The Commons system was founded in 1992 for several reasons, but probably the most important reason was the desire to create stronger intellectual communities outside the classroom. Behind the emergence of the Commons was the complicated history of the fraternities, and the belief—held by administrators, trustees, and some faculty—that social life at Middlebury lacked options. This perspective was fleshed out in at least two major committee reports that examined the nature of student life in the late 1980s.
As the system took shape under the encouragement of President John McCardell, faculty members—known first as Commons Associates—invigorated the campus with a range of academic and cultural activities. Not all the Associates came from the faculty, but their work brought an intellectual edge to campus activities that mainstream (read alcohol oriented) social events did not. Student critics believed the Commons was a plot to eradicate the social houses and change the character of the student body, while some faculty members worried about the flow of resources away from departments and traditional academic programs.
Almost twenty years later, the Commons has gone mainstream (as an organizing structure of the College), boosted the intellectual tone on campus, and enabled faculty—serving now as Commons Heads—to play a meaningful role in student life.
Yet I fear we are in danger of taking this success for granted. There is still plenty to debate about the “true” value of the Commons, especially during these challenging economic times. And I recognize that students may feel that the Commons system is not as effective as it could be in promoting student social life (more on that in a subsequent post). But to assume that the kind of co-curricular activity that now takes place through the Commons could have happened without the efforts of faculty Heads is to ignore history. Here is a partial list of what the job of Commons Head currently entails.
Mentoring: at the most basic level, the ongoing presence of Heads in residential life (especially in first-year residence halls) gives students a visible and personal connection to faculty and staff. It lets students know that faculty are approachable and interested in their lives beyond the classroom. This sort of connecting with students is fundamental to the work of the Commons Heads.
Program Coordination: the Heads provide the venue—their homes are supplied by the College—the framework, and the tone for discussions that extend what transpires in classes and seminars, in visits from outside scholars, journalists, musicians, artists, diplomats, business people, educators and writers and others. This work has been vital to the first-year seminar program (remember that all fall first-year seminars are Commons based), and Commons Heads also provide social spaces for departments and various faculty, by sponsoring regular late-afternoon get-togethers that might include department colloquia, reading groups, and other academic events. In planning events, Heads also engage students’ intellectual and social interests, and help them turn an idea or observation into a discussion or event.
Residential Life: Heads work closely with the First Year Counselors, helping them in their efforts to support and mentor other students in the residence halls. Heads also provide a faculty perspective in meetings with the Commons Dean, not so much in the routine stuff, as the Dean handles this work very well on his/her own, but in the difficult cases, when the Dean needs support, a sounding board, and an institutional perspective.
All this strikes me as critical work, though taken together, it may be invisible to much of the campus. What do you think? Comments welcome.