RAs are NOT educational experts!

I remember first encountering the Residential Curriculum Model back in 2006.  My supervisor at American University had just returned from the first annual ACPA Residential Curriculum Institute.  It was love at first sight.  It just made sense.  Why hadn’t anyone thought of this approach before?

What many don’t understand about a Residential Curriculum (That’s capital “R” and “C”) is that it is much more than simply identifying learning outcomes.  I often see some institutions referring to their efforts as “residential curricula,” but upon further examination, they don’t go beyond the setting (and maybe sequencing) of outcomes.  Although this is laudable, and a step in the right direction, a true Residential Curriculum entails an entirely new approach to the way residence life educators approach their work.

For me, the most important take away from the Residential Curriculum Model is the realization that:

Although peer mentors (Resident Assistants) play a role in the creation of the educational components of the curriculum, they are not educational experts.  The core of any Residential Curriculum must redefine the role of the professional staff as it relates to developing and implementing programming and other educational opportunities.

[The ACPA Residential Curriculum Institute recognizes this as one of the “ten essential elements” of a Residential Curriculum (Edwards & Gardener, 2010).]

I think this makes intuitive sense, but old habits are hard to break.  How can we expect an undergraduate, untrained in student development theory and learning-centered design, to create a truly outstanding educational opportunity?  Certainly there are a few standouts.  They are our all-stars, which, through a mix of talent, ability and the luck of the housing lottery draw, are able to achieve a great level of success on their floors.  These all-stars, however, are often the exception rather than the rule.  Shouldn’t masters-degree bearing professionals take on more of the responsibility for designing these learning opportunities?  After all, what would be the point of obtaining a degree in the first place if we abdicated this responsibility?

This is not to say that RAs do not have a role, but we should play to their strengths.  By setting up parameters, or the core of the learning opportunity, we can free our paraprofessional staff to unleash their creativity to make it appealing and relevant to our students.  That is the strength of Resident Assistants.  The students in our halls are their peers. They are experts on what is interesting and appealing to students.

One of the main difficulties in implementing a Residential Curriculum is striking the right balance between Resident Assistant autonomy, and the prescriptive plans of professional educational experts.  Old models where Resident Assistants pick from a menu or develop a program fitting an ill-defined category are simply not enough.  A true Residential Curriculum recognizes this.

Edwards, K. E., & Gardener, K. (2010, October 28). What is a residential curriculum? [PowerPoint slides]. Plenary session presented at the 2010 Residential Curriculum Institute, St. Paul, MN.