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SAA Brownbag Series: Building Community for Concentrators (February 18, 2009)
Summary: Elise Harper from Sociology presented the activities of their undergraduate student association (USA), which has been steadily getting stronger and more active. The governing body of the association meets weekly and Elise also meets separately with them on a weekly basis. The student group organizes a variety of events, including a course preview with faculty, community service, career/internship panels, coffee hour with faculty, and a pizza dinner with faculty. The primary benefit of the student group being the driving force behind building community is that it is student led and can connect well with other students. Elise contributes to this by keeping the students engaged through communication that “assumes engagement” and takes a relaxed tone, and also by letting students know that their feedback is valued. The department’s transparency in terms of its policies, language, etc. is also welcoming to students. Future projects include developing a peer advising program and an online community for the department.
Challenges: The main challenge in working with the student group has been maintaining balance in terms of student vs. department “ownership” or oversight. Two specific instances of this are the occasional need to model for the students good communication practices with faculty, and keeping the association with the department at the appropriate distance, especially when the group’s social activities cannot be officially endorsed by the department. Other challenges are the usual ones of soliciting more faculty participation at events and getting students to follow through on their commitments.
Suggestions: In the subsequent discussion, a couple currently established events rose to the top as most popular with both students and faculty:
- Course Preview: This takes different forms in different departments but involves faculty presenting their courses for the upcoming semester.
- Sociology offer its course preview once each semester. The format is pizza beginning at 5:30pm followed immediately by faculty presentations (with a time-keeper to expedite things). Faculty are sent a save-the-date email well in advance and this is followed up by encouragement from the Chair. Faculty unable to attend are invited to submit course materials for distribution at the event.
- PitE also holds a “Pizza with the Profs” event once per semester. Their instructors sit at tables around a large gathering space and the students circulate among them. This allows one-on-one or small groups-to-one student-faculty interaction, and students can choose the faculty with whom they would like to talk. This event has become something of an institution in the department, but as extra incentive the Program distributes a semester-specific course/requirement listing for planning purposes at the event (and not before).
- Welcome Event: This could be a general kick off for the entire department, or specifically focused on welcoming newly declared majors into the department.
- Slavic piloted a welcome pizza party around the second week of classes to great success. It took place during the lunch hour, and students could come and go as they pleased. It was advertised in classes, and a couple of instructors brought their entire classes with them.
- Some departments have had declaration events a couple of times a year, some timed during Major Week. This could make a nice bookend to a Capstone Experience in terms of giving majors a sense of community. See the Capstone Experience Summary for more details on that topic.
Other Possibilities: A few other ideas were raised in terms of events or means of building community in the departments. For others related to student-faculty interaction, see the Student-Faculty Interaction Outside the Classroom Summary.
- Facebook/Ctools: Several departments, as well as other units such as the Career Center, use one or both of these environments to build community not just among current majors, but also (especially with the former) with alumni. See the Effective Communication Summary for more information about these and other communicational media.
- Alumni Panel: Linguistics organizes a panel of alumni in a variety of professions to highlight the flexibility of the major and the liberal arts degree.
- Retreat: One participant asked whether any departments hosted a retreat of any kind. None of the departments represented did so, but this could be a wonderful community building activity.
Recommendations: Based on Sociology’s experience with their student association as well as the contributions of all the departments in attendance, it appears that an active and engaged student group can go a long way towards building concentrator community. This may require more or less active and engaged mentoring on the part of departmental faculty and/or staff, and can definitely benefit from regular and frequent contact (which need not necessarily be fact-to-face) between faculty, staff, and students. It also seems that building one event into a departmental institution can also work well as a springboard for other events. Finally, gradually adding in other components of community such as online fora and building an alumni network are also useful means of creating mutually reinforcing community relationships.
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