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Communities and Tribes in Residential Living

by Peter Magolda & Kathleen Knight Abowitz - 1997

In this article, we weave the analysis of community within political philosophy with the stories of undergraduates who experience the daily struggles of pluralistic community construction as they implement community-building strategies in a residential college. Using a qualitative research methodology cumulating in two narratives about Resident Assistants?quest for community, we clarify the key constructs of two opposing visions of community—liberal and tribal communities. Liberal community is set in a pluralistic context and depends on individualistic reason to function. Communities shaped by communitarian philosophies are more family-like or tribal in nature, more dependent on nonrational bonds of kinship, tradition, ideological unity, or shared philosophical belief systems. Both liberal and communitarian ideologies shape our cultural and campus discourses on community, but neither one singularly represents an appropriate guiding ideal for higher education. In an era in which administration, staff, faculty, and students all seem to be seeking “community?in the educational realm, where are there suitable models? We argue that political community is an ideal that avoids the dichotomous conceptions of liberal and communitarian conceptions, and serves as a guiding framework and discourse for higher education.

In this article, we weave the analysis of community within political philosophy with the stories of undergraduates who experience the daily struggles of pluralistic community construction as they implement community-building strategies in a residential college. Using a qualitative research methodology cumulating in two narratives about Resident Assistants’ quest for community, we clarify the key constructs of two opposing visions of community—liberal and tribal communities. Liberal community is set in a pluralistic context and depends on individualistic reason to function. Communities shaped by communitarian philosophies are more family-like or tribal in nature, more dependent on nonrational bonds of kinship, tradition, ideological unity, or shared philosophical belief systems. Both liberal and communitarian ideologies shape our cultural and campus discourses on community, but neither one singularly represents an appropriate guiding ideal for higher education. In an era in which administration, staff, faculty, and students all seem to be seeking “community” in the educational realm, where are there suitable models? We argue that political community is an ideal that avoids the dichotomous conceptions of liberal and communitarian conceptions, and serves as a guiding framework and discourse for higher education.

In current calls for a “return” to community, visions are produced of great emotional appeal that bear little scrutiny when dissected.

—P. Leinberger and B. Tucker, “The Boomers Search for Community”


Community has been a topic of great interest in recent years, generating abundant rhetoric and gathering enormous coverage in popular press, political speeches, and educational circles. Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton’s (1985, 1987, 1991) writings about individualism and commitment in American life, as well as Etzioni’s (1993) book advancing the communitarian agenda, are popular literary artifacts that reflect interest in the impact of individual and community ideologies pertaining to the moral and political fabric of Americans, American culture, and social institutions. Community discourse dominates the education agenda as well. Authors such as Peshkin (1978), Lesko (1988), Grant (1988), Bull, Fruehling, and Chattergy (1992), Sergiovanni (1994), Bryk, Lee, and Holland (1993), and Knight (1996) contextualize this elusive concept in the elementary and secondary educational settings. At the postsecondary level, authors such as Moffatt (1989) and Magolda (1994) provide narratives and analysis about students’ quests for community, while Tierney (1993) and the Carnegie Foundation (1990) both offer ways to understand and respond to challenges and threats to community.

Understanding community and achieving a sense of it in higher education is difficult—despite near universal endorsement of this ideal. For example, in one study, two out of five undergraduates reported they did not feel a sense of community at their institution (Boyer, 1987). Such findings advance “community” discourse on college campuses, as evidenced by the Carnegie Foundation’s (1990) survey of college presidents that found that 98 percent of college presidents stated that it was either “very important” or “somewhat important” to devote “greater effort to build a stronger overall sense of community” (p. A-4).

Serious discourse about community on college campuses is inhibited by the cavalier and amorphous use of the term. Hillery (1955) found ninety-four separate uses of the term in the professional literature. More recently, Heller (1989) identified three distinct word usages for the term community: (1) locality (i.e., territorial or geographic notion of community such as a neighborhood); (2) relational (i.e., qualities of human interaction and social ties/networks that attract people to one another); and (3) collective political power (i.e., the act of organizing for social action). Community is synonymous with the public; individuals living within a particular geographic boundary; individuals with common interests living as a smaller social unit within a larger one; fragmented and decentralized units linked by common traditions; or people with similarities or likenesses. While there is obviously no universal definition, there is much agreement among educational reformers that something called community is desirable.

We believe a distinct and new perspective can help cut through the rhetoric of community and enable educators to more critically and purposefully understand the task of building community in schools and on campuses. The unique perspective offered in this article combines the voices of an ethnographer and a philosopher working together to clarify possible meanings of “campus community.” We do this through narrative, analyzed with a philosophical lens. This article documents Resident Assistants’ (RAs)—undergraduate para-professionals staff who live and work in residence halls—and their corridor-mates’ conceptualizations of and struggles with community-building strategies in a residential college setting. Using qualitative research methods, we examine undergraduate students’ attitudes about community-individual tensions evidenced in their daily lives.

We begin by briefly examining the discourse on community that has taken place on college campuses over the past twenty-five years. We then discuss the multiple meanings of the term community, using scholarship in the field of political philosophy, and describe two different types of community—liberal and communitarian, which are often abused and confused in our cultural and professional rhetoric. We contrast liberal and communitarian views with our conception of political community, an understanding of educational community that emerges from our philosophical and ethnographic findings and analysis. With a philosophical framework in place to help the reader understand the multiple meanings of community on college campuses in American culture, we then offer narratives based on an eighteen-month fieldwork study of a residential college. A brief summary of the setting and research methodology is followed by two narratives about Resident Assistants’ quest for community. The narratives are then analyzed using political theory as an interpretive framework. In our analysis, we propose a new conceptualization of educational community that we dub “political community,” a conception that recognizes and acknowledges the importance of rational and nonrational influences. Finally, we explore implications of political communities for higher education. Throughout this article, we attempt to dissect, as Leinberger and Tucker (1992) suggest, the “great emotional appeal of a ‘return’ to community” (p. 86).


For decades, college presidents, students, faculty, and administrators have been drawn to an idyllic dream of community in the academy. The Carnegie Foundation’s (1990) survey of college presidents found that 96 percent believed in the importance of community for an institution such as their own; 87 percent disagreed that community can be sustained only for small groups or units; and 97 percent agreed that administrators should make a greater effort to strengthen common purposes and shared experiences at their institutions. These findings suggest that most presidents value community, lament the loss of it on their campuses, believe that community can be attained in all higher education contexts regardless of institutional size and that connecting faculty, students, and administrators with each other is inextricably linked to creating community. Faculty too have been concerned with this perceived decline of campus community. A Duke University department chair’s ruminations in a faculty newsletter captures this pervasive sentiment:

I crave a sense of belonging, the feeling that I am a part of an enterprise larger than myself, part of a group that shares some common purposes. . . . At schools that emphasize research (and this is by now a familiar story), each professor is an entrepreneur whose aim is to enhance his or her reputation within a subfield, so that he or she can move up the ladder—receive more money, more recognition, a lighter teaching load, and various other perks. In this kind of competitive, hierarchical system, people’s energy naturally goes into their publications and not toward the institution or each other. (Willimon & Naylor, 1995, p. 144)

Students too share this desire for community. Annually, the Higher Education Research Institute conducts a survey of incoming first-year college students.1 Less than one new student in one hundred expects to leave the institution, yet 50 percent of the students leave the institution in which they first enroll and at least 30 percent do not graduate, even after seven years (Boyer, 1987). New students expect to belong to a cohesive community, but often this aspiration is unrealized.

Kuh et al. (1991) identified three factors that have contributed to the perceived loss of community on college campuses during the past twenty-five years. First, colleges and universities are larger and more complex, making interactions between faculty, students, and administrators less frequent, more cumbersome, and challenging. Second, students attending colleges and universities are more heterogeneous. There are fewer traditional-age (i.e., between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three) undergraduates, more part-time students, more women, a greater number of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and a greater visibility of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, faculty, and staff on our college campuses. Third, faculty roles and emphases have shifted from social (e.g., teaching, serving on university committees) to solitary duties (e.g., research and writing), decreasing opportunities for human interaction.

Larger and more complex campuses, a more heterogeneous student population, and the decline of human interaction are but a few of the changes in higher education over the past quarter of a century that have catapulted “community” to the forefront of most colleges’ and universities’ agenda. Empirical evidence such as Tinto’s (1975, 1993) and Astin’s (1975, 1984) research on college persistence has demonstrated that colleges with a perceived higher degree of community have higher rates of persistence to degrees. Tinto’s (1993) studies of persistence have identified causal variables that plausibly lead to the retention of students. The foci of these empirical studies are on mechanisms that link the student with the institutions and campus life. Such studies draw on the work of Durkheim (1951) who, in his studies on suicide, argued that an individual woven into the fabric of societal institutions was less likely to experience anomie and would be therefore less likely to contemplate suicide. The greater the degree to which participants are integrated into the institution, the greater the likelihood individuals will not develop a sense of anomie and will not “commit suicide” by leaving the institution. Tinto (1993) argues that there is a link between integration in a college community and persistence in college completion. “Involvement with one’s peers and with the faculty, both inside and outside the classroom, is itself positively related to the quality of student effort and in turn to both learning and persistence” (p. 71).

While the global aim of creating community on college campuses is fashionable and seldom contested in the 1990s, there are scholars who raise cautions about jumping on the community bandwagon. Concerns lie not with the idea of creating community, but with the creation of particular kinds of communities, some of which negatively impact some members of the academy. Carlson (1994) notes that the dominant idea of community in America, including higher education, is a normalizing community. Normalizing conceptions of community are based on defining a cultural center or norm and situating the “other[s]” on the margins. Such critiques follow feminist analysis of hegemonic oppression, as generations of women have protested community norms and structures that deemed women deviant from the male norm (deBeauvoir, 1974; Frazer & Lacey, 1993). Within normalizing communities some individuals are privileged and represented as normal. As marginalized groups within this normalizing discourse on communities speak out and challenge their marginalized status, they begin to develop communities of support, which disrupt the normalized community.

