Universities as Communities

This week I’ve been reading Tomás Irish’s new book Trinity in War and Revolution, 1912-1923 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2015) which focuses on Trinity College Dublin in the First World War and Irish Revolution. Due to the subject of my research, this particular book was one that I had to read to get ideas about how to write about Virginia Tech during the same period. One of the central argument’s in Trinity in War and Revolution is that universities are more than campuses containing physical structures in which people live and study. Instead universities, like Trinity, are communities where students, staff and alumni share the same spaces and create bonds that are “strong a durable” (pg. vii). This is not only an argument, but I believe it is also a theory that heavily influences Irish’s book.

Irish’s theory is actually influenced by sociological research that has demonstrated the “importance of shared spaces, routines, rites and experiences for the fostering of community identity” (pg. 8). More than being a member of the university community professionally, Irish contends that Trinity was also a place where people were members of a social and emotional community. As the author states, “it meant something to be of Trinity” (pg. 8). However, like every community, there were people that existed on the periphery of the main community. While Trinity was an important unifying factor in the community, the community did “not embrace all, nor was it applied equally” (pg. 9).

One thing I’ve been struggling with is how to look at and write about Virginia Tech. It would be easy to write an institutional history but, like Irish, I believe that a university is more than an institution. Irish’s theory and definition of the university as a community helps him to overcome these struggles. While different groups composed the Trinity community, no group responded to or navigated the wartime and revolutionary decade in a vacuum. Each group is interacting with the others, each group influences the others, and groups have different powers within the community (sometimes these powers counteract each other).

Irish’s theoretical view is best seen in how he investigates sources and writes about different groups at Trinity. The sources from faculty, administrators, students, and Dubliners are not written without being influenced by events. For example, a letter from a faculty member written on one day could very well have been influenced by his reaction to national news from a few days before, or could have been influenced by his experiences with students that day. This means that historians conducting local studies must pay attention to detail, to dates, and must read between the lines. These sources can and must speak with each other just like the actors in Irish’s book (faculty, administrators, alumni, students, Dublin, Ireland, and revolutionary ideology) interact with and influence each other.

Well, it’s almost midnight and I don’t think I’ve properly addressed the questions I set out to answer. But, after spending all day writing, reading, and thinking, I’m going to leave off here.

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4 thoughts on “Universities as Communities”

  1. You note that the article is grounded in “sociological research” — is there one sociologist whose work seems most relevant? Or is there a name/label for this approach? If you want to ground the thesis in the idea of “community” it might be worth some time exploring how that concept has been used.

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  2. I really like the idea of looking into a theory on community. Communities can be especially powerful in shaping individuals. How about, are there any theories dealing with military community? That might be another place to look. I think members of different branches of the military are often seen as being very tight knit, and Tech at this time was certainly related to the military.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

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  3. Does his approach change your perspective on your own research? I know before you were looking at Tech as a microcosm of sorts, but it seems as though the permeable barriers surrounding the institution and community will make it hard to frame as a microcosm. Instead, it seems as though it would shift to placing Tech as an active character within the larger system, rather than a representation of it. Also, since I have seen this book, do you think that you will use images to a similar extent as Irish? I think that his image choices are one of the strongest components to his book, and I see a lot of potential for your project to have similar value in imagery.

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