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?