“4/2″ or “4/1″…?

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.

4 comments

You state at the end that sophomores would not get “better” housing options through open, seniority based draw, and that this is a reason to support the 4/2 program. However, as a sophomore who switched commons this year, I can assert that it’s not always about which building is “better.” Is my current building (or its commons) “better” than the building I “should” have been in? It depends what you’re looking for. My highest priority was to live with some of my closest friends. It just so happened that these friends were coming from a different commons, and we chose to do what made the most sense for us. I did so knowing that I would lose commons points, weighed my options, and went ahead with it. Encouraging students to remain with their original commons is not a bad idea, but there is an important difference between encouraging and requiring. I would have certainly resented being told that I couldn’t live with the people I chose simply because we were arbitrarily placed in different commons freshman year. As an added bonus, I find my new commons and its staff to be friendlier and a much better fit for me than my old one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the 4/2 program discourages cross-commons friendships, but I see no reason to ignore the fact that these friendships can develop during freshman year just as they can in sophomore year, and that there are many of us who would like the option of arranging our housing accordingly.

From the perspective of a sophomore feb, I really like the idea of living in the same commons freshmen and sophomore years. Many of my friends are febs who lived in my commons last year and living in the same dorm as them this year has enabled me to get even closer to them.

So I am in favor of “4/2″ not “4/1.”

This being said, I do like the idea of being breaking out of the current systems and giving more options to Juniors and Seniors.

Molley Kaiyoorawongs

Molley Kaiyoorawongs’s avatar

President Liebowitz,

I’m sorry to hear that the meetings weren’t well attended–it was one of my biggest frustrations as an RA last year (about which you’ve already read, though, if you read the comment I left in the section about students being overly-stressed)

I was ecstatic to hear that juniors and seniors would have open draw so thank you addressing the long-overdue issue.

I completely agree with you that the 4/2 system makes more sense than the 4/1 system because of the natural breaking point. I also agree with H.S. that lasting friendships can develop during freshman year. I’d (uber-insensitively) respond that if these friendships survived despite different commons freshman year, then they could probably also withstand physical separation sophomore year and that, as I learned in Psych 105, we generally become good friends with people that we spend the most time with (i.e. hallmates, roommates, people with whom we LIVE) thus most people would choose to live with others in their commons sophomore year even if there weren’t a penalty for changing…a statistic the 4/2 policy accommodates quite nicely.

Thank you,
Molley

Dear President,

I agree with the above students that a 4/2 system is a good idea. However, I strongly agree with H.S. that the second year should be encouraged rather than required. The commons are not equal, which means that, for instance, some commons do not have any available singles for sophomores. My friends after freshman year were the people I spent the most time with, as Molly suggests, but these were not people I lived with – they were people from groups I was in and teams I was on. Had I not been allowed to pull someone from another commons I would have had to live with a random roommate sophomore year and that does not seem like a fair position to put people in.

I think leaving the current housing draw system in place through two years would achieve your goals – most people would stay. I love my commons and have been very thankful for the commons staff, however, I never found a place for myself on my freshman hall, therefore forming friendships elsewhere, and these changes would have made my college experience very different and quite stressful.

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