Thus, community discourses in education incorporate many aspects of the ideological spectrum. Against the chorus of conservative voices, calling us back to cohesive communities of consensus, are the voices cautioning us to carefully dissect the normative assumptions of community life, questioning their exclusionary and oppressive traditions. These varied discourses of community are wielding influence in American education, and in particular, in higher education. And increasingly, we are aware of the construction and maintenance of community, especially within the institutional sphere, as a deliberate act. Creating community—regardless of whether one is a university president, a faculty member, a student, regardless of whether one is responding to student population or faculty roles—is a purposeful act that requires advocates to carefully examine what they mean by this overused, seldom defined, and extremely seductive term. To bring more clarity to a diffuse term, we turn to political philosophy, a field that has nurtured a debate on community for the past twenty-five years.


One way to get beyond the popular rhetoric of community is to examine the works of political philosophers who, in the last several decades, have been engaged in a critique of philosophical liberalism. The debates between liberals and communitarians2 have accompanied the larger cultural dialogue about community, shaping the construction of meanings and the dualisms of two leading models of community—liberal and tribal—described in this article. Political philosophy can help shed light on communitarian movements in our culture and in education because it provides a theoretical backdrop as well as a context, revealing the degree to which modern communitarianism is itself a reaction to perceived liberal excesses.3 Contemporary communitarianism, of central concern in this article, stems directly from both popular and philosophical attacks on individualism. Communitarians are a diverse group of philosophers who believe that the purpose of political society should be to uphold and sustain community life. Although as a tradition it has diverse claims and theorists, communitarianism has taken on a new importance in political philosophy in the past several decades in its attacks on liberalism.

Here we do not use the term liberal to refer to a left-leaning member of the Democratic party. Instead, liberals in political philosophy are those who sustain the basic philosophical commitments of thinkers such as John Stuart Mill (1910) and John Locke (1924). Liberal philosophers have, since Mill and Locke, been concerned with individual liberty and the notion of an autonomous self. Two kinds of freedom are important to liberals: negative liberty, or freedom from oppression, and positive liberty, the freedom to enjoy a certain quality of life defined by participation in self-government and economic life on a fair playing field. Various liberals emphasize these two freedoms in different degrees. Yet all those who ascribe to liberalism have in common a belief in the clear distinction between public and private life. There must exist spheres of one’s life that are not controlled in any way by the state or one’s political community (as opposed to a religious or private community, which is much less apt to distinguish between public and private spheres or existence). The individual citizen retains control over private elements of life. A simple example should suffice to illustrate this point: A public university cannot dictate chapel attendance, nor can it regulate the dating practices of its students. Liberal justice dictates that communities located in the public sphere (e.g., a diverse community such as a residence hall on a public college campus) cannot coerce individuals into certain metaphysical or philosophical belief systems or into certain ways of living. A dean, for example, cannot force students to believe “X” or to participate in “Y”; this seems obvious. Less obvious is the fact that, in a political community under a liberal democratic ideal, a staff member cannot coerce students into membership.4 Staff members cannot require students to attend a hall program or activity; a faculty member cannot, beyond curricular requirements, mandate that a student participate in department or college affairs. Liberalism requires that citizens choose the ways in which their political membership will alter their lives. Liberals do not stand against community per se, but are explicit in the protection of individual rights and insistent that any form of democratic society must honor these rights. Liberal ideology has a strong hold on many American college campuses, where cultural norms of individualism are highly valued as students test the waters of their emerging freedoms of adulthood.

Liberal views of democratic social life are based on the individual working with fellow citizens to solve public problems through legal and dialogic practices. Liberalism does provide ideals for democratic citizenship beyond respect for the individual. Chief among liberal civic virtues are those required for public reason: respect, tolerance of differences, honesty. The skills that must accompany these virtues are those of fair social cooperation through dialogue and consensus-building (Rawls, 1971, 1993; Strike, 1994). The democratic state depends on public reason, or the ability of a citizen to engage in dialogue and problem solving with others who may have different philosophical, moral, or metaphysical beliefs.5 Public reason enables us to tolerate difference and to find commonalities while we bracket our private belief systems. Individuals primarily utilize reason to govern themselves in the democratic public sphere. Therefore, the concept of liberal community is narrow in terms of the scope of our lives, which are governed by these communal norms.6 The liberal community is a discursive community in which we approach one another as mutually respecting individuals, with our own agendas and commitments.

Communitarians have, as a diverse group of philosophical thinkers, asserted that liberalism is at least partly responsible for the “failure of a liberal society to foster a sense of community” (Hirsch, 1986, p. 423). A general complaint is that individualistic modern citizens have understood liberty to mean “freedom from” responsibility, civic duty, and the activities and virtues of democratic self-governance. Moreover, individualistic accounts of reason do not represent the ways in which our identities are formed in and through social groups, roles, and mores. Though their particular visions of community may differ radically, various communitarian philosophers share a view of an interdependent self, which derives its meanings and morality from a social context. A communitarian would see the college student as strongly shaped by “concrete moral communities” such as family, religion, racial group, ethnic community, or neighborhood (Nash, 1996).

We label tribal or foundationalist communitarians those thinkers who, like Alisdair MacIntyre (1981) and Michael Sandel (1982), believe community is a description of a social group whose collective life is driven by a historical narrative, social roles, certain virtues or qualities of moral character, and shared practices. One’s tribe7—used here to refer to family-like groupings of an aggregate of people sharing common ancestors, customs, or traditions—plays a central role in identity formation. The view of community sketched by tribalists8 is what many of us think of when we utter the word community—a largely homogenous group of people sustained by common goals, beliefs, mythic and genuine origins, traditions, histories, and practices. Tribal bonds are forged and sustained by narratives communicated through various rational and nonrational forms of communication within geographic, religious, or kinship networks. Without tribal sensibilities of a shared understanding of right and wrong, its advocates argue, persons are incapable of negotiating moral and political realms of life. MacIntyre (1981) argues that a moral language can be spoken cogently only by a society that sees individual citizens as part of historical narratives:

We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations, and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is what gives my life its own moral particularity. (p. 220)

MacIntyre suggests that the narrative of one’s life is intertwined with the narrative of others’ lives, past and present. What links past and present are the virtues, traditions, and stories that reflect the telos, the community’s vision of the good life, or of moral and political excellence.9

How a philosopher conceives of personhood is central to understanding the implications of a philosophical stance. Liberals have been accused of regarding human beings as individuals without attachments, able to freely choose their commitments and identities. Liberal accounts of identity see individuals as capable of sustaining a critical distance on our duties to membership in our tribal communities, so that liberal tolerance and reason within a pluralistic public sphere might be nurtured. This liberal view of identity has been criticized as the “divided self,” characterized as a naive view of human identity and commitment (Galston, 1989, p. 722). Some communitarians, like Sandel (1992, p. 12), have used the term unencumbered self to describe the liberal individual whose value lies not in which particular ends or life goals one chooses but solely in the ability to choose those ends. Tribalist communitarians like Sandel and MacIntyre argue that self-understanding is inextricably bound up in our identity as community members. When making life choices, an individual is limited by the community’s estimation of what “counts” as a viable life plan. Sandel (1982) and MacIntyre (1981) argue that liberalism fails to take this aspect of identity into account. Our tribalism—our affiliation with and loyalty to membership in our various ethnic, religious, or other parochial groups—limits our life choices and, according to tribalists, must be taken seriously by policymakers.

Those of us working on college campuses know the validity of both these views of community. In committee meetings, classrooms, e-mail, and residence halls, many in education are cognizant of our individual and group differences and attempt to operate within some mutually recognized forms of dialogical reason. We may attempt to avoid metaphysical references that may exclude some students or colleagues who hold different beliefs, and in problem solving we might reach for consensus that does not offend any one individual’s world-view or agenda. Recognizing our tribal affiliations comes with more uneasiness. Students gather for religious clubs and activities; faculty may attempt to temper their personal political and religious convictions in their teaching; faculty, staff, and students organize around race, gender, and sexuality to affirm their shared experiences and to organize politically. Our tribal commitments reside uneasily in the liberal community of the college or university public sphere: Traditions of religion, ritualistic gatherings of racial or ethnic groups, celebrations of human caring, and activities of nurturing are all seen as important but not central to the life of the mind in higher education. These are seen as the extracurriculars of college life, the content of rich private lives but removed from the sphere of reason and dialogue of the liberal community of the university.

The uneasy coexistence of liberal and tribal community is, in part, a result of our dualistic way of contemplating the individual and the community. Frazer and Lacey (1993) point out these dualistic trends in Western philosophy:

Our analyses and judgements, it is argued, tend to be structured in terms of binary oppositions which find their roots deep in western culture and philosophy: subject/object; reason/emotion; individual/community; mind/body; form/substance; public/private; culture/nature; male/female. (p. 167)

Thus, often when we evoke the term community, we are nurturing a vision of shared norms and beliefs; when speaking of individuals, we make reference to independent beings who make their own choices and life plans, and who have certain rights. When we evoke the term reason, it is taken to mean something opposite from, for example, emotions or the affective realm.

The dichotomies of the liberal/communitarian visions of community have not only helped sustain the dualisms of individual/community and reason/emotion, they have also “unduly polarized debates in which middle positions are marginalized as mere compromises and as unprincipled” (Frazer & Lacey, 1993, p. 168). As we show through the narratives of campus life, these middle positions are where we find the substance of communal living in higher education. In these stories, dialogic reason as understood by liberals is mixed with emotion in the form of conflict; tribal identities clash with the liberal common good; individualistic ideologies compete with desires to sustain communal norms and identities. These narratives help to point out a more complex view of identity and community than can be drawn from either liberal or tribal ideals alone, ideals that are well touted by pundits but missing from the world of educational practice.

