When I assumed the position of director of undergraduate studies in the Indiana University­ Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Psychology Department last June, I was faced with a major challenge. My job description included the usual objective components -- curriculum and assessment -- but it also indicated that I was responsible for increasing my new department's sense of community.

One of the reasons I had been chosen for this position was to foster the sense of community that I had enjoyed in the psychology department at Marian College, a private liberal arts school with an enrollment of 1,300, four psychology department faculty and 60 majors. IUPUI is a public, comprehensive university with 27,000 students and a psychology department composed of 27 faculty and more than 600 majors.

Needless to say, fostering this small-college-department atmosphere at a large university was going to be a complex task, so I began by dividing it into two questions:

  • What is a community?

  • What strategies do undergraduate psychology departments (UPDs) use to create and maintain a sense of community?

Defining community

The first thing I discovered when I searched the psychological literature was an absence of references to community in psychology departments.I then decided to consult several dictionaries and encyclopedias. WhatI found was that the word community is derived from the Latin communis, which means "shared," and that it refers to a group whose members share some or all of the following qualities.

  • They live in the same geographical location.

  • They are governed by a common set of rules.

  • They hold similar interests, beliefs, values and customs.

  • They are linked by emotional bonds.

  • They feel an obligation toward their fellow members.

  • They share a sense of belonging.

The students and faculty of UPDs almost always share the first three qualities from this list.

  • A shared location. They are typically housed in the same building where they have offices, teach/attend classes, hold meetings and perform research.

  • Common rules. They are governed by common sets of rules--such as academic honesty and the custom of communicating in APA style--although these rule sets can differ among their subgroups (e.g., graduation requirements for students and promotion/tenure requirements for faculty).

  • Attitudinal similarity. They hold similar interests, beliefs, values and customs: a desire to describe, understand, predict and control behavior and mental processes; the belief that these phenomena should be studied scientifically; and a reliance on a set of ethical principles that guides their research, teaching and professional practice. The first three qualities are the objective, surface attributes of a community that define its identity and set it apart from other communities (e.g., the psychology department as opposed to the football team). But the existence of these qualities does not guarantee that the members of a UPD will also possess the final three qualities. These more subjective, emotional qualities that are characteristic of UPDs that possess a genuine sense of community are by no means automatic results of the first three qualities.

  • They are linked by emotional bonds. The faculty enjoy one another's personal and professional respect. Students admire and trust the faculty; know that the faculty regard them as worthy fellow human beings and potential future colleagues; and believe that the faculty enjoy teaching, advising and mentoring them. The alumni continue to remain loyal to the department by sharing their resources (e.g., information, opportunities and money) with the department after they graduate.

  • They feel an obligation toward their fellow members. The faculty are concerned about one another and exhibit this concern by providing academic and emotional support when necessary. They are also genuinely concerned about their students' welfare and work hard to acknowledge and support their students' academic achievements and post-baccalaureate aspirations.

  • They share a sense of belongingness. The faculty, staff and students believe their department is an effective and respected academic unit; they feel a sense of pride to be members of such a successful community; and they are acknowledged by their fellow members to be important contributors to the success of their departmental community.

Why do so few UPDs possess these subjective qualities? It is my contention that this genuine sense of community is neither random nor accidental. It is something that certain UPDs consciously recognize as valuable, actively create strategies to produce and work hard to maintain. Without a genuine sense of community, a UPD is just a group of people who work in the same building, share an interest in psychology, follow the same rules and go about their academic duties.

The keys to community

So, what strategies do UPDs use to create and maintain a sense of community? To answer this question, I enlisted the aid of my fellow members of the Council of Undergraduate Psychology Programs (CUPP). I sent 334 CUPP representatives an e-mail message requesting community-building strategies that have worked in their departments. I received 33 replies and sorted the strategies contained in these replies--and some strategies that have been effective in my new department--into the following categories.

