“Door decs” with your name on it… Crafting in the lobby… An icebreaker where you rhyme your name with a vegetable… free pizza… all cliché ways a college Resident Assistant (RA) goes about building and maintaining community. Of course, the RA position is far more complex than the stereotype that often gets portrayed, or the hokey activities that are often the source of satire, but some of this “hokiness” is there because it works… and yes, some of it is just hokey.
One of the most important aspects of social media that still goes misunderstood is that it is not just a replication of old media. Social media isn’t just a virtual update to the bulletin board or poster. It’s an engagement tool. It can build community. When I do my consulting work, some of the institutions struggling with social media often mention that they are posting content that gets little or no traction. Are students even reading it? They’re not “liking” it or sharing it. These are legitimate questions. This leads me to ask, “What reason are you giving them TO like it? TO share it?” Much like the bulletin board that people will walk past and never read, the same holds true in social spaces. The trick is to think about social media as a community space where advertising happens, not as advertising space to a pre-established community. In other words, if you build a community, they will come, if you haven’t built a community, then your message largely remains background noise.
Employing a Residential Curriculum entails building a residence life program that is learning-centered. Previous movements within residence life focused more narrowly on wellness or community. Moving towards a learning-centered orientation is often more intentional, more transformational, more holistic, and leads to better outcomes for students. Making this shift, however, does not necessarily entail that one doesn’t engage in education around issues of wellness and community. Community is still important. It’s just the approach one takes to building it that changes. Are there outcomes or principles that guide your community building efforts? Towards what ends? How can building community teach your students about what it means to live in community? Just having pizza in the lounge does not build robust communities if you’re not structuring it in an intentional way. In the age of social media, this is more important than ever.
So what does residence life community building look like when updated to include social and digital tools?
One useful model to draw from comes from Ernest Boyer’s Six Principles of Community. Many departments of residence life utilize these principles in training their resident assistants. Ernest Boyer was a famous administrator and thought leader in American higher education advocating for the advancement of learning-centered approaches to education and excellence in teaching. In a report initiated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Campus Life: In Search of Community, Boyer outlined six principles of community towards which colleges and universities should strive.
These six principles, re-envisioned with a social/digital bent below, provide additional insight into how one may begin to leverage the power of new technologies to create healthy thriving communities.
Boyer: “A place where faculty and students share academic goals and work together to strengthen teaching and learning on the campus” (p.9).
What is the goal of the online communities you create? In some cases it may be the seemingly simple and “useless,” such as the sharing of cat photos. In others it may be for social change, such as in organizing protest movements. In yet others, it may be defined as a space to gather feedback or to crowdsource efforts towards a common goal. Regardless of your goals, and there may be many, it should not be only about “getting information out” to students. It should serve greater goals driven by your organization’s educational priority and learning goals. A true community has a direction (or many) and this direction, although perhaps shaped by the originator, can often be taken in unanticipated directions. Learn to be comfortable with this ambiguity and have fun with it. Learn to shape the community, but be comfortable with community ownership.
Re-Envisioned: A purposeful online community involves a shared goal or goals that are enhanced through social participation.
Boyer: “A place where freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected and where civility is powerfully affirmed” (p. 17).
Building off of the need to be purposeful, an online community should be open, and allow for and encourage sharing. One of the hallmarks of social technologies is their ability to enable sharing like never before. This sharing should be fluid, unimpeded and be allowed to move in different directions. Open communities also allow for their purpose or goals to change over time. Sometimes what may seem like a time-wasting tangent may actually turn around to enhance and advance community goals. Considering working with other departments to cross-promote your messages and engagement. Does your institution have a social media council with representatives from all the offices doing this kind of work? It should. Do you engage undergraduate students in your community building efforts? You should.
Re-envisioned: An open online community allows for organic sharing that can ebb, flow, and change over time.
Boyer: “A place where the sacredness of the person is honored and where diversity is aggressively pursued” (p. 25).
Similarly to being open to content, online communities must be open to the individuals communicating. The “flat” structure of the web allows individuals at all levels of society and at all levels of knowledge, expertise, experience and backgrounds to interact freely in an open dialogue. Online communities are no place for status to get in the way of sharing and learning. Let students know that they are interacting directly with the Director of Housing on occasion when they tweet. It will build trust. Additionally, think about how you may reach under-represented groups on your campus through your efforts. For example, first generation students may feel more comfortable asking a question in an online space than in person. Make sure that when you post, you are intentionally communicating messages of inclusion, proactively.
Re-envisioned: A just online community allows all to participate and values the opinions and insights of others regardless of their status, experience or background.
Boyer: “A place where individuals accept their obligations to the group and where well defined governance procedures guide behavior for the common good” (p. 37).
Online communities may seem like the wild west of information sharing, but some of the most successful communities develop their own structures for discipline and regulation. What often sets online communities apart, however, is their ability to organically create these structures and self-police. Healthy online communities are not without some rules. Be prepared for how to respond, or choose not to respond to, the student that makes an angry ill-informed comment. When this happens, think about what you’d do in a physical world conversation and how might you translate this into a virtual space. Be genuine, non-shaming, and don’t be just a bystander.
Re-envisioned: A disciplined online community develops its own rules and structures for self-policing.
Boyer: “A place where the well being of each member is sensitively supported and where service to others is encouraged” (p. 47).
Perhaps the glue that holds online communities together is the support they provide members of their communities. Although it may seem odd that complete strangers, often even miles apart, could develop a level of care and support for one another, online communities can do this in powerful ways. Uniquely, caring online communities develop support for groups of individuals that were previously held apart do to their niche interests or physical world minority status. Emphasize this care in the way you post and respond online.
What happens when the community seems uncaring? Combat it with positivity. If a student posts a complaint, even if it was not sent to your department but perhaps directed at it, respond to them with understanding and acknowledgement. You may not be able to fix it, but your acknowledgement goes a long way. If the conversation gets too complicated to engage in online, offer to meet with the student in person or transition it to email.
Re-envisioned: A caring online community supports its individual members and uplifts all collectively.
Boyer: “One in which the heritage of the institution is remembered and where rituals affirming both tradition and change are widely shared” (p. 55).
Not only do healthy online communities provide caring environments, they celebrate and build their own cultures through artifacts such as memes and “likes,” and sharing and promotion. They engage in play with one another and blend the formal and the informal, the professional and the social. They share these traditions with pride and invite others to join. You can start your own meme or contest online, but don’t forget to reach out to celebrate the everyday moments in your students’ lives. Don’t be intrusive, but if a student posts a pretty picture of campus on Instagram and tags it with the school name, “like” it and comment on it. Being proactive in letting students know you’re engaged helps build rapport for the future.
Re-envisioned: A celebrative online community develops its own culture, engages in play, and invites others to join along.
Citation: Boyer, Ernest. (1990). Campus life: In search of community. Commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.