Friday, March 5, 2010

A "Third Place" on campus: What would an academic town hall for freshmen look like?

I just returned from a meeting with a group of librarians on my campus (as an aside, whatever stereotypical illusions I held about librarians being socially awkward book worms were destoryed in the 90 minutes I spent with them).  Our conversation centered on (1) their desire to create a third place space within the library that students can come to when they aren't at home and aren't in class and (2) my department's desire to create a space where freshman students and their mentors can build relationships, work collaboratively, and engage in meaningful dialogue.  The concept of third place was pioneered by Ray Oldenburg and, in short, describes a public space where members of a community can come together to dialogue and form bonds.  

During the meeting my mind wandered a bit (who hasn't had that happen in an administrative meeting) and I began to think about a recent blog post by Gary Daynes in which he drew connections between universities and cities.  In his post Gary describes a number of ways in which cities and universities are similar including power systems, food distribution, and police forces.  One element of cities or towns that I see missing from my University (and I would imagine a large number of institutions across the country) is the town square or commons area where members of the community congregate to do what I see as the real work of a city (e.g. share opinions about the health or malaise of the community, make suggestions for improvement, and showcase local products and creations).  I've oftened wished I lived in small town USA where this sort of thing happened more regularly.

So, this left me wondering about what an "academic town square," particularly one targeted at first-year students, might look like.  My initial thoughts are that those desigining a space like this would need to keep a few things in mind:

1.  Comfort.  This needs to be a place where students would choose to go when they don't have anything better to do.  Part of this is attending to physical comfort--it needs to include comfortable places to sit and to work and should "homey"--but, social comfort would be critical as well.  Care needs to be taken in encouraging social equality wherein a diversity of people and ideas are welcome.  And, a place to buy inexpensive, high-quality food (think coffe shop/cafe) would help as well.

2.  Invitations to collaborate.  The physical layout and objects placed in the space need to signal to those who enter it that this is a place where dialogue and group work are not only allowed but expected.    That means no desks, very little fixed furniture, and lots of studio-like space where people and congregate and engage in "messy" learning.  

3.  Opportunities for students to make the space their own.  The initial design needs to leave room for students to "move-in" and make it their own.  I'm not exactly sure what this would look like, but the space should be living and dynamic such that students can make their mark and create a sense of identity or sense of place there (for an example of what I mean, see this blog post from last summer).  This might include showcasing of student work (e.g. art, film, music, writing) and not just course projects or assignments.  

4.  Central and visible.  By definition the town square is the hub of the community, both physically and conceptually.  An academic town square needs to be accessible to students and should be highly visible so that students know where it is and can see the work that goes on there even if they don't actively participate.  A "lab" tucked away in the basement of a building or the corner of the library will fall flat on its face. 

5.  Commonly accepted "house rules."  Some sort of expectations as to what constitutes appropriate use of the space would need to be developed.  I'm not suggesting a placard of rules at the entry to the space like what you find at the neighborhood pool.  To be effective the code would need to be developed by those that use the space, not a university committee (or even a committee of students for that matter).  I'm not sure what the process would be here, but it seems important (anyone with ideas or suggestions for how this could be organized in an organic, grassroots way?).

Part of me thinks I've outlined an expensive plan for replicating the student union building.  But, the other part of me thinks that there is a need for a new space that is different from the student union in critical ways:  academic dialogue and deep learning experiences, but in an environment that feels like a student lounge.  As I walk through the student center on my campus I see lots of activity and energy but it happens in microbursts--a short conversation in the Taco Bell line, a hurried lunch with friends, stopping in to the Career Center to pick up a brochure, etc.    What's missing are sustained dialogues about what students are learning in classes, informal conversations about the recent campus forum, or students arguing about healthcare and pulling up C-SPAN interviews online to illustrate their points.  

Am I crazy?  Could a space like the one I've described work on a college campus?  And, what would it look like if the target population was college freshmen?  


lionofzion said...

As I read the beginning of this post, my thoughts also turned to the student union, which is really in some ways just a pale facsimile of what you're talking about here. It has the publicness and to some degree the comfort but really very little of the interaction-- or at least very little interaction between people who don't already know each other.

And I don't know how to make that happen, or even how best to promote it, because real, sustained interaction is a very difficult thing to cause from the outside.

So my question is this: Could we take an existing student-union space, and someone shift the social expectations/rules of part of it so that people expect to come in alone, sit down at a table, be joined by strangers, and have a real conversation with them. I go to the student union alone probably once a week, because I need to get lunch and none of my friends are free... and I'd be willing to go to such a place and have conversations with people I don't know. But I won't strike up that kind of conversation unless the social expectation to do so already exists, because I don't want to intrude on someone who doesn't want to talk to a stranger.

Unknown said...

Could something like what you're describing--taking an existing space and somehow changing the social norms such that intellectual conversations are expected--happen organically, in a grass-roots sort of way?

I ask because that was one of the ideas that was discussed in the meeting I attended with the library. There is an "Honors Reading room" in the library that, from what the library can see, isn't really any different than any other part of the library (other than maybe more expensive furniture and shelves with honors theses).

What if students decided to "take over" that space and start to use it in the way you described? Would it work?

lionofzion said...

I don't think it would work with the Honors reading room, since the current dominant social norm is that it's a quiet study area. Since most people come for that purpose, an attempt to shift the norm to one of conversation with strangers would prove much more difficult than in a location where the norm is already to have conversations. There would almost certainly be some level of backlash from current patrons if an attempted shift were made.

I think, in general, students are unlikely to spontaneously change the norms of a space. A student "take over" would require the concerted effort of a large group of students, which probably implies some sort of organizational structure beyond individual initiative.I think the best chance is if a current space is renovated so as to somehow create cues that the space is meant for group conversations.

Can this end be achieved without some level of administration involvement? Is there any student group which could promote a real grass-roots change?