Close to 400 Residential College alumni will descend upon East Quad this weekend. The alumni will join current RC students to revel in the college’s history and officially celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding.
Since it was founded in 1967, the RC has functioned as a small liberal arts college within the University. It has managed to survive even as similar colleges at other universities have failed. It has its own basic requirements, professors, courses and concentrations. Students in the college are required to live in East Quad – a mixture of dormitories, faculty offices and classrooms – for two years, which creates an environment that blurs the boundaries between school and home, class and recreation.
At first, an experiment
The RC began as an experiment through which professors could study the learning process of undergraduates and how a highly personalized, controlled environment would affect learning. Ted Newcomb, then a professor in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, designed the program. Now, it exists not to test new ideas on students, said RC Director Charles Bright, but to improve the quality of education for RC students.
“Once a place like this has been around for a while and gets established, the experiments that work tend to stay in place,” he said. “And the experiments that don’t work, we forget as quickly as we can.”
When the RC opened its doors in the fall of 1967, about 1,500 students applied for admission. Out of these, 215 students were selected for the college’s first class, which was designed to represent a cross-section of the LSA student body as a whole.
But because of the experimental nature of this endeavor, and because the students were self-selecting, they differed from their LSA counterparts, Bright said.
“The students who chose the RC tended to be a little more rebellious, a little more creative, a little more free-floating and independent in their studies,” he said.
An integral part of the experiment was the implementation of the core curriculum -specific classes all RC students were required to take in their first two years.
RC Prof. Carl Cohen, a founder and one-time associate director of the RC, designed the curriculum. The curriculum provided an intellectual common ground on which any students in the RC, regardless of their majors, could meet, Cohen said.
Once the required classes had been completed, each student designed an individual concentration with the oversight of a faculty member. This meant no two students in the RC at that time were studying precisely the same thing.
Survival of the RC
Unlike other small colleges within big universities in this country, the RC has prospered since its formation.
Cohen said one of the reasons for this sustained life was that the RC was never cut off from the University. In fact, the RC is still part of LSA, and all the resources available to LSA students are shared with those in the RC.
“What we did – I think wisely – was find a reasonable balance between independence and autonomy,” Cohen said
For the first seven years of the RC’s existence, its students and administrators played an equal role in the college’s governance. The governing body, called the representative assembly, was comprised of eight RC students, eight faculty members and the director of the college. This body made all administrative decisions concerning the college. This way, students could play a role in designing the education they and their peers received in the RC, Bright said.
But students felt the core curriculum was at odds with the ideology behind the governance structure, so bit by bit, the core curriculum was overthrown. According to Bright, a compromise emerged that created a set of core requirements that still exists today: students must become proficient in a foreign language, take an intensive writing seminar in their first year and live in East Quad for at least two years.
Eventually, the administrative assembly itself was phased out, and in 1974 it was eliminated.
Grades: A recent innovation
Until 2001, the RC did not give grades to its students. Instead, professors gave students written evaluations. This changed in 2001, when then-LSA Dean Shirley Neuman demanded that RC professors include grades on every student’s transcript. Today, grades are given, but there are also written evaluations.
“There was a lot of anecdotal evidence that written evaluations without grades did not inhibit alumni in the outside world,” Bright said. “But there was pressure from higher institutions to provide a GPA for students. There was a national call the RC had to be responsive to.”
Janet Hegman Shier, an instructor in the RC since the early 1980s is a proponent of the written evaluation system.
“I’m so steeped in the philosophy of providing written feedback to people, it means so much more,” she said. “You get much more of a profile of a student when you see evaluations that comment on how the student learns.”
Bright said his interactions with students were markedly different when there were no grades than they are now. He didn’t see competition among students under the old system, and his students were forced to come to their own conclusions about how they did on an assignment based on his comments. This, Bright said, was more conducive to education.
“Pedagogically, a non-graded environment is better,” he said. “It’s not about the grades, it’s about learning.”
RC senior Amanda Davidson said the RC has been the centerpiece of her time at the University.
“The RC has been literally my whole experience at U of M,” she said. “For me it’s sort of like a comfort zone in the way that the University is so big and it’s like a family – as dumb as that sounds – but at the same time it’s like a family that like inspires me a lot.”
Davidson said that she believes that one of the more important parts of the RC is the combined living and learning environment.
“It’s not just the academic thing, but the fact that you all live in East Quad and your classes are there,” she said. “The fact that you can come down to class in your pajamas – I mean, I don’t think the RC wants to broadcast that – but it really just shows how comfortable everybody is with each other.”
Laura Thomas, an RC Creative Writing instructor, knows the college from the perspective of both student and teacher. She graduated from the RC in 1988.
“An RC education certainly modeled self-direction and commitment, searching for a greater good and integrity in what you do with your life’s work, which has sustained me during challenging times in my career and family life,” Thomas said in an e-mail interview.
Thomas said her favorite part of the RC as a student was the mentoring experience she received from each of her professors.
“Now that I am on the faculty, I realize how much effort and love that takes,” she said.