on campus culture

I remember when I first came to MSU after receiving a degree from Kalamazoo College. I went to a professor’s office hour, and seemed surprised to see me – students didn’t come to his office hours; he tended to use that time to get extra work done. At K-College, it had been instilled since our first class, when it was required, that visiting office hours was what college students did. It was at this moment that I realized that different Universities had different cultures. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that these cultures could be manipulated and changed by those who worked at the institutions.

Since then, with my work at Campus Archaeology and Student Life, I have come to believe that College is a Culture Factory. Every element of a university should reinforce the type of student and culture they want to reflect; otherwise, the reputation of that university will revolve around something worse (i.e. party school). I have seen this happen very effectively on small campuses such as my alma mater, Kalamazoo College. It seems to be more difficult at large institutions such as my current one, Michigan State University. Either way, understanding how culture is formed, and that, as educators, we have a role in perpetuating that culture is critically important when working in higher education.

My work with Campus Archaeology has had a lot to do with the way in which space dictates or emphasizes a certain type of culture. I have noticed it both through my research onto the old designs of MSU’s campus, and also by sitting through the planning meetings for new buildings. I have also noticed a struggle with this in my work with the Department of Student Life, which has difficulty attempting to gage how they can emphasize the MSU “culture” to such a large student population. Making sure your department is working to encourage the message and culture of the university will help your department gain credibility not only with administrators, but it will lend weight to your interactions with students.

Since Colleges across the country have just finished their orientation week for incoming students, let’s consider the implications of such an experience on the culture of your campus. At Kalamazoo College, we had a variety of different activities that were all focused on what type of student we were going to become. Our convocation mimicked graduation, showing us at the beginning what the end of our four years would be like. It set the goals. We had a week where we were required to attend certain talks, seminars, and activities that gave us an idea as to what opportunities were available and what types of conversations and topics we would discuss in and out of class. We met current students who had just returned from Study Abroad. Most amazing to me was the Summer Common Reading program, which brought the author of the book to campus to speak, give a reading, and take part in small group discussions and Q and A sessions. We learned what a K-College student looks like, acts like, and takes seriously.

MSU itself has a difficulty with this process. Since it is so large, both in population and space, it has been difficult to create a cohesiveness that centers around academic or social expectations. Additionally, since it has gone through such unprecedented expansion since its humble Land Grant roots in 1855 (when it was a very small school that only focused on Agriculture), nailing down a specific MSU tradition or set of values has been difficult. The space reflects this: originally, campus was built to emphasize a small, rural town to encourage the production of students who would return to the fields to revolutionize agriculture. Since then, campus has been reacting to large explosions in campus population (i.e. GI Bill) instead of focusing more on how to maintain a certain cultural system. What has resulted is, unfortunately, a campus culture that is defined by a reputation for partying, football, and basketball.

Recently, however, there has been an active move to reintegrate a culture of the original Land Grant College. This is due largely to new leadership in President Simon. This has meant returning to a small school model by developing residential colleges. Ask any Faculty member the difference between a James Madison Residential College student and a “regular” undergraduate, and they won’t stop glowing about how disciplined and academically rigorous the Madison student is. This has everything to do with the type of culture that James Madison perpetuates and encourages. Not only students are encouraged to take part; the Land Grant model is being perpetuated through the Boldness by Design initiative, which encourages bold research initiatives. This recognizes that the earliest moments of MSU were a bold and revolutionary beginning: Land Grant Colleges were designed specifically to revolutionize agriculture. No small task. Most definitely a bold statement.

This may not be entirely surprising to many people who work on college campuses, but I think it is something that is important to understand if you do: If you work on campus you are in the business of producing culture. The work that you do on campus reflects on the type of student that is produced from your university, which therein reflects the reputation of your university, which reflects the type of professional you are. By tying what you do in your classrooms, student activities, or res halls, to the mission and values of your University, you further emphasize and reflect the message of the University. You make yourself and your class/event/activity more relevant, showing why what you do is important to their overall education as a member of your institution. It resonates more clearly with the students as to why they should be learning it. And in the end, it will reflect better on the type of professional that you are, and the type of impact you can have.

What are your thoughts on campus culture? Does incorporating the university message into your programming and classes have an effect? Is it a waste of time? Any examples?

  • Katie Zapoluch

    This really makes me miss K! I often forget that I have entered a completely different culture by teaching at a large public university–I'm​ so tied to my own experiences at K that I have to work even harder to remind myself that the students I interact with are differ significantly from the kind of student I was. But I also have to remind myself that the larger culture outside the university has also changed significantly since I was an undergrad.By the way, it's nice to "hear" from you! I hope you're doing well at MSU.

  • sounds like a good start to a hist. arch. paper 🙂

  • This really makes me miss K! I often forget that I have entered a completely different culture by teaching at a large public university–I'm so tied to my own experiences at K that I have to work even harder to remind myself that the students I interact with are differ significantly from the kind of student I was. But I also have to remind myself that the larger culture outside the university has also changed significantly since I was an undergrad.By the way, it's nice to "hear" from you! I hope you're doing well at MSU.

  • hey terry, i really liked reading this. good points to keep in mind and hopefully help those of us who are thinking about careers in academia to choose our destinations wisely.

  • Marcy O'Neil

    hey terry, i really liked reading this. good points to keep in mind and hopefully help those of us who are thinking about careers in academia to choose our destinations wisely.

  • Excellent post. Just excellent.

  • Excellent post. Just excellent.

  • Pingback: on campus culture part II: being relevant « Dirt()