  • Student organizations. Departments that support student organizations encourage students to exercise control over their undergraduate activities and to work closely with supportive faculty advisors. When students use these organizations to develop and demonstrate their leadership skills, they begin to feel that they have a voice in their department. This sense of being heard promotes a feeling of being valued as individuals and increases their sense of existing within a community, rather than as just an anonymous group of educational consumers. Many departments mentioned Psi Chi chapters or psychology clubs as examples of these organizations.

  • Research. Many departments stated that the most successful way to build a community of scholars in a department is to take every opportunity to involve students with faculty in research projects. These projects can be curricular requirements such as a capstone research class or a senior thesis, opportunities for students to volunteer as research assistants, student and faculty attendance at national and regional research conferences, faculty-sponsored student presentations at undergraduate research conferences or mini-research conferences with paper presentations and/or posters held with other academic departments.

  • Courses. Departments benefit students by offering courses that explain the nature of their academic major and describe departmental resources and opportunities. Students particularly appreciate these courses when they produce a realistic understanding of career paths. An example of such a course is "An orientation to a major in psychology." On the other end of the curricular spectrum, capstone courses in which seniors are given support and guidance for their post-baccalaureate endeavors (e.g., writing résumés or personal statements, developing interviewing skills, performing job searches and completing graduate school applications) also appear to be genuinely appreciated by psychology majors.

  • Events, celebrations and rituals. Departmental get-togethers bring a sense of togetherness, joy, cooperation and continuity to an academic community. They provide an opportunity for faculty, staff and students to recognize the achievements of the department as a whole or its individual members. Examples are open houses, all-department parties, colloquia, brown-bag lunches, movie discussions led by faculty members, receptions for students who earn academic honors, Psi Chi induction ceremonies, meals where undergraduates talk to graduate students about graduate school, faculty congregating for lunch at a specified time each day, luncheons for graduating seniors and their families, picnics, barbecues and tailgate parties.

  • Locations. A sense of having "a place where we belong" is possessed by individuals who feel they are part of a community. Although space is a precious and scarce commodity in most UPDs, some are willing to create a place where students feel comfortable enough to study, interact with faculty and one another, or just hang out. Examples ranged from specific rooms to open areas containing vending machines, comfortable chairs and picnic tables.

  • Projects. Activities with a purpose bring people together to plan, organize and work to achieve a goal. The camaraderie resulting from such group efforts--and the satisfaction of achieving their goals--promote a sense of community in the participants. Examples included participating in Psi Chi national projects (e.g., adopt-a-shelter, pencils for Milawi and eye glasses for the poor), adopting a family at Christmas, sponsoring a food drive and creating a psychology department cookbook.

  • Communication. Members of a community know what is going on in their group and believe they have a voice in its operation. Departments mentioned many examples of communication strategies such as open department meetings, student representatives on committees, a psychology club student-voice representative, student and alumni advisory boards, newsletters, information sheets, brochures, listservs, bulletin boards and home pages. Another way to promote communication was to poll students about their concerns and then make a genuine attempt to address them.

  • Faculty. One very clear message was that if a department is interested in increasing its sense of community, it must make a conscious and concerted effort to hire sociable, student-centered faculty. Faculty who are perceived by students as aloof, unapproachable or uncaring diminish a department's sense of community.

  • Academic advising. Advising empowers students by making them feel knowledgeable about university and departmental policies and requirements. Excellent advising tools include peer-advising programs, an advising office, e-mail lists of advisees for advisors to facilitate communication, developmental group-advising sessions and strategies to help job-seekers.

  • Special programs. A few departments reported the existence of special community-building approaches such as peer advising or faculty-student mentoring programs. One department reported a merit pay system that financially reinforced the efforts of faculty who students recognize as effective mentors.

The results of my survey certainly do not contain all the methods that psychology departments can use to build community. I'd be very interested in the community-building strategies at your current institution or places where you've worked or gone to school before. Please e-mail them to me at dappleby@iupui.edu. I will add your strategies to my collection, and I will e-mail them to you as an attachment if you send me a request.

Drew C. Appleby, PhD, is the director of Undergraduate Studies in the Psychology Department at Indiana University­ Purdue University Indianapolis.