"Learning Reconsidered defines learning as a comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development, processes that have often been considered separate, and even independent of each other."
Have there been moments in your professional career, at either a conference or other gathering of practitioners, where you thought "oh my gosh...these people GET IT. I thought I was the ONLY person who had some of these ideas!"
A primary take-away from my recent attendance at the Residential Curriculum Institute (RCI) could be easily summed up as "I'm not alone!" RCI was deeply affirming of the reasons I got involved in Student Affairs. I also walked away from RCI with several thought provoking challenges and a reframed perspective on my day-to-day work. Specifically, a challenge to question how I frame my work - as primarily an educator or an administrator? I was challenged to abandon the idea that academic administrators and "student affairs" administrators inhabit mutually exclusive sphere's of student growth and development. I also gained resources on how institutional departments can begin to build narratives for how their work is woven into the greater campus ecosystem of learning.
Am I an administrator or an educator?
"Student affairs staff members at [highly effective] colleges and universities are partners in the educational enterprise, engaging in enriching educational opportunities for students, team teaching with faculty, and fostering student success."
Fundamentally, what is my career and work about? I think many individuals, including myself, get involved in higher education with educational ideals but if I'm being honest about my day to day work, I spend most of my time in "administrator" mode. I churn through spreadsheets, fill out forms, and call other offices to get other administrative processes in gear. Framed improperly, this work can be deeply disappointing. A good question was asked during RCI by Keith Edwards- do you spend 80% of your work time fighting to protect the 20% of your work time you spend doing the things you "really love?" If so, why are you expending so much energy on all those other items?
If I'm being honest I spend a LOT of time in this mindset of "how quickly can I get all these other things cleared off my plate so I can do what I actually want to do?" I'm not sure that this is a sustainable mindset for a fulfilling life long career. I DO think that RCI is an attempt to hew some of my day-to-day work back into the educational ideals that drew me into Student Affairs.
College is meant to be a transformational experience. A common refrain I hear from my colleagues about why they remain committed to this career field is that they want to have a hand in the transformation process. A phrase that commonly follows this desire (and I'm guilty of using this myself) is "when you think about what was most impactful about your college experience, do you usually think about what happened in the classroom?" To compartmentalize the college experience is such a way is incredibly counterproductive and antagonistic to a substantial constituency group in the institutional ecosystem.
"...learning must be reconsidered – that new research, changing times, and the needs of today’s emerging generations of students require that our traditionally distinct categories of academic learning and student development be fused in an integrated, comprehensive vision of learning as a transformative process that is centered in and responsive to the whole student. Every resource on every campus should be used to achieve transformative liberal education for all students, and all colleges and universities are accountable for establishing and assessing specific student outcomes that reflect this integrated view of learning."
Much of the theory and practice that informs the RCI model of community education is rooted in Learning Reconsidered, a document published in 2004 that called for sweeping reform in how student affairs/services administrators approached their work. RCI pushes a mode of student engagement that emphasizes individual interactions and an assessable, co-curricular structure for engaging with students who live on campus. The hallmark of this approach is a laser-like focus on curriculum/curriculum mapping, rubrics, and assessment.
For my colleagues with B.A.s in Education this might sound like junior year all over again. That's because it's supposed to sound that way. The common RCI refrain is, "why are we expecting student staff to be experts at planning programmable experiences connected to a wellness wheel when we have reams of educational data and theory about how students develop in college and how they develop cognitively and socially." Instead of trying to get residents to come to events staff think are beneficial, lets meet the student where they are AND implement some assessable learning outcomes within those individual meetings.
RCI was deeply affirming of some of the unspoken questions I had about how Residential Life Departments try to engage with students in the halls. There were plenty of activities and events that occurred in the residence halls that left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable with how we try to develop students. Many of the programs I worked to facilitate went something like this (tell me if you've had a similar experience):
Want some of this delicious pizza?! Sorry, you need to go get your passbook stamped by a few tabled campus partners first and then I need you to complete this brief survey. Or...
It's almost valentines day. I just spent a number of long hours putting together this elaborate bulletin board with facts and figures about safe sex. My tissue pomp game is totally on point for this one...lots of shades of colored paper. Since it's right by the elevator I'm going to stand here with a bowl of candy and condoms. Let's hope I have some good conversations over the next 2 hours.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this method of engagement, but is it really the best use of precious time and treasure? Can a 1st year student gain a nuanced understanding of privilege and oppression from one event that included pizza as a reward for their participation? There has to be more to residential programing than the wellness wheel!
Towards a Curricular Approach
"We came to understand that while student interests are an important consideration when selecting program topics and methods, student learning should be the driving force.We realized that we had been functioning from a paradigm that required students to be exposed to ideas without paying any attention to the actual learning that was or was not occurring."
The RCI model represents one of the best applications of student development theory to "administrative" work. Specifically, through the curriculum development process departments are able to clearly square what students should be able to learn by engaging with the Residential Community. As an educator I'm no longer grasping to apply Kholberg in a conduct hearing. Instead I can refer you to the curriculum map and learning goals our department has structured. Departments can critically analyze the institution's educational and strategic goals and then target the work of student staff to address those goals appropriately. Instead of inviting campus partners into a residential space for a few hours, our shared institutional learning goals mean I can weave them into the fabric and physical architecture of the residence halls.
Some of the work remains largely similar to "traditional" modes of promoting learning in a residential environment. Roommate agreements, room condition inventories, sociograms, ice breakers, and roster test pop quizzes all remain tools in the residential learning tool kit, but the emphasis is placed on lesson plans and emphasizing individual interactions around specific topics of discussion. Why do we expect a resident assistant to absorb how they should be teaching their residents? Perhaps giving them a lesson plan is a more appropriate vehicle for facilitating a learning experience.
If you're interested in examining the theoretical and academic foundations for curriculum models there are several articles I would recommend picking up. Learning Reconsidered, Beyond Seat Time, and Are All Your Educators Educating? are excellent, and relatively short reads that can begin to reframe how you think about the work you do as a student affairs administrator. You might find that you prefer to consider yourself a student affairs educator.
Keeling, Richard P. (Ed). Learning Reconsidered: A Campus Wide Focus On The Student Experience 2004. NASPA & ACPA Publications.
Kerr, Kathleen G. & Tweedy, James. Beyond Seat Time and Student Satisfaction: A Curricular Approach to Residential Education. About Campus, 2006 (6), 9-15.
Whitt, Elizabeth J. Are All Your Educators Educating? About Campus, 2006 (1), 2-9.