Academic departments that are well run have concrete goals and strategies — which are usually well articulated on paper — and generous resources to accomplish them. What most departments often take for granted is an “invisible component,” the “hidden curriculum,” or “community” which is required for departments to function smoothly.
In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, controversial author Elaine Showalter quoted Columbia literature professor David Damrosch, who argued that academic life “looks for and rewards traits of isolation, competitiveness and associability.” Damrosch said that most academic departments have become “clubs of the unclubbable,” a tribal or clannish culture — where any controversy could easily lead to hostility (Showalter, 1999).
It seems that the concern for restoring civility is not only a national one, but one that academic departments are very serious about. Alvin Snider also wrote in The Chronicle about the “unusual proposal” at his university where faculty members of the College of Liberal Arts set a strange criterion for tenure, “a candidate for tenure would be ordinarily expected … to have interacted successfully with colleagues and students in achieving the mission of the department and institution.” Although this clause was never enforced, Snider asserted that civility is not something enforceable or even tantamount to servility, but something to be genuinely aspired for — assuming multifarious forms (Snider, 1999).
How does a genuine sense of community get created and maintained? To answer this question, the lead author surveyed fellow members of the Council of Undergraduate Psychology Programs (CUPP), and came up with some strategies (Appleby, Winter 1999). Though primarily meant for undergraduate psychology programs, it is applicable to almost any program in this country.
• Student Organizations: Departments that support student organizations encourage students to exercise control over their activities and to work closely with supportive faculty advisors. When students use these organizations to develop and demonstrate their leadership skills, they begin to feel that they matter too, and have a voice in their department.
• Research: Many departments stated that the most successful way to help build a community of scholars in a department is to take every opportunity to involve students with faculty in research projects.
• Courses: Courses designed to enable students to understand the nature of their academic major and to become aware of its resources and opportunities can promote a sense of community. Students are particularly appreciative of these courses when they produce a realistic understanding of what career paths they can successfully follow after graduating with a major in psychology.
• Events, Celebrations, and Rituals: Events, celebrations, and rituals provide a sense of togetherness, joy, and continuity to an academic community. They provide an opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to cooperate to produce social gatherings that are valued and enjoyed by the department and that can recognize the achievements of the department as a whole or its individual members.
• Locations: A sense of having “a place where we belong” is possessed by individuals who feel they are part of a community. Although space is a precious and scarce commodity in most programs, some are willing to devote part of their departmental geography to students who use it as a place where they feel comfortable enough to study, interact with faculty and one another.
• Projects: Activities with a purpose (i.e., projects) bring people together to plan, organize, and work to achieve a goal. The camaraderie resulting from such group efforts — and the satisfaction of achieving their goals — promotes a sense of community in the participants.
• Communication: Departments mentioned many examples of communication strategies such as open department meetings, student representatives on committees, student and alumni advisory boards, newsletters, information sheets, brochures, listservs, bulletin boards, and home pages.
• Faculty: One very clear message was that if a department is interested in increasing its sense of community, it must make a conscious and concerted effort to hire sociable, student-centered faculty. This must be a part of the hiring criteria if a department is serious about increasing its sense of community.
• Academic Advising: Academic advising is an effective community-building tool because of its ability to empower students by making them feel knowledgeable about university and departmental policies and requirements. Peer advising programs, an advising office, e-mail lists of advisees for advisors to facilitate communication, developmental group-advising sessions on relevant topics (e.g., introduction to the faculty, resume writing, etc.), and seminars or proseminars that orient majors to the department and to the field of psychology, are also excellent tools.
• Special Programs: A few departments reported the existence of special community-building approaches such as peer advising or faculty-student mentoring programs. One department reported a merit pay system that financially reinforced the efforts of faculty who students recognize as effective mentors.
Appleby, D. C. (1999, Winter). Establishing community in a large psychology department. Council of Undergraduate Psychology Programs Newsletter, pp.4·6.
Showalter, E. (1999, Jan. 15).Taming the rampant incivility in academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education, B4.
Snider, A. (1999, May 7). Stifling the naysayer in an age of compulsory niceness. The Chronicle of Higher Education A64.