Beyond Fuzzy Definitions of Community
The Group on Community (GoC), an ad hoc group of faculty, students, and administrators, was convened in response to the Committee on Student Life (CSL) white paper on community (published in summary in the Faculty Newsletter of April/May 2003 [Vol. 15 No. 5], and summarized further here . The GoC met over summer 2003 to discuss practical ways to strengthen our community, especially as it relates to faculty/undergraduate student interaction, with the goal of better guiding our students through the river (or whitewater rapid) that is MIT. The key suggestions made by the GoC are presented below, along with indications of the progress made towards implementing them. We conclude with an open invitation for comments and suggestions.
Philosophy of the GoC
A key consideration of the GoC was the question raised in the white paper - what is the definition of "community"? To many, community has become a "fuzzy" term, suggesting socializing that is superfluous to the real business of MIT – educating stunningly bright young people and defining new research frontiers. In this view, community-building activities have an expensive, frivolous cachet – dinners and lunches, or outings using considerable departmental or Institute "slush" funds, that are the first to dry up in fiscal crises.
However, a more useful, literal definition of community is that of a group of people with common purpose.
In this more accurate view, community implies productive communication that contributes enormously to the progress of students and to the strength of a university. Another definition includes caring about other members of the community, which implies interest in good mentoring.
The GoC felt that the notion of community encompasses a continuum of interactions, extending from classroom teaching through formal advising to less formal mentoring to more casual social interactions. In particular, the GoC felt that students are looking for advice on how to navigate towards a degree within MIT, and suggestions on how to forge a career after leaving the Institute. Useful interactions include long-term relationships between faculty and students or one-time conversations. Students understand that faculty can offer a lot of good advice, not the least of which is to explain how they got to be MIT professors. There is also a sense by students that faculty are rather inaccessible, and a majority of MIT students asked would like more extensive interaction with faculty.
Two practical considerations were that changes in community structure must work within the existing fabric of MIT, including ongoing semesters and the tight schedules of students and faculty. It was therefore felt that only small changes at any one time were practical, but that collectively these would gradually strengthen this fabric, and with time, change its constitution. Further, the Group felt that meaningful changes could be made at low cost, within our current fiscal constraints.
Recommendations of the GoC, and progress towards implementation
The overriding conclusion was that while a huge number of opportunities exist for faculty/student interaction, these are not exploited fully (see http://web.mit.edu/dsl/faculty/interaction.html for a partial list). This is both because a comprehensive list of opportunities does not exist and because these are not advertised effectively.
Collation of existing opportunities from many sources around campus is underway. These include opportunities that range from becoming a House Fellow to getting a UROP student to eating dinner at a dorm or becoming a faculty advisor for a club or athletic team.
A new Website to advertise these opportunities should be built that is closely linked to the main MIT site and is easy to use, informative, and current. The notion is to have separate access points for student and faculty opportunities. The student side would include ideas for interaction, as well as profiles of faculty willing to interact with students. A working group has designed a mock-up of a relatively low cost Website that is currently being circulated for suggestions.
Each faculty profile on the Website should include personal interests . This would help a student find common ground with faculty and allow him/her to feel comfortable contacting a faculty member for advice, for a research position, or with a lunch invitation. Discussions with UROP to facilitate setting up these profiles is underway.
Since many faculty/student interactions are awkward, it was suggested that "how to interact" guidelines be included, on both student and faculty sides of the site. For example, a student having dinner with a faculty member might be advised to think about a topic for conversation, and plan some relevant questions beforehand.
It was suggested that randomly selected graduate students from different departments be invited to monthly dinners where a topic of interest would be discussed. The first of these dinners recently took place.
A recommendation was made that an entry be placed into the Incoming Faculty Orientation Folder, describing opportunities for faculty/student interaction, and reasons that junior faculty may be interested in these. This was done in August 2003.
Some other current efforts to improve faculty/student interaction
A joint CUP/CSL group has tackled the major question of upperclass mentoring and advising. The final report from this initiative will soon be written, and one of the conclusions will be a need for increased faculty/student interaction. Another initiative in progress by the CSL is to examine faculty/student interactions within departments, and to publish a "best practices" list that could furnish ideas for other departments.
An open invitation. . .
Suggestions that faculty be more accessible to students raises the complex question of incentives. Clearly, it is smart to look after our students, as low quality education and advising will fail to attract sparkling minds. But faculty are overcommitted, underpaid, and overwhelmed.
Please tell us what you think – either by answering one or more of the questions below, or by sending us other reflections. Your thoughts are crucial for establishing reasonable expectations to improve our MIT community.
Membership and a full report of the GoC can be found at http://web.mit.edu/dsl/.