The stories told will help illustrate a messier view of community that we will articulate and argue for here: political community. Political communitarians argue for community that is formed and sustained by participation in public life, in the common activity and problem solving of our interdependent existence. In the tradition of John Dewey (1927), who believed that shared experience is the essence of community life, Barber (1986) argues that our public life requires a “necessity for public action, and thus for reasonable public choice, in the presence of conflict and in the absence of private or independent grounds for judgment” (p. 120). Political communitarians, seeking communities built in democratic, pluralistic spheres, “must hope to compensate for the absence of positive common values with post-hoc affections of the kind that grow out of common activity” (p. 244). Members are transformed through their participation in “common seeing and common work, into citizens” (p. 232). Therefore, in Barber’s ideal of community life, as in John Dewey’s, citizens are joined together not necessarily because of what they believe in common, but because of what they do together—handle the common problems they face through public discourse, as well as build bonds through association, shared experiences, and mutual sympathy. A political community nurtures a public discourse around common, shared problems not through coopting the identities of members into homogenizing, normalizing replications of the ideal coed, but through acknowledging the richness of the parts that make up the whole. “Society becomes more effective in moving in concert, at the same time as each of its elements has more movements that are peculiarly its own” (Durkheim, 1984, p. 85). Thus, a political community utilizes notions of organic solidarity, understanding the health of the parts (e.g., tribes, subcultures) as necessary for the health of the whole.

Both liberal and political communities rely on discourse, in some form, to build bonds and solve problems. But the political communitarian utilizes rational and nonrational forms of communication to sustain common identities and carry conflict through to resolution. Rational discourse was only one form of communication for Dewey (1925, 1927); symbolic meanings achieved through habit and ritual, however, are seen to be as powerful as those derived through cognitive, rational exchanges of words. This is why Dewey values material as well as discursive participation for communal members. Similarly, it is why Barber (1986) includes in his “Nine Functions of Strong Democratic Talk” the functions of “affiliation and affection,” and “community-building as the creation of . . . active citizens” (pp. 178-179). Reason is expanded to include both bodily experience and the realm of emotion.

Identity is understood to be relational and contextual in our conception of political communities. Each one of us is, after all, a member of multiple communities (Dewey, 1927). College and university students, as members of an educational community, struggle to negotiate these complicated commitments and membership roles. One’s identity as member of this residence hall or that campus is not one’s only identity. A student may also claim membership in a Jewish community, or an Asian-American community, or in a community of friends with whom she shares bonds of mutual respect, interest, and common activity.10 Her identity as a member of the educational community of her residence hall or campus is only one of her identities. For example, a Jew may feel restricted from participation in the weekly residence hall breakfast because it occurs on the Sabbath day. The student must reflect on his membership in both communities to decide on how he will spend his Saturday. His context—his family teachings and his relationships with residence hall members, to his new university surroundings, to his Hillel group—all are part of his identity and play a role in his decision making. Tribalists claim this notion of “divided self” violates the very notion of community membership, yet we would argue that the “multiple self” has always been part of the American identity.

A multiple self is what students bring to campus; it is the phenomenon of multiple memberships, and a condition that challenges the development of educational communities on college campuses as well as in public K-12 schools. Political communities do not seek to dissolve tribal identities but find the spaces where interchange between tribal and larger political concerns might take place. Michael Walzer (1992) writes of the inevitability of tribalism within our political communities: “Bring the ‘people’ into political life and they will arrive, marching in tribal ranks and orders, carrying with them their own languages, historic memories, customs, beliefs, and commitments” (p. 64). As our stories will suggest, a student’s membership in various tribes provides ongoing challenges to the development of educational political communities, challenges that the rational processes of liberal community cannot easily remedy. Boyer (1987) tells us in College that “one of the most urgent obligations colleges confront is to build a sense of community among students—a sense of belonging at the institution” (p. 1). As those of us in higher education can acknowledge, this noble call is much easier said than done.


The setting for this study is Miami University’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies, which is also known as the Western College Program (WCP).11 The WCP, a residential college within Miami University, consists of thirteen full-time faculty and over three hundred students. The program has the style and ambience of a small liberal arts college within the setting and possessing the resources of a large, publicly funded university. The mission of the WCP is to provide a strong undergraduate liberal arts education in a residential setting by encouraging students to explore the wholeness and interconnectedness of human experience, to think critically, to pay attention to context, to engage with other learners, and to reflect and act on what they learn.

Students enroll in fourteen interdisciplinary team-taught core courses during their first two years. Students take their remaining courses (one to two courses per semester) from other university divisional offerings. Students develop a Statement of Educational Objectives (SEO) with a faculty advisor during their second year. The SEO is a blueprint or learning contract for each student’s individualized program of study that is fulfilled during the student’s junior and senior years. Seniors present their theses at a public conference each spring. All WCP classes (ten to twenty-five students) include a discussion-based seminar component that encourages the free exchange of ideas. All first- and second-year students are required to live on campus in one of the WCP residence halls.


This fieldwork was conducted during the 1992-1993 fall and spring semesters.12 Three data-collection methods were used: participant-observations (see Jorgensen, 1989; Spradley, 1980), open-ended interviews (see Fontana & Frey, 1994), and analysis of written and audiovisual publications (Hodder, 1994). These data sources surfaced the multiple ways that RAs and students made meaning of community. Specifically, the ethnographer participated in pre-semester training sessions, attended weekly staff meetings, accompanied RAs on duty rounds, and attended RA and corridor social functions and meetings.13 In addition, he formally interviewed all nine RAs, the two Resident Instructors, full-time staff members, and students. He also reviewed written documents such as the RA training manual, the WCP community standards, memos relating to the vandalism incident, RA log entries, and so forth.

As noted above, the unique perspective offered in this article combines the voices of an ethnographer and a philosopher to clarify meanings of “campus community.” We do this through a unique collaboration of narratives based on the fieldwork experiences of the ethnographer interpreted through the liberal/communitarian debates in political philosophy. Philosophy in this sense, then, is not the classic pursuit of truth as Plato envisioned, but is used in the spirit of the American pragmatists who hoped that philosophy might help us to clarify perennial problems and contemporary issues. To illuminate the experiences of students in one residential setting, we use the debates of liberals and communitarians to make meaning of experience.

Kramp (1995) clearly articulates the value of a narrative epistemology:

Current writing and research have come to value and recognize narrative and the particular ways narrative embodies our experience of the world (Kerby, 1991). Many have come to understand narrative as one way of making meaning of lived experiences (Bruner, 1986, 1990; Brunner 1994; Coles, 1989; Connelly and Clandinin, 1990 . . . ). Through narrative, life as told, we can come to know life as experienced (Bruner, 1986). Narrative is a way of telling about our experience and in the telling, of coming to know—a way of connecting information with the experience to construct knowledge. (p. 2)

William Foote Whyte (1943) in his ethnography Street Corner Society—a study of an Italian neighborhood—states his belief that there is no better way of enriching the readers’ understanding of what is happening than by telling stories. Storytelling is part of researchers’ and respondents’ everyday lives. Yet, in the arena of educational research, researchers ignore, bracket, or append disclaimers to life stories (e.g., labeling such information “anecdotal”). Storytelling as a method for collecting data appears too subjective while storytelling as a way of presenting data appears unsophisticated and not theoretical. In the narratives that follow, we embrace storytelling. It is our belief that the narratives about the Resident Assistants’ quest for community enrich readers’ understanding of the complexities, paradoxes, contradictions, and intellectual and emotional struggles associated with creating and maintaining an academic community.

In the presentation of our narratives and theoretical analysis, we separate the two. This allows readers to create independent impressions about the stories before learning of our impressions. Witherell and Noddings (1991) suggest that theoretically informed narratives resonate and challenge our knowing and connect the events, actors, storyteller, and readers to each other. Using narratives as a method of collecting data encourages the researcher and respondents to engage in a dialogue. Using narratives to present one’s findings allows for dialogue between the researcher and readers. Narratives teach and foster learning, making them a springboard for action. Witherell and Noddings argue that

we live and grow in interpretive, or meaning-making, communities; that stories help us find our place in the world; and that caring, respectful dialogue among all engaged in educational settings—students, teachers, administrators—serves as the crucible for our coming to understand ourselves, others, and the possibilities life holds for us. (p. 10)

An analysis that utilizes political philosophy follows the theoretically informed narratives. Cutting through populist rhetoric and grappling with multiple meanings of community through richly described narratives and philosophical analysis, we aim to articulate possibilities of community in higher education.


The WCP administrators included the word community in all of their promotional material. Faculty frequently referred to community in their formal speeches and informal conversations with students. During an annual orientation program that takes place for seven days before the start of the fall semester, new and returning students participate in a series of carefully orchestrated rituals (including a formal convocation, all-hall meetings, a cotillion, a talent show, and an interdisciplinary colloquium) that are intended to create and sustain a sense of belonging and affiliation. Administrators responsible for these opening rituals favored small group interactions over larger lecture formats; gradually shifted the locus of control from faculty/staff to students; subtly introduced new and sometimes controversial educational practices; blurred the distinction between academic and co-curricular activities; transmitted the history of the residential college; and sponsored serious scholarly exchanges prior to students’ first day of classes. The classroom was also a place to explore community. Community was thoroughly deconstructed in a first-year seminar entitled “Individualism and Success in America.”

Although the aim to establish and maintain a positive community was shared by all WCP faculty, administrators, and students, RAs took primary responsibility for community-building on the residential corridors. Creating a family-like closeness and bond among residents is the goal of this residence hall staff, working on a campus that promotes community life through many rituals and traditions. The stories told below take place in this setting, where many of the resources of educational community development are available, such as reasonable size, nonrational traditions and other forms of symbolic communication, opportunities for dialogue, and self-governance. The first story—“In Search of the Ideal Residence Hall”—recounts an RA training meeting during the summer of 1992 (before students arrived for the 1992-1993 academic year) and describes the multiple visions of, strategies to create, and barriers to achieving a political community on the residential floors. The second story—“There’s a Vandal in the House”—tells how the residents confronted values of community life. This story illustrates a pervasive element in all pluralistic communities—“tribalism.”


The main entrance to Peabody Hall was locked. I peered through the leaded glass doors; no one was in sight. I pounded on the door; no one responded. Persistence eventually led me to find an unlocked door on the north side of the residential college’s primary residence hall. Inside, the musty stale odor of a closed-up and poorly ventilated building baking in the sweltering dog days of August greeted me. I wandered the first floor looking for signs of life. Passing the living room, I observed Daryl. We exchanged greetings and updated each other on our summers as we strolled toward the conference room. We met Val en route to the meeting room. Daryl and Val were a bit more tanned and rested than when I last saw them in May. They were glad to be back in school and anxious for the new year and their RA responsibilities to begin.

