When asked to discuss the differences between the Residential College and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, my first thought was that the differences are not as great as they were supposed to be. The original 1967 plan had the RC on a separate campus out by the Huron River, with residence halls for 1,000 students and a curriculum that was genuinely “alternative” to LSA. There were to be distinctive writing and foreign language requirements, a core curriculum instead of distribution and a comprehensive examination at the end of the sophomore year that led to individualized concentrations. As many as 150 faculty members on loan from LSA departments were to be involved.

Paul Wong
he Residential College provides a unique living and learning environment, but many of its unique characteristics are highly contentious at the same time.

Much of this never happened, mostly because the money never materialized. But the RC flourished in East Quad, forming a distinctive community in the University and becoming in time one of the pioneering and most highly regarded living-learning programs in the country.

I could go on about the unique aspects of the RC curriculum the intensive language instruction, the interweaving of writing, drama, music and studio arts with interdisciplinary academic courses, the extensive links between courses and the wider world, both nearby and abroad. However, with limited space, I”ll focus on two aspects of RC pedagogy that bear on the question of difference.

The RC expects its students to become active learners, combining serious engagement in the classroom (ideas, reflection, study) with direct action (participatory, community based and of service). All aspects of the curriculum stress this. Students must master a foreign language and they are encouraged to take this proficiency into community service or study abroad. All students must engage in a sustained hands-on study of the creative arts and exhibit the results. Many courses have community outreach components. This is an inquiry-driven pedagogy that moves back and forth between practice and theory within a learning community that values engagement and continually evaluates its returns.

The RC supports its students in taking risks pushing beyond their limits in ways that are planned and evaluated, but with outcomes that are not pre-packaged or pre-ordained. RC classes and the practices of active learning they foster, emphasize intellectual self-reliance and artistic boldness we value virtuosity and applaud student experiment. It”s in this context that the RC historically offered written evaluations in place of grades. It”s not that RC faculty couldn”t give grades (we grade LSA students all the time) or that RC students couldn”t take grades (they have lots of grades on their transcripts), but grading suppresses risk taking. In moving to a graded system, we are determined to sustain the community”s strong culture of evaluation and critical assessment that gives students courage to take intellectual risks.

The values sketched here are about practices and stances that any University student can learn. They speak of education as a process in which learning shapes the whole person and drives active inquiry. They foster a different kind of rigor (not better, not less, but distinct) from that of specialization in departmental training. And they cultivate the basic languages of communication, expression and engagement in a community where these languages are practiced, tempering careerism with the practices of life-long learning. As one alumna put it: “The RC is a 40-year college.”

The RC has always been somewhat misunderstood how should a unit committed exclusively to undergraduate teaching within a world-class research university be understood? It has always operated on a shoestring and in a retrofitted and jerry-rigged facility, yet the educational value it has squeezed from inadequate funding has always astonished external observers. This produces a certain defiant pride among us that some read as standoffishness. But in fact, the RC makes full use of LSA resources. Lots of RC faculty are on joint appointments or collaborate with colleagues in LSA. RC students take 70 percent of their courses in LSA and in recent years, 60 percent of RC graduates had at least one LSA departmental major. The number of LSA students enrolled in RC classes has doubled in the past decade and LSA students make up nearly half the enrollment in our upper-level courses.

These patterns will increase in coming years as the RC uses its interdisciplinary traditions to build a series of problem-centered undergraduate minors (open to all) that combine RC and LSA courses around issues like crime and justice, globalization, urban community studies, science, technology and society. This is one of several ways we are working to strengthen those educational aspects of the RC that are unique and unavailable elsewhere in LSA, while promoting increased traffic between RC and LSA. If we can do both effectively, there is no clash of purpose, only mutual benefit.

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