students who were really independently committed to building good relationships will do so (and those students probably didn't need the help of a mentoring program anyway.)

Who made this decision, and did they ever sit down and talk with students to see how mentoring had worked for them?

lionofzion said...

I just realized that the new Freshman Mentoring program is the one that you talked about in the post about how much the university should require of students, and I just can't help but thinking that by discontinuing FA while requiring everyone to enter mentoring, BYU is moving resources from students who need and choose them to students who don't need or want them. I don't see how this will improve freshman experience.

I guess the underlying idea is that students who need mentoring most, for some reason, won't choose voluntary programs like FA. I don't know whether this is true. But even if it is, I know from my high school experience that students who don't choose their mentors easily avoid them. When mentors have 60 students to look after, it's the students who don't reach out who will get mentored less.

That's already to some extent what happened in my FA-- our mentor got to know best the students who were involved in the Community Council and who attended outside events on a regular basis. But in the smaller FA setting we as students were able to look out for each other. That will be a lot harder in classes of 200 than it was in our class of 30.

gary said...

I am sad about the end of FA as well. But in response to the question "how is community really built?" I guess my first answer is "what sort of community do you want?" FA was built on a set of beliefs about the behavior of freshmen, the desirability of curricular integration, the willingness of faculty at BYU to engage directly with students, and the expectations of the gospel for human relations.

For me the question is this--"What are the beliefs that undergird the mentoring program?" One that appears immediately is that community at BYU has much less to do with academic relationships (across the curriculum and between faculty and students) than it does with student-to-student relations. I wonder if that is true, and if so, whether it is good.

At any rate, it might be opening more space for student self-direction, esp. if the institution is willing to support students who want to start new things and revise old things without oversight from faculty. Or it might be returning to the old BYU model that suggests that the only relationships that really matter are those that are formed in church settings. Or in other words, who needs a professor when you have a bishop?

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