At 7:35 P.M., five minutes after the RA training meeting was scheduled to begin, Val, Daryl, and I were alone in the conference room. Shortly thereafter, the remaining staff members trickled in. By 7:45 the entire 1992- 1993 Peabody and Mary Lyon14 staff—two senior staff and nine RAs—finally assembled. Robert, the Resident Instructor and staff supervisor, was the last to arrive. He immediately distributed copies of the previous year’s Community Living Standards and announced that the entire meeting would be devoted to discussing and agreeing on standards for the upcoming year.15

This was the third RA training meeting. The first two had been devoted almost exclusively to team-building activities such as untangling human knots, participating in systematic dyadic exchanges, and cooking meals. The staff’s good-natured verbal exchanges affirmed the wisdom of this training sequence. The RAs were comfortable with each other and were ready to tackle their least favorite chore—setting policy. There were only three days until first-year students arrived for Welcome Week—hardly enough time to tackle such a monumental and important task.

The RA staff, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, spread out around the large conference table. Lucia, a first-year RA, spoke first. “Each corridor had a distinct personality last year. Some people were not comfortable with their corridor’s personality. I know I wasn’t.” Robert followed up, “What made it uncomfortable?” Lucia continued:

Some of the women from two-east were not very friendly, especially some of the sophomores. There was a rift between the first and second years. The sophomore women were involved in partying most of second semester.

Val contrasted her experiences with Lucia’s.

Last year two-main was mostly quiet. Our RA handled things pretty well. She did not act like our parents. She wanted us to confront things ourselves, like noisy neighbors. If we didn’t get any satisfaction, we were to see her.

“You know, I am ashamed to say but there were some people on my corridor that I didn’t know. There was not enough community,” Coral abruptly announced. Val said she eventually got to know everyone on her corridor, while Lucia acknowledged that there were some rooms on her corridor that she never entered the entire year—“There were sophomores I said hello to and tried to get to know, but nothing ever developed.” Tara interrupted to remind the group that she was a sophomore last year and had good relationships with many first-year students. Daryl, quiet thus far, spoke: “This seems really contrary to community. I am surprised that people did not know each other or didn’t interact.” Lucia elaborated to further substantiate her claim: “I often said hello but was ignored.” Rex, the only returning RA from the year before, acknowledged problems with peer relationships and announced his solution to the problem—“I want to do more programming so everyone will know each other and will be more comfortable.” Rex rattled off a list of programs he was contemplating.

RAs recognized that the primary responsibility for building this ideal community rested with them. A fragmented and sometimes segregated residential population impeded the staff’s quest for the ideal residential community. Apparently, they had seriously analyzed the interpersonal dynamics of the past year and were ready to remedy these ills by cultivating stronger relationships between first- and second-year students, the primary inhabitants of the residence halls.

The stream-of-consciousness discussion of the upcoming year seemed stalled by the RAs’ assessment of the past. Lucia continued with the worst of the 1991-1992 academic year in review. She recounted a weekend when three major incidents occurred: A non-Western woman jumped from a third-floor window; a non-Miami University person stalked a Peabody Hall resident; and a woman’s artwork, stored in the public hallway, was defaced. Robert assured the staff the weekend referred to was not the norm, but also expressed confidence that there would be weekends when similar events would occur. Rex shifted the conversation from crazy weekends to noise. He warned of a negative by-product of RAs’ singled-handedly following up on noise violations:

I would say things like “it is too loud,” trying to speak for myself and those who were too quiet or intimidated to speak up. The people I confronted would think that it only was me complaining. I took all of the heat for noise when I didn’t deserve it. We need to build more community and get people to confront each other.

Staff compiled their predictions for the year’s worst noise violators. The list grew as staff offered names and rationales for their selections. Val reminded the group that not everyone desired a quiet environment:

Normally it never bothered me. One night they were out there talking about taping people’s mouths shut. I opened my door to joke with them. When I opened the door, I exploded. I said something like, “How would you like it if I taped your f——g mouths shut.” I don’t know what happened. I just exploded. People didn’t talk to me for weeks. They thought I was psycho. I guess I shouldn’t have done that.

Daryl’s comments prompted a barrage of psycho-related comments from his colleagues. The staff relished these periodic bantering interludes.

Eventually, Robert redirected the dialogue: “Take a moment and read last year’s vis [visitation] policy.” He then summarized it: “Last year vis was based on the no bother rule. If it [a visitation violation16] was not bothering anyone then it was tolerated.” Rex assured his peers that this approach was straightforward and unambiguous. Tara, unconvinced of the policy’s clarity, requested an explanation of “bottom line” item #3, which read “I don’t want to see any bodies in the hallway after vis.” She asked, “Does this mean I have to confront someone who was not violating vis but say is just studying by themselves in the hallway?” Without waiting for a response to Tara’s inquiry, Sherman requested clarification of “bottom line” statement #5—“If any resident ever questions you about your behavior in relation to vis, stop them and have them see Robert.” Robert explained:

The reason we put that in there is because students when they get caught violating a policy try to deflect the conversation away from them. Sometimes they will say that the RA does it [violates visitation] so it should be OK for them to do it as well. By recommending that they see me, RAs can focus on the issue at hand—the visitation violator.

Coral supported the no-bother approach, but stressed the need for staff, after a vis confrontation, to escort violators off the floor so that they know the RAs are serious. Joy recounted how once she was on the men’s floor after hours filling up her water jug at the fountain and the RA stayed with her, then escorted her to the stairwell. Rex joked with Joy about the time he confronted her for a vis violation. Tara’s query interrupted the nostalgic review of the past year.

Is the RA key-jingling procedure going to be enacted this year so students know the RA is coming and they can get in their rooms or shut their doors? . . . If this is going to be policy, it should be mentioned at the corridor meetings. I thought for the longest time, when I heard the RAs jingling the keys that they were on an ego trip.

The group chuckled as they unanimously agreed to continue this practice. Next, Daryl inquired about the documentation procedures. He summarized the previous year’s practices and its limitations:

RAs recorded violations in a binder during staff meetings. If a particular name frequently appeared in the book, I would speak to the person. . . . Often, RAs didn’t record violations in the book. I doubt that a week passed when no one was confronted.

Val expressed reservations about the existing documentation procedure. She concluded, “It sounds pretty strict and official.” Daryl disagreed, “My comments to my residents will be ‘if I see it, I’ll confront it, and document it.’” Staff situated themselves between Val’s and Daryl’s comments. As each RA’s position became clearer, their tolerance for opposing views lessened. The stagnant room air, yawns, and curt responses prompted Robert to announce a break.

Ten minutes later, the group reassembled and continued to forge a new-and-improved documentation process. Camille’s “document everything” proposal elicited ghastly expressions on RAs’ faces, although no one rejected the idea aloud. Coral, unwilling to commit to the system, sought further clarification: “What happens to the names in the book?”

Robert, sensing the group’s mounting frustration and fatigue, suggested the group review the alcohol and other drugs policy. Immediately, Lucia lamented, “How can we do something when we can’t see it [alcohol and other drugs]?” Robert rephrased the question—“If students use drugs, which we know some will, and are not telling us about it, and we do not see them using drugs, what are we to do?” Val verbalized her dilemma with documenting illegal drug use: “We need to make people feel it’s OK to come forward and to make it OK for people to get help. If we document it and they get in trouble, they won’t use us as a resource.” Val admitted that a friend of hers took drugs. She said, “I don’t want to throw them to the dogs. My first concern is their well-being.” Lucia advocated sponsoring programs that educated residents about the harmful effects of drugs, but was uneasy with education being the sole policy. She continued, “We need to do more than just educate.”

Lucia interrupted the “RA as disciplinarian” versus the “RA as counselor/helper” discussion by raising a broader philosophical question. It further muddled the discussion. She inquired, “Are we being hypocritical? We don’t enforce vis yet we enforce other policies. How do we deal with this?” Daryl, annoyed by his colleagues’ “squishy” stance on policy enforcement, again reiterated his solution: “I plan on telling my residents the rules and holding them to them. . . . I am going to enforce the rules.” Daryl’s colleagues declined to endorse his straightforward approach to rule enforcement, yet proposed no alternatives. Lucia continued to pose tough questions that were seldom answered. She referred to the alcohol standard—“If drinking is against the law, why do we give five warnings?”

Sherman, who had been comatose-like throughout the meeting, came alive. He stated:

If students are caught with alcohol uptown, they are immediately arrested. They get no warning. Miami University has a drinking problem and so does Western [WCP]. I have a problem with not confronting signs of drinking—like people going to the recycling bins and emptying cases of empty beer cans. I am deeply concerned about the amount of alcohol consumed here.

Tara confessed to seeing beer cans in the recycling bins but ignoring this because she did not observe the violation. Sherman continued, “How can we turn our backs?” Joy rebutted, “RAs can’t change a person’s life-style.” Camille argued that staff can make residents aware of their actions. Rex advocated confronting residents even if it were based on a suspicion, just to communicate that the staff cares. Coral confessed to feeling like a hypocrite. She said, “I did it last year. How can I enforce it this year or preach about its danger?”

Frustration mounted as energy levels waned. Robert, sensing this, opted to end the meeting with an autocratic mandate. He declared that RAs are not to drink or take drugs under any circumstances. Everyone agreed to adhere to his edict. Robert thanked the group for their patience and commitment and scheduled a follow-up policy meeting for the next evening. Moments after the meeting ended, RAs disappeared into the dimly lit hallways.

The follow-up meeting began at exactly 7:30. The relentless day-and-night training schedule seemed to have sedated the group. Sherman rested his head on the chair, looked upward at the ceiling, and occasionally closed his eyes. Robert, sensing the fatigue, was more animated and task-oriented. He returned to an unanswered question from the evening before—“What do you do if you do not have proof?” Lucia summarized the group’s dilemma of knowing but not really knowing. She explained she had an intuitive sense there was alcohol in the building, but she genuinely did not know the specifics.

