News Story

Creating Community in the Classroom

September 23, 2013—It doesn’t take long for students in College, Culture, and Conflict to get to class. They take the elevator downstairs and find a seat in Associate Dean Tad Howard’s living room in Kennedy Hall.

Dean Howard’s American studies course is also a living and learning community (LLC). LLCs typically house students with a similar interest in one topic. Students in the Hill River City LLC are enrolled in Howard’s course and live together on the eighth floor of Kennedy Hall.

“In many ways, LLCs ask students to challenge the concept of traditional residential spaces,” Alexis Hendrix, a community director with the Office of Residential Living, said. “The LLC provides a space where out-of-class discussion can occur past the walls of the classroom, and relationships with faculty can deepen and grow in ways that may not be possible inside a traditional classroom,” she continued.

Howard has taught College, Culture, and Conflict for four years and saw it as a perfect fit for a living and learning community. The course explores the history and debates surrounding universities, “with special attention to current curricular controversies in and around the humanities,” Howard said. “I’m interested in the history of college, but I’m more interested in the what the history of college tells us about us.”

Universities and colleges are often the focus of criticism, from “faint gripes of overspecialized scholarship, self-aggrandizement, and identity politics to direct accusations of malpractice, indoctrination, and corruption of youth,” Howard explained. In class, Howard and his students examine whether these criticisms are based in truth or in assumptions about what colleges do and have always done.

“This exploration can tell us a lot about how we value, organize, and promote knowledge, how we understand college’s responsibility to tradition and the advancement and scrutiny of culture,” he said.

According to Howard, the debate about “higher education’s failures and cultural offenses” also illustrates an aspect of the American identity. “You could imagine a world where no one would care about an editorial that goes after colleges,” he said. “[But people care] because colleges play a certain role in our lives. We’ve developed certain expectations for them, and we’ve put a certain amount of faith in them.”

As Howard and his students discuss societal views on higher education, their own views are informed by their new living experiment, which breaks down academic and social boundaries. Initially, Howard was curious about how class discussion would change when students were not only classmates but neighbors as well. Nevada Schadler (C’15) has found that living with her classmates enhances her learning experience. “When you place that bond in an academic setting, [you] are able to delve deeper in conversations due to the already existing level of trust and familiarity,” Schadler said.

Although College, Culture, and Conflict is a semester-long course, students will live together throughout the year and enroll in a one-credit interdisciplinary project in the spring. “Each student will be asked to make linkages between this course and another course they’re taking in the spring,” Howard explained. He hopes students will be able to explore the conflicts and bridges between discrete courses.

“Am I expected to accept something in one class that I comfortably deny in the next?” Howard asked. “The array of disciplines and course options, on the one hand, is a rich source of freedom in the liberal arts experience. But the comfortable compartmentalization can also paper over conflicts we aren’t even recognizing,” he continued.

The students’ interdisciplinary projects will also bring other professors into their discussions and further build their community. With more connections throughout the university, Howard sees an opportunity to broaden the conversation about the college experience.

“People imagine themselves to be an expert on college because they’ve been,” Howard said. “I think it’s fun to dig into something you think you know a lot about and discover that the history might be different than you thought.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

Students interested in joining the Hill River City LLC for the 2014–15 year should contact Alexis Hendrix at or 202-687-0714. Students may also join a variety of living and learning communities. Visit the Office of Residential Living’s website for descriptions of each LLC. Applications for 2014–15 will be available soon.