Student project creates historical resource for college unions

A quick stroll through the Indiana Memorial Union on a weekday afternoon reveals precisely what executive director Bruce Jacobs means when he refers to his building as “the university’s living room.”

Students sprawl in chairs, munching snacks or sipping coffee while staring contemplatively at their laptops, earbuds safely tucked in. A few snooze upright, a backpack grasped to their chest, while others get more comfortable, stretching out full length. Some clutch a cellphone, loudly relating every detail about last night to a friend in the ether, while a group settles in nearby to discuss a collaborative project.

Students at the IMU

Students relax in the IMU, the “university’s living room.”

While college unions and other similar facilities are an integral part of many campuses as a “third place” — a concept that describes where people spend time outside of work and home — there is minimal information available about such buildings, their histories and the place they occupy in campus culture.

That’s where 10 graduate students from the Bloomington campus and IUPUI come into the picture. The class, taught by Jacobs and assistant IU Bloomington education professor Danielle DeSawal, spent last semester researching the topic. Their final? A 100-page tome titled “100 Year Perspective on the College Union” that’s soon to be published on Scholar Works, IU’s open-source repository of data, journals and research projects.

“It was one of those things where we thought, ‘What if we did a class that’s a combination of scholarship and practice that looks at how unions evolved and their place in the role of auxiliary services?’” DeSawal said. “As a project, we decided to look at different segments of practice over the past 100 years.”

The timing of the project was fitting. The Association of College Unions International, an advocacy organization in Bloomington that has various other ties to Indiana University, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Students in the course worked throughout the spring 2013 semester, conducting research and pulling together information for the book. They addressed topics such as how roles of unions have shifted over time, physical building space and even what the next century could bring for such facilities on campuses throughout the nation.

The students’ work will also be published as a special edition of the Journal of the Indiana University Student Personnel Association, the annual journal published by the Higher Education and Student Affairs Program, which DeSawal directs.

Both DeSawal and Jacobs said they expect their students’ research will be welcomed by the industry, scholars and historians.

“There’s not a lot out there for people who want to research college unions,” DeSawal said. “There was some work done back in the 1960s, but we’ve really needed something, especially that covers the past 50 years.”

For Jacobs, a highlight was seeing the students’ excitement as they delved into their topics.

“They stayed engaged and energized throughout the entire class,” he said. “Our role was as editors, or guides. They came in with more ideas than we could even squeeze into one segment, so we’d have to keep saying, ‘That’s for another study.’”

Alan Goodno, who just graduated with a master’s degree from IU’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program, said he honed his research skills through the class.

“The HESA program prepared me for scholarly research at a graduate level, but this project pushed me even further than previous classes to connect literature from outside of the higher education context and make it relevant to a student-centric environment like a college union,” he said. “It was not as simple as doing an Internet search on the role of physical space in building community in the college union, because very few articles existed. We were forced to look at broader social science literature and business research to make connections with the historical and future trends in the college union.”

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