Robert succinctly summarized RAs’ comments: “There appear to be three issues: awareness, how staff will respond, and the ramifications of the confrontation.” Heads nodded affirmatively. Gradually, the conversation drifted back to documentation procedures. Robert proposed a system that informed staff about possible incidents without escalating incidents. Sherman asked whether a student had a right to know that he or she is “in some book.” Staff immediately took sides. Some advocated RAs’ informing students that the incident would be recorded. Others felt the mere mention of a “write-up” would make too big a deal of the incident. Sherman favored student notification. He passionately stated, “They have a right to know that something is being written up. They should have access to the material and have an opportunity to respond to it.” Robert concurred and warned that not telling students jeopardized their trust and created the impression that RAs were doing something behind their backs. Coral’s centrist position, with which everyone agreed, recommended informing students if their actions were documented, but not making a big deal of it.

The discussion widened to include an examination of the role of RAs and other WCP students in disciplinary follow-up. Sherman noted that the WCP had no student judicial board, and only administrators were involved in the discipline process. He then posed a question:

Why do RAs relinquish power to the administration by always calling Robert or Camille? Once the power is delegated, we complain that the administration has too much power. We as a group have an opportunity to take more responsibility for our community and share in the responsibility of governing, yet we abdicated this role. I think it’s a mistake. I don’t think it is a good idea to pass off this responsibility. The community should take responsibility for its actions.

Lucia immediately disagreed—“People like Robert are trained to confront. I don’t feel skilled enough to mediate some of the complex situations that could arise.” Coral, oblivious to the debate in progress, interjected, “Now what is the policy for drugs?” Her comment temporarily dissipated simmering tensions. The staff eventually agreed on a tentative policy—they would stress that drug usage would not be tolerated, Camille and Robert would take primary responsibility for drug-related follow-up, and all RAs would sponsor alcohol and drug programming.

Staff struggled with their new responsibilities. Some, like Sherman, welcomed them and willingly accepted the “headaches” that accompanied them. Others expressed discomfort and readily abdicated their responsibility to anyone who wanted it. All recognized that this new responsibility, regardless of how they accepted it, would alter their peer relationships.

Sensing time constraints, the staff hastily discussed noise standards. Several RAs summarized their pet peeves. Lucia provided specific examples of how she constantly went up to the men’s floor to ask them to turn down their stereos. Tara expressed a concern about neighbors who stood in the corridor and talked loudly. Sherman provided a detailed example of a daily noise ritual in which he engaged the previous year:

People who lived across the courtyard from me would play loud music. I would walk over there to confront them. By the time I got there the music stopped. By the time I returned to my room, the music was again blaring. It was a game that I don’t want to play again.

Robert posed the question: “Are these actions a necessary by-product of community? We encourage people to be in the halls, keep their doors open, form study groups in the hallway, and so forth. If we discourage these kinds of activities will it change the ways we create and sustain community?” Rex joked about his desire to foster community but not noise. It was paradoxical that RAs who spent their time and energy encouraging students to know each other and interact found themselves frustrated by those interactions.

The group never responded directly to Robert’s provocative question. Instead, they simply agreed to stress consideration at the floor meetings and encourage students to confront noise without the aid of RAs. It was nearing 11:15 P.M. Robert suggested the staff review the policies on smoking, damage, pets, candles, and bicycles, then submit to him written policy modifications. En route to the main office, Robert and I discussed the notion of community, so frequently mentioned in these two policy meetings. His comments captured the ambiguous nature of this concept. He concluded, “People know it exists and sort of what it is, but if it goes away, no one will know how to fix it.”


A few weeks later, I passed Robert, the resident instructor, in the Peabody main corridor. As we chatted, I learned of vandalism to one of the men’s bathrooms on the third floor earlier in the week. The estimated cost of the damage was over $300.

I proceeded to the third floor to assess the damage first-hand. Humpy, wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist, shook the water from his shoulder-length hair, and confirmed Robert’s damage estimates—“Many of the damage-related signs and letters posted on the bathroom door have been ripped down.” I read the three remaining signs. Two were written by Rex, the corridor RA, and the third by a resident.

Roy and concerned others: You are correct in stating that we cannot be sure the vandal(s) is (are) from three-west, but it did occur in three-west’s bathroom, therefore the whole hall including women will be charged accordingly. I feel that you are totally missing the point. Instead of being upset with those assessing the charges, you should be upset with the person(s) creating the damages. The vandals are damaging our home. Feel free to talk to me about this issue—Rex

Linus’s note, which complained about an earlier note he posted on the door that was torn off, sarcastically mimicked the rationale, tone, and language of Rex’s letter.

Some heartless vandal has once again struck our little home. The personal expression and interdisciplinary discontent compositions that were hanging on the bathroom door are lost forever and cannot be duplicated. We are still assessing the damage but someone is going to have to pay for this. Each must have cost 3-4 hundred dollars so this will have to come out of the hall government budget. P.S. You are a f——g d——k— Linus. The third sign announced a community meeting about the vandalism scheduled for Sunday at 6:00 P.M. in the theater.

Throughout the day, the damage incident dominated my discussions with students. Rumors about spiraling damage costs fueled debates and discontent. By late afternoon, I learned who was responsible, how it happened, and how administrators, RAs, corridor members, and vandals planned to respond to the aftermath of this event, in particular, at the community meeting.

Four days later, students loitered outside the theater waiting for the community meeting to begin. Inside, members of the corridor where the vandalism occurred were seated. Most of the twenty students, including student government representatives and women from the other WCP residence hall, occupied the seats in the last rows of the theater. Dwight, Daryl, and Camille arrived and sat in the middle of the theater facing the attendees. Dwight began with an update on the damage: “The toilet seat has been ripped off twice and the shower head was ripped off once. The cost is about 360 bucks.” He explained that hall government funds usually paid for public-area damage but at the most recent meeting, government representatives refused to subsidize intentional damage. Dwight looked toward the government representatives to augment his comments. They declined his nonverbal invitation.

Garry yelled out that he did not do it and did not want to pay. This drew applause and hoots from the audience. Roy capitalized on this moment of discontent. He boastfully announced that he planned to urinate out his third-floor window if the bathroom was permanently closed. Dwight maintained an even-toned voice as he dispelled this rumor. Still, his remarks failed to dissipate the confrontational atmosphere. Corbu stood up and demanded that the vandal accept responsibility.

Corbu’s comments surprised me since many in the room knew the identities of the vandals. My discussions with various camps of students, prior to the meeting, suggested that no one really expected the guilty persons to come forward. Throughout the week, residents and staff defended their decision to conceal the identities of the guilty. Some staff knew who did the damage, but lacked a smoking gun—they were not present when the damage occurred and no witnesses had come forward. Several residents knew the identity of the vandals, but their “no-narcing” code prohibited them from publicly revealing their identity.

Dwight continued, “This meeting is to figure out a way to pay for the damage.” His nonconfrontational presentation style was in contrast to the tone of the previous speakers. He continued, “I speak as a concerned citizen, not as a hard-ass RA.” Roy reiterated Corbu’s call for the guilty to step forward. Dwight concurred, but reminded attendees that the damage occurred over a week ago and no one had yet accepted responsibility. He expressed disappointment that residents were angry with the university and Rex the RA, but not the vandals.

Those in attendance brainstormed ways to pay for the damage. Suggestions included sponsoring a bake sale, selling the broken toilet seat, and peddling T-shirts. No one took these ideas seriously, but all welcomed the humor.

“Vandalism is an insult to the community,” a student government leader declared. He made a third plea for the guilty to take responsibility for their actions. No one responded. Roy defiantly announced he was not going to pay for damage. Daryl, silent up to this point, responded in a confrontational tone—“They’ll [the university] put a hold on your academic records if you don’t pay.” Roy retorted, “I don’t give a s——t about grades.” Daryl countered, “Well, you won’t be able to graduate.” These terse exchanges delighted the audience. The point-counterpoint debate diverted attention from Dwight’s problem-solving agenda.

Dwight calculated that if each third-floor resident paid $3 most of the damage bill would be covered. Clusters formed to discuss Dwight’s idea. The proposal had broad-based support. One student suggested reducing the per-person cost by having everyone in Peabody pay. A second student suggested including Mary Lyon residents, which would reduce further the per-person costs. A third person suggested that students from all over campus pay, since they occasionally visited the building and used the bathrooms.

Humpy endorsed Dwight’s proposal, but feared vandals might strike again. Linus joked about serving as a collection agent, scaring the first-year students into paying in exchange for his monetary contribution. Juan requested an exemption on the grounds that he did not shower. He boasted, “I have a good alibi for the shower damage, I don’t use ’em.” One woman argued against the proposal that would require women to pay. Roy argued that he did not do it and he had to pay so why should women who did not do it be exempt.

Daryl thought the group was avoiding the option of identifying the guilty. Garry, frustrated with these never-ending quests to find the guilty, verbalized the unwritten rule guiding attendees’ behavior—“Look, we’re not going to rat-out our friends.” Roy articulated the argument RAs frequently made during their training sessions—he could not reveal the identity of those responsible because he did not have proof. Some attendees agreed to submit in writing the names of the possible suspects. Dwight exited the theater to retrieve paper. By the time he returned, the group had talked itself out of this idea. Dwight, reluctant to abandon the idea, distributed paper and encouraged attendees to anonymously submit relevant information to him. Eventually, the restless group endorsed Dwight’s $3 proposal, which he summarized:

I will put a notice in the Focus [weekly newsletter] to encourage the guilty to come forward. Anyone knowing anything about the damage can submit information to RAs. If the guilty person is identified, he or she would have the opportunity to work off the damage. If no one comes forward, $3 will be collected from each person who uses the bathroom.

The group exited the theater. Dwight and Daryl remained, debriefing the meeting. Dwight was optimistic; Daryl was disenchanted. Dwight explained his upbeat assessment:

I didn’t expect anyone to ID the guilty. It [the meeting] communicated that vandalism was not a good idea and that everyone would have to pay for a few thoughtless people if it continued. It was a call to action.

