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Infusing the college mission into the residential experience

Each year, President Kington appoints one or two task forces to consider large issues of campus import. This year, one of the task forces has been considering residential learning. That task force was charged with a variety of areas to evaluate, one of which was to Suggest avenues to infuse the college mission into the residential experience.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings every time I read a set of recommendations from a task force or other similar body. On one hand, I tend to be critical of most recommendations. On the other, I very much respect my colleagues, and should trust their recommendations. Why am I critical? In part, it’s that I think way too much about issues on campus. But history has shown that I also am unaware of many issues that might contribute to recommendations.

With that said, let’s turn to part one of the recent recommendations from the Task Force on Residential Learning. The task force includes many thoughtful people who I’ve learned from when we work together. The task force made nine recommendations. 1.1 Create a community curriculum course. 1.2 Find ways to expose faculty to campus life issues. 1.3 Explore other avenues for NSO follow-up. 1.4 Pilot interdisciplinary living learning communities or theme floors. 1.5 Make physical changes to residence hall lounges and kitchens. 1.6 Consider more strategic investments into the physical space in the residence halls. 1.7 House students in the same tutorial class within the same residential cluster. 1.8 Create systemic opportunities for collaboration amongst the tutorial faculty, CLS advisers, and RLCs. 1.9 Train and develop peer educators.

I agree with most of those recommendations. Well, I don’t really agree with crediting the community curriculum course. However, I do know that there are some good reasons to offer credit for that training course. For example, it may give students time to focus on those issues and it provides an easier way for advisers to track whether students have met this requirement. Unlike many people I’ve talked to, I strongly agree with the idea of providing more collaboration between tutorial faculty and RLCs, even if that means that we house students from the same tutorial class within the same residential cluster.

Although I agree with most recommendations, I find this part of the report disappointing. If I were charged to infuse the College mission into the residential experience, I would look directly at the mission and would make sure that I explicitly tied each recommendation to the mission statement. The recommendations we have don’t do that. What they primarily speak to are ways to create interactions between the academic and residential parts of campus. That’s valuable, but not the same as infusing the mission in residential life. lives.

So, what would I do? Let’s start by reviewing the mission statement.

When Grinnell College framed its charter in the Iowa Territory of the United States in 1846, it set forth a mission to educate its students for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life. The College pursues that mission by providing an education in the liberal arts through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas. As a teaching and learning community, the College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large. The College exists to provide a lively academic community of students and teachers of high scholarly qualifications from diverse social and cultural circumstances. The College aims to graduate individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas, who can acquire new knowledge, and who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good. [1]

Ah yes, a lovely statement. I’m proud to be part of an institution that makes that our mission. I’m also proud that I contributed a bit to the current version of that statement.

The mission statement speaks to free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas. The teaching/learning communities help with that, but it seems that we could do much better by looking at ways to provide students to inquire and exchange ideas within the dorms. Reading and discussion groups. Meetings with faculty. All of these kinds of things could help achieve that part of the mission. They would also help our students in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

How can our residential experience help students learn to speak and write persuasively, and even eloquently? Primarily, by giving them options to do so. Certainly, our students who take on leadership roles in student groups. Student government and publications are not the only opportunities for such roles; most student groups, from dance clubs to outreach organizations, require students to work with others to develop and put forward an agenda, and therefore help them develop these skills. We can look to more leadership opportunities for students and more integration of extra-curricular activities in which they have the opportunities to speak and write.

Our mission statement also speaks indirectly about preparing our students to be adults and citizens. It is clear to me that a core part of Grinnell’s residential experience addresses that clearly: self gov is intended to help prepare our students to govern themselves individually and as a community. (I’m happy that the task force’s report also speaks to ensuring that students understand self governance in that way. I’m less happy to hear that to many students The self in self- governance refers to individuals, not to halls, floors, or the student body as a whole. Its salient feature is an absence of rules and/or rule-enforcement. [2] But I’ll admit that the Grinnell of 2016 is a lot different than the Grinnell of 1999, so perhaps that’s no longer the predominant view. In any case, I’m planning to address self gov in a separate essay.)

What about preparing our students to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good? What can we do beyond empowering them to do so in their residential life communities? I’m less sure about that. I’m a big fan of discussion, so perhaps one strategy is to look collaboratively at what the common good means. I could see that being an opportunity for discussions that start in the classroom and move to residential life, or start in residential life, and move to the classroom.

In the end, it appears to me that three things are core to infusing the College mission in residential life: We should work with students to build more opportunities for developing themselves as thinkers, speakers, and writers, whether through planned discussions or student groups; we should ensure that students understand and embrace the meaning and purpose of self governance; and we should empower them to self govern. [3]


[2] A 1999 Institutional Research survey, as reported in the April 2016 Initial List of Recommendations from the Task Force on Residential Learning.

[3] Even though Grinnell’s slogan was once No limits, we should clearly empower them to self govern within limits, such as legal limits.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-14.