Well, Dean Spears and I hosted the first open meeting to discuss the so-called “4/2” Commons idea, which was described in an earlier post on this blog. The turnout was very light, leaving one to wonder whether the changes proposed are a “non-event” as many students have said in recent conversations over lunch in Ross, Proctor, and Atwater . . . or, could it be that those who oppose the proposed changes have yet to weigh in? Our second open meeting will be Wednesday, October 31, at 4:30 in McCullough Social Space. I invite you all to come and weigh in with your opinions.
One issue that came up at the first open meeting, as well as in other conversations prior to the meeting, was why a “4/2” and not a “4/1”? That is, why make it four years membership in one’s commons and two rather than one year of residency? Good question, and I recognize there are good arguments for both approaches. Here is why I have been lining up with the “4/2” concept.
First, even students who today oppose the Commons system believe the system is very helpful to all students for the first two, three, or four semesters. After that, they argue quite consistently, students have chosen a major, become involved in many on-campus and some off-campus activities, and have grown comfortable enough on campus not to have their place of residence serve as their major sources of support and attention, and find it somewhat stifling when it is.
But if the Commons dean is to remain a “go to” person for students during their four years for issues about which faculty and staff are not as likely or equipped to help, does one year living within the commons allow the time for most students to forge a relationship with a dean to make it natural for them to engage him or her throughout their Middlebury careers? I don’t know. But two factors have swayed me thus far into thinking the two-year residency makes greater sense than one year.
First, the second year represents a sort of natural break at Middlebury for so many students. Around 60 percent of our students go abroad, and so the hoped-for continuing commons communities are naturally broken after the sophomore year. Most students select their majors during their second year, and so their time and attention shifts from the residence halls to the academic offices of their teachers, and they, presumably, in our environment of close student-faculty collaboration and mentoring, become more important as advisers to students. Thus, there seems to be a natural breakpoint for a student’s focus on his or her place of residence, and that is during or at the end of the sophomore year.
And second, the possibility to use the sophomore year to build stronger ties among students by spending a second year together, and, equally important, to build meaningful relationships between students and their Commons heads, deans, and faculty and staff affiliates in one’s commons, is very attractive. During the strategic planning process, we discussed ways to strengthen the sophomore year experience, as many in the community felt it was a difficult year for students because it lacked the equivalent of the first-year seminar, junior year abroad, or senior work, usually done through working closely with a faculty member. A successful non-academic sophomore experience in each commons, such as community-based projects, a year-long symposium, or some other non-graded program that builds community and relationships that will serve our students well as juniors, seniors, and even after Middlebury, can add significantly to our students’ experiences.
The most common argument against having a two-year residency is that it would be “required.” Asking students to remain in particular residence halls for the sophomore year strikes many the same way as asking them to remain in specific dormitories for four years: it is bad to require that they live anywhere after their first year.
While I agree with that argument (students would prefer no requirements to some requirements), the benefits of what the sophomore year can offer our students — a year in which the geography of where a student lives can still have multiple positive effects and build on the community established through the Commons-based first year seminar program — outweigh this potential drawback. In addition, the reality of any room draw I see replacing our current scheme would leave few rising sophomores with better choices than they would have in their commons. That is, by the time rising sophomores would select a room in a strict seniority based room draw, the rooms available would be similar to what is likely to be designated as “sophomore” housing in each commons. Therefore, in weighing what is possibly gained by having the “2” in the “4/2” system, rather than a “1,” I have, to date, come down in favor of proposing the two-year residency.
Your views on this? I am interested in your thoughts.