Later that evening, Dwight and Daryl updated the RA staff on the community meeting. RAs doubted anyone would accept responsibility or submit relevant information. Staff exchanged rumors and discussed ways to flush out the vandals. Dwight and Rex had followed up on leads, but they did not pan out. All those interrogated had denied involvement.

Resident Assistants continued to discuss the incident. Dwight wanted to resolve the conflict by being part of the community—a concerned citizen. Daryl wanted to flex his RA power to induce a quick resolution. Some RAs focused on the rights of the accused but were unwilling to act on hearsay accounts. Others viewed individual rights as secondary to the rights of the larger community. Some RAs, like Sherman, wanted to use the incident to challenge the status quo. Other RAs viewed change as too risky.

Three weeks passed and no one accepted responsibility or offered leads. Robert sent third-floor residents a letter informing them that RAs would collect $3 from each floor member. This letter prompted an angry written response from some third-floor residents. The flyer announcing the meeting read:

The vandals are still at large, even three-east has to pay $3 and our hall treasury is out several hundred bucks. Are you pissed off about the crapper scandal? Community meeting revisited Wednesday, 8:30 P.M. in three-main.

I arrived at the second community meeting at 8:15 P.M. Rex, Sherman, and Dwight went door-to-door to rustle up residents. Thirty people were present at the start of the meeting. Robert summarized the previous community meeting resolution and mentioned that some residents were still unhappy and had requested a second meeting to devise a better resolution.

Robert asked those in attendance why they were attending the meeting. Noah ignored the question and demanded to know why only men had to pay. Another male attendee condemned the solution because it was not certain that men did the damage. Garry argued it was wrong to assume that only those who use the bathroom were suspects. Noah reasoned if he were to destroy a bathroom, he wouldn’t destroy his own bathroom. He sarcastically announced, “I’d go somewhere else.” Based on Noah’s argument, Garry concluded that women were the most likely suspects and therefore they should pay. Men cheered.

Robert cited a national study that concluded that most residence hall damage was initiated by men. Male attendees did not respond favorably to Robert’s statistical generalization, arguing that no one can be certain, and therefore it is wrong to assume that men did it. Interestingly, those who argued most vehemently against the male-damage theory knew that men were responsible for the damage.

Men from three-east argued that efforts should concentrate on identifying the guilty, not charging the innocent. Garry resurrected the “no witnesses, no proof” dilemma he had espoused at the first community meeting. Noah augmented Garry’s comment—“Look, if it is your friend who did it, you are not going to be his friend if you make him pay. No one has that kind of money.” Angered by this comment, a three-east resident responded: “I don’t like a small group of people deciding they are not going to tell and by doing so are deciding that I should pay. It isn’t fair.” Garry retorted, “It’s unrealistic to expect someone to turn in a friend for $3 when he would have to pay about $300.” Another three-east resident argued that it was not the $3 that mattered but that he had to pay for someone else’s stupid behavior.

Garry assured the group that he and others had reprimanded those responsible and he was certain that no further damage would occur. This was the first time that a person openly admitted to knowing the identities of the vandals. Another three-east resident asked, “Does this mean I can damage something and be protected?” Sherman ignored the question but asserted: “If the vandal cared about the community, he or she would accept responsibility.” Noah assured the group that the vandals were not going to confess. Jon, a three-central resident, passionately argued with Garry and Noah. They reiterated their no-proof dilemma. Noah reminded the group that it was a waste of time to continue this line of conversation.

Some students were obsessed with the past; they wanted to solve the mystery and bring the guilty to justice. Others were concerned with the future; they wanted to make certain similar events did not recur. Some focused on practical issues such as damage-collection procedures. Others concerned themselves with philosophical issues such as doing what was right.

Garry continued to propose solutions: “Since the bathroom was a public area, the public should pay, including women and faculty.” Robert nixed the idea of charging faculty, but did not publicly waive my damage fee. Two women announced they would contribute to reduce the per-person costs, much to the delight of the men. Robert called for a straw poll to ascertain the views of attendees. The group was evenly split between the all-corridor and all-building payment plans.

After the meeting I chatted with one vandal who did not attend the meeting. He presented his side of the incident:

I’m sick of it. . . . I went to the first meeting, but now I don’t want to have anything else to do with it. . . . It’s over as far as I am concerned. I did it and it won’t happen again. I am sick and tired of people like Sherman badgering people to come forward. . . . Look it was no big deal. People should just pay the money and forget it. It’s ancient history.

I asked him if some three-east students got drunk and damaged something, would he be willing to pay for their actions? He immediately replied, “ F——k no . . . it’s the group of people that you hang out with that matters.” He told a story about a student who confessed to damaging property in the past. The person had the damage fee waived, but now every time something is damaged, that person is the likely suspect. He concluded that this was why no one would come forward. He chastised the more righteous meeting attendees, then concluded that his critics would do the same thing if they were in his situation.

Although threats to community of this magnitude were infrequent, when they occurred, they dominated the daily agendas of staff and students. The “crapper scandal,” as it became known, was the kind of incident RAs feared during their training. They recognized its divisive nature and its rippling effect on the future. The incident and its aftermath exposed the fragile WCP ethos. As one RA stated: “I can’t believe a toilet seat can cause such chaos and disarray.”


As the narratives suggest, community is of great interest to WCP Resident Assistants. Like the college presidents responding to the Carnegie Foundation survey (1990) and the Duke University department chair, the RAs valued community, craved a sense of belonging and affiliation, and believed community was attainable. RAs recognized that new students expected to feel a sense of belonging to the WCP, and RAs wanted to do their part to construct this community ethos.

While unfamiliar with the student-persistence scholarship (e.g., Astin, 1984; Tinto, 1993) and scholarly discourses about different kinds of learning communities (e.g., Carlson, 1994), the RAs intuitively recognized that students’ involvement—with peers and faculty inside and outside the classroom—was related to persistence. The residential staff also possessed an instinctive sense that their small residential community was comprised of multiple, distinct subcultures (e.g., men, women, first-year students, sophomores, RAs) with competing agendas pertaining to the way the residential college should be managed. While RAs struggled to “do the right thing,” they recognized what Rowe (1991) so eloquently argued—that the process of forging a community was a purposeful act.

During the two RA policy meetings, RAs sincerely engaged in a community quest—the search for the ideal residence hall. Their vision of the ideal residential community was not unlike Kanter’s (1972) essential characteristics of a utopia, which she describes as

an imaginary society in which humankind’s deepest yearning, noblest dreams, and highest aspirations come to fulfillment, where all physical, social and spiritual forces work together, in harmony, to permit the attainment of everything people find necessary and desirable. In the imaginated utopia, people work and live together closely and cooperatively, in a social order that is self-created and self-chosen, rather than externally imposed, yet one that also operates according to a higher order of natural and spiritual laws. Utopia is held together by commitment rather than coercion, for in utopia what people want to do is the same as what they have to do; the interests of the individuals are congruent with the interests of the group; and personal growth and freedom entail responsibility for others. Underlying the vision of utopia is the assumption that harmony, cooperation, and mutuality of interests are natural to human existence, rather than conflict, competition, and exploitation, which arise in imperfect societies. (p. 1)

RAs desired a utopia similar to Kanter’s utopian vision. They fantasized about recapturing a WCP community of yesteryear (which probably never existed) where RAs’ authority was respected and the homogeneous and harmonious student population shared a common purpose. Yet, the realization that the WCP was chaotic, diverse, and imperfect and that the staff had a duty to protect minority rights and individual freedoms, respect differences, and respond to the individual needs of their residents tempered these nostalgic utopian dreams.

Throughout the policy discussion, RAs struggled to find the appropriate balance between the individual and his or her community, bringing to life the liberal-communitarian debate discussed earlier. Resident Assistants wanted residents to conform to standards that were for the good of the community, but did not want to mandate that students surrender their individual liberties. They espoused Kanter’s (1972) utopian norms but recognized that the vigorous pursuit of such norms might upset the delicate individualism-community balance that favored individual liberties, operationalized by the RAs’ endorsement of the “no-bother” rule and their “key-jingling” practice. Staff wanted to be change agents toward a more communitarian orientation but more often than not were keepers of the liberal status quo.

While some RAs during their pre-opening training sessions favored policies that reflected individual autonomy as the highest moral good, most longed for a type of tribal or family-like community. However, soon after the start of the academic year, RAs quickly concluded that a residential setting does not necessarily lead to the formation of a family-like community. One of their fears expressed during their training—that there was “not enough community”—was realized soon after the academic year began. Like most institutions across the country, the WCP reflected the American population as a whole: students from diverse ethnicities, ideologies, religions, age ranges, and social classes all in relatively individualistic pursuit of a college degree. The RAs who attempted to build a community on tribal or family-like bonds of love, friendship, blood, or historical narratives discovered they had taken on an insurmountable task, especially given our cultural traditions of individualism, so pervasive on the WCP’s residential campus. The WCP was neither homogeneous nor harmonious, but rather a compilation of distinct, interconnected student tribes and subgroups, sometimes in conflict. For example, in the vandalism incident, the vandal cohort’s loyalty to each other was stronger than their commitment to the larger WCP’s principle of justice or any shared communal norms regarding honesty.

Within the WCP, smaller tribes—homogenous group of people sustained by common goals, beliefs, and traditions—reigned. Some tribes were based on race or ethnicity but others were based on more kinship-like loyalty to one’s friends. These enclaves invoke a sense of loyalty, commitment, and parochialism that we often reserve for ethnic and/or religious groups. The RAs and the vandalism cohorts were examples of two WCP tribes. Traditions, narratives, ideologies, practices, expectations, and obligations guided each tribe. For example, the RAs’ common goal was to vigorously challenge actions that negatively affect the residence hall (e.g., vandalism). At odds with this goal was a primary expectation to not “ratout” friends, regardless of the situation. Such tribal loyalties limited the problem-solving choices, evidenced by the impasse that pitted the RAs against the vandalism cohort during the community meetings. The two groups situated themselves, in the words of Frazer and Lacey (1993), as binary opposites. For either group to compromise would be perceived as being unprincipled. Walzer’s (1992) wisdom about the power of these tribal bonds is evident in the WCP vandalism story:

Tribalism names the commitment of individuals and groups to their own history, culture, and identity, and this commitment (though not any particular version of it) is a permanent feature of human social life. The parochialism that it breeds is similarly permanent. It can’t be overcome; it has to be accommodated, and therefore the crucial universal principle is that it must always be accommodated; not only my parochialism but yours as well, and his and hers in their turn. (p. 171)

The dynamics of the “crapper scandal,” steeped in conflict, hardly appear to be compatible with tribal notions of a WCP community, one that would erase (or at least weaken) the multiple tribal allegiances in order to form a commitment to one larger WCP grouping and ideal. Tribal allegiances formed through ethnicity, religion, or friendship networks are powerful bonds, often demanding our first loyalties.

Educational reformers, when faced with behaviors like those displayed in the vandalism incident, seek to reclaim the “mythic” community of yesteryear, when a college was a more homogenous tribe characterized by shared values, traditions, and commitment to a more singular (and less contested) notion of a common good. When faced with tribal clashes like the one recounted above—or perhaps even more tense conflicts between tribal groupings based on race or ethnicity—institutions often want to make tribal loyalties go away, wishing that the common good of the institution might create a type of political community that nurtures a unified civic community based in public talk and common action. Among educators, the desire to capture that old-time community is a response to the conflict caused, in part, by the increasing diversity of students on campus. Walzer (1992) argues that when various tribal loyalties threaten the well-being of our political community, our compulsion is to cling to unities wherever they exist.17 Our instinct is to rally around the community banner and minimize the various subcultures and tribal allegiances that add a rich, complex texture to a campus environment. Tribes, in this instance, are seen as a barrier to unity rather than as one of several potentially enriching commitments one makes. Tribes are seen as standing in the way of making the campus at large into one monolithic tribal group. Such an oversimplified conceptualization of educational communities, combined with selective and nostalgic memory on the part of many reformers, can lead to dangerous outcomes. The silencing of some voices, unhealthy in any community but especially so in an educational community, is an example of the danger in this type of thinking.

An alternative to liberal or tribal conceptions of a WCP community is the vision of political community. Such educational communities support a network of interdependent individuals and tribes, value pluralism and self governance, and utilize rational and nonrational forms of communication to sustain common identities and carry conflict through to resolution. Political communities (Barber, 1986, 1996; Knight, 1996) subscribe to many of the values of communities of difference and diversity as defined by Carlson (1994), where difference is recognized outside of the binary oppositions, space is provided for subcultural groups to form their own communities of interest, and at the same time a common, public culture is consciously being constructed and reconstructed through dialogue across difference. These communities maximize public participation, providing room for divergent perspectives. In this sense they cling to aspects of the liberal pluralistic communities governed by rationality and discourse by protecting individual freedoms, promoting tolerance, and safeguarding equity.

Yet, political communities in educational settings also promote aspects of the tribe, in two specific ways. First, political community leaders understand tribal subcultures to be a healthy part of human identity and expression. The students in the “crapper scandal” demonstrated instrumental reasoning and tribalism. For example, Garry reasoned, “It’s unrealistic to expect someone to turn in a friend for three bucks when he would have to pay about $300,” thus allowing the entire hall to be charged when the guilty party is known to be within one’s circle. Tribalism was demonstrated in actions that protected “their own” at the expense of the ethical code of the whole residence community. As the narratives suggest, it is tempting for educators to want to eliminate tribal influences, seeing them as balkanizing to campus unity. These tribal tendencies, we maintain, fulfill needs of affection, are demonstrations of commitment, and foster identity development. Tribal tendencies, moreover, are not limited to racial, ethnic, class-based, or religious types of groupings; popular cultural forms of music and leisure are increasingly common forms of activity around which people, especially young adults, bond (Hebdige, 1979).

Political communities promote aspects of tribalism in a second way. Tribal relations are often distinctly nonrational in nature, developed through narratives, traditions, and rituals, not through logic, evidence, and objective reasoning. The construction of political community calls for the development of public identities through narratives, common work, and rituals. This nonrational aspect of political community also recognizes that emotion and reason, individual and community, are never antithetical. Just as our emotions help us to develop webs of caring so critical to educational communities, so do emotions serve as a part of the reasoning process.18

Political communities are not simply an aggregate of various tribes that are isolated from one another, as one student found the environment of the WCP to be:

I think this environment splits people up. It is not really a community. You have people who are hard-core into certain things. A lot of people are not willing to listen and learn about each other so you have separation, isolation, and frustration. (Interview, March 27, 1992)

Political communities in education are spaces where one’s multiple identities can flourish—one’s pluralistic and sometimes fluid commitments to ideals and ideas of the mind and heart. An educational community seeks “a capacity for relatedness within individuals—relatedness not only to people but to events in history, to nature, to the world of ideas, and yes, to things of the spirit” (Palmer, 1987, p. 24). But educational communities also ask for a commitment beyond personal, ethnic, or racial loyalties. The commitment required is manifold; it is not simply a matter of “community” (i.e., a nationalistic version of political community, an “America-love-it-or-leave-it” attitude) versus “pluralism” (all tribes coexisting peacefully in a residential setting but with no sense of common aims or projects).

Such commitment is not nurtured through rational dialogue and public talk alone. Moon (1993) is among those who argue that if we can “bracket” our differences by abstracting from our particular identities, we can find or construct mutually acceptable principles (p. 219). The RAs found, however, that the task of helping people learn how to bracket differences in public dialogue is difficult. The vandalism incident shows that the task of identifying mutually acceptable principles through public negotiations is easier said than done. It may be a process that shows success only over an extended period of time (not unlike other educational experiences). Bracketing differences is perhaps better stated as the capacity for individuals to approach a problem-solving situation with a readiness to find common ground, yet the term is troubling for at least two interrelated reasons. The first lies in the problematic use of the term bracket. To bracket our differences, or to abstract from our particular identities, is a conceptual leap that requires a unique, and perhaps an extremely mature, cognitive ability. Can we indeed distance ourselves so easily from important commitments, and is it even desirable in college-age students who are testing out ideas, passions, and commitments? Certainly it is necessary, in the case of college students, to help them to understand which of their multiple selves is most appropriate to the particular problem at hand. But such an understanding takes practice and may not always look like a glowing success, for in all educational endeavors, mistakes are necessary for learning. Second, what Moon calls “bracketing difference” and what we call “negotiating multiple commitments” is not a purely cognitive process. Nurturing the commitment to community of any sort is perhaps an impossible task without affirmation of symbolic communications (i.e., those nonrational aspects of communities that bond members together). These types of communication, often absent in educational settings except for the perfunctory opening and closing ceremonies during the school year, are extremely important aspects of many tribal groups. Rites of passage, worship, new membership, and significant historical events are marked with ceremony and remembrance. Common work is also a bodily commitment to community. Engaging in physical work toward a unified end can utilize the rational and nonrational aspects of community construction. A community service project that brings students, staff, and faculty together in united aims; preparing meals together; and other activities are examples of this kind of bodily commitment, which can be nurtured in political educational communities.

Commitment to educational community as a political community requires an understanding of students’ commitment to various ideals and groups, but it also necessitates the nurturance of the student commitment to the educational community itself. While no algorithm exists that can ensure the successful creation and maintenance of an educational community, there are critical issues to be considered by educators. We suggest that constructing educational communities requires: (1) a clear understanding of the existing community discourses; (2) dialogue that solicits multiple perspectives; (3) a sensitivity to but not an obsession with efficiency; (4) a commitment to empowering all members of the community; (5) a recognition of the importance of size and scale to community, (6) a comfort with conflict; and (7) a vision of education that regards community life as a process inseparable from the journey of becoming an educated person. We conclude this article by briefly expanding on these requirements.


Emotional appeals for community in higher education have never been stronger. While emotional appeals for community are inspirational and necessary, they are insufficient. As Leinberger and Tucker (1992) noted, “return to community” visions have great emotional appeal that bear little scrutiny when dissected. Emotional appeals must be augmented with intellectual zeal. We advocate that college administrators, students, staff, and faculty develop clearer understandings of the existing community discourses; carefully dissect these views by analyzing the strengths and limitations of each; and situating personal views within these existing intellectual discourses.19

The WCP RAs, especially during their policy discussions, were emotionally committed to the goal of creating a WCP community. They advocated a plethora of community ideologies resembling liberal, tribal, and political views. Unfortunately, they did not possess conceptual frameworks to situate or interconnect their divergent ideologies. Without conceptual maps, too often the RAs’ conversations remained at the superficial “community is good” level.

Those, like ourselves, who advocate the creation of political communities in higher education need to understand the salient philosophical underpinnings and characteristics of not only political community discourses, but divergent community discourses as well. Developing a clear understanding of the existing community discourses and the interests they serve is a prerequisite for effective change.


Political communitarians’ vision of community is formed and sustained by participation in public life, in the common activity and problem solving of our interdependent existence. As Dewey (1927) noted, shared experience is the essence of community life. One form of participation in public life that encourages the sharing of experiences is substantive conversations, exchanges that surface multiple perspectives of attendees. We advocate serious, purposeful, honest, and truthful dialogue—dialogue that explicitly discusses tensions and dilemmas that complicate life, connects what people know with how they live, and integrates social and academic life.20

RAs, during their policy and damage meetings, tried to engage in serious dialogue that explored the kind of norms that would “best” serve the WCP. They espoused their perspectives and solicited the views of their peers. Like political communitarians, seeking democratic, pluralistic communities, the RAs used dialogue to compensate for the absence of positive common values. The aim was for members to transform their views through their participation in common work or problem-solving activities (e.g., deciding who should pay for the damaged bathroom).

Embracing dialogue that solicits multiple perspectives joins together citizens who are separated because of what they believe. Such discourse builds bonds through shared experiences. As the WCP case study reveals, discourse does not automatically lead to a civil resolution nor does it always lead to happy endings. Yet, without sustained dialogue, the solving of public problems through democratic means seems unlikely.


Maintaining a political community is not efficient. It takes time, energy, and persistence. As noted above, substantive dialogue takes time and seldom results in the disputing parties’ resolving all differences. The RA policy meeting was long, laborious, tense, emotionally draining, and messy. It would have been more efficient had Robert, the RAs’ supervisor, drafted community standards for the RAs to approve or drafted standards that he expected RAs to enforce. Likewise, following the damage incident, the RAs could have simply billed all residents for the cost of the damage, rather than sponsor numerous meetings to collectively decide on a solution. The creation and formation of political communities is an ongoing, never-ending process that is labor- and time-intensive. It is an ill-advised perspective for those with a quick-fix mentality.


Closely linked to the goal of tempering the prioritization of efficiency is the ideal of empowering all community members. In the aforementioned example, the Resident Instructor during the policy meeting and the RAs during the damage meetings opted to share power with subordinates. This is the exception rather than the rule in higher education, as Willimon & Naylor (1995) note:

American colleges and universities have traditionally been organized in a hierarchical fashion with faculty and administrators sharing little power with students. Yet in a real community the power to shape and influence the direction of the group must be shared by all members. (p. 152)

Those committed to the ideals of political communities must recognize their existing power and be willing to share it appropriately with fellow members, especially subordinates. Inevitably, some tribes possess more power than others. In the damage dispute, the RAs, because they are university employees, were more powerful. Yet they chose to empower their residents by downplaying their hierarchical status. Such actions, while not efficient, lead to dialogue and a stronger sense of affiliation.


Educational communities rely not only on problem solving through public talk, but on bonds of friendly association and relationships. Both these aspects of educational community are dependent on the scale of the community.21 The new trends in K-12 to build smaller schools and scale down large high schools to schools-within-a-school programs exemplify acknowledgment of this inescapable quality of healthy educational community. WCP, a small residential campus, had a genuine advantage over the larger main campus where face-to-face interaction with fellow members was limited in relative scope. Two WCP student quotations affirm the importance of creating human-scale communities in higher education settings and illuminate the perils associated with larger, impersonal organizations.

We all know each other. It’s like a big community. Everyone is taking the same classes. So if we have a problem with something, you say, “You know I am really having a problem with this class and what do you think?” It’s cool. We have a lot of conversations about intellectual things which is exciting for me. I think that’s great. (Interview, March 11, 1992)

I have a good friend from home who lives on main campus. He doesn’t know people in his dorm. I met a girl who lives upstairs from him and I said, “You must know her, she lives upstairs.” He said, “No, I don’t know her at all.” That amazes me. I know everybody in Peabody. I recognize them and feel like I could approach them if I had to. (Interview, April 9, 1992)

Ryan’s (1992) historical overview of residential colleges captured the attractive features WCP students longed for and recognized as important:

The Residential College aims to promote the enduring element of what Cotton Mather called “the Collegiate Way of Living.” In promoting cohesive communities within the university, collegiate ideal embraces the principle that informal contact in structured community life is a significant element in the learning process—contact between students and instructors, and among students themselves. (p. 34)

The residential college is an optimal setting for political communities. As Ryan noted, the residential college allows for strong relations among students and among faculty and students to educate themselves and each other. The scale of the WCP allowed for rich student-to-student interaction. Ryan also argued that residential colleges are optimal settings for students to engage in self-exploration. The small scale provided numerous opportunities for students to begin to sort out who they were and what they believed. Willimon and Naylor (1995) connect this highly personalized self-reflection process with the strong sense of place provided by a residential college:

One of the obvious advantages of the residential college system is that it can provide students a stronger sense of place than is usually the case in large, impersonal “dormitories.” Students eat, sleep, play, and learn within the confines of a relatively small, well-defined space. (p. 157)

The importance of scale in forging political communities should not be overlooked. Carefully tending to the size of an educational community is an important consideration for architects of educational environments. We advocate breaking down larger impersonal social units, whenever possible, into smaller ones.


As the vandalism incident suggests, conflict is an integral, necessary, and educational aspect of a learning community. Educational communities, like political communities, are lightening rods for conflict because they provide space for tribes and diverse individuals to interact. The WCP “family” mentioned in the aforementioned student quotations is dramatically different from the 1960s television families of Ward and June Cleaver or Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. It is more akin to the 1990s television family depicted in the television show Roseanne. In Roseanne Conner’s family, conflict is the norm; differences are begrudgingly accepted; family crises (e.g., drug usage, abortion, and alcoholism) arise, are acknowledged, and openly if imperfectly discussed. Weekly episodes do not conclude with the family resolving all of their problems and living “happily ever after.” In the WCP “family,” things are not always “pretty,” as the vandalism discussions remind us. Accepting rather than repressing conflict is another important consideration for those who desire to forge political communities.

Accepting conflict requires more than a change of attitude. Political communities need a public space where conflict can flourish. Such a campus atmosphere that is comfortable with conflict can and should be nurtured by educators. This is critical to healthy educational communities as well as healthy democracies. Our cultural role models for healthy conflict are few; educators may have to make their own way in this arena.

Not only do members of political communities need to develop a comfort with conflict, they need to develop skills to mediate conflict. During the first meeting to discuss the damage incident, Roy defiantly announced he was not going to pay for damage. Daryl, one of the RAs, responded in a confrontational tone—“They’ll [the university] put a hold on your academic records if you don’t pay.” Roy retorted, “I don’t give a s——t about grades.” Daryl countered, “Well, you won’t be able to graduate.” Daryl, while usually effective in his interactions with peers, modeled in this instance mediation skills that exacerbated rather than quelled the situation. His confrontational style, while efficient, disempowered residents and did little to resolve the brewing conflict. Political communities must accept rather than repress conflict and provide members the necessary human relation skills that will result in civil, collaborative interactions. As Zelda Gamson (1993) notes:

Community based on diversity must welcome, not just tolerate conflict. It must develop ways for members to disagree with one another without losing the respect of other members. People in colleges and universities are notoriously uncomfortable with conflict. We run away from it or stomp it into the ground. We deny it or over-dramatize it. . . . Dealing with conflict . . . requires respect and civility. It does not ask that parties love or even like each other, just that they continue interacting. (p. 6)


Creating educational communities is far more complex and difficult than anyone in higher education admits. One WCP student captures this complexity well in her comments:

I think that the different groups are distinct but we all make up the larger Western [WCP]. The fact that we live together, have the same classes, that is what forms community. Within the classes we are learning to be individuals. They want us to be individuals yet they want us to stay with the group. . . . For me, I can be me and still be part of the community. But then again I do not know how much a part of the community I am. Then again I don’t know how much of a part of the community anyone is. It is weird. . . . We have our own lives and still there is this base we can come home to. It is sort of like a family. We still feel part of the Western [WCP] community even when we leave, even though we do have our own lives and are individuals. (Interview, November 5, 1992)

Creating and maintaining political communities takes energy, time, and patience. This difficulty is compounded by that fact that in the context of higher education, expending energy to create community is seen as a direct threat to students’ primary quest—becoming educated in an individualistic and highly competitive environment. In the context of the WCP, students valued the community and acknowledged it as a pleasant by-product of their education, but not the reason they enrolled in college. Educational communities must be seen as central to the project of becoming an educated person, not a warm, fluffy add-on that makes campus a nicer place to work but that is peripheral to the work of teaching and learning.

We argue that the process of educational community (we stress here a process rather than a finished product) is as rich a ground for education as one can find.22 Public expression, involvement, communication in all its forms, and problem solving require an array of cognitive, linguistic, aesthetic, imaginative, and relational abilities. Viewing learning as something that happens only in the classroom places campus community life as something quite secondary to becoming educated. Why dichotomize the process of becoming a citizen and becoming a learned person? A campus that takes the health of educational community seriously is constantly looking for ways to connect the learning that takes place inside and outside the classroom, to expand the ways that learning and knowing are defined, enacted, measured, and lived. Such a campus sees the classroom as extending beyond the walls of a lecture hall, attempting to link campus and local communities in ways that enrich the pattern of the learning web. Service-learning, living/learning centers, internships, exhibitions, faculty-in-residence, collaborative learning methods, and experiential education all are ways that campuses attempt to make these links. We are limited only by our imagination in these attempts.


Tribalism; the lack of familiarity with community discourses; absence of dialogue; obsessions with efficiency; organizational discomfort with conflict; hierarchical, impersonal, and large campuses; and narrow views of education are barriers to creating political communities in higher education. Yet the single most dangerous obstruction involves the “visions of great emotional appeal” in our current calls for community (Leinberger & Tucker, 1992, p. 86). These visions cloud our thinking about community and disable us from seeing that there are different kinds of communities, dependent on contexts for meaning and suitability. These visions compel us to regard tribes as the ideal, promoting the ideal of campus-as-tribe, or, alternatively, to regard tribes as negative, divisive influences. Such visions prevent us from thinking of communal membership identity as multifaceted rather than singular and simple. We appeal for clarity, an urge to question and challenge these sorts of cultural visions of community. Using ethnography and the literature of political philosophy, we have crafted an argument for campus community as political community, a model that is somewhat distinct from other campus characterizations. A political community requires us to replace our simplistic, nostalgic ideas of community with a view of community with some seemingly undesirable characteristics, such as ambiguity, conflict, and change. Yet public life—as we experience it in university life and as we prepare students for it beyond the university sphere— demands that we not only work within ambiguous, conflicted, and changing situations, but that we craft a meaningful existence within that sphere.

Using narratives as a guiding methodology and political philosophy as a theoretical lens to interpret our findings, we enrich understanding of the ways students make meaning of their college experiences. The thickly described tales about RAs’ community conceptualizations can provoke dialogue about ways to create and maintain educational community, which is a major social issue for the WCP community in particular and higher education in general. These interpretations introduce possibilities or working hypotheses, conceptual building blocks for applied programs. The difficult task of applying the knowledge contained herein rests with the reader.

Several individuals were helpful as we shaped our ideas for this article. Our appreciation goes to Richard Quantz, Judy Rogers, Marcia Baxter Magolda, and the anonymous reviewers for their assistance with earlier drafts.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 2, 1997, p. 266-310
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10258, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 11:36:10 PM

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