Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Behind the Scenes -- House Committee Action Research Literature Review and Methodology

Action Research Question:

"How do leaders within the House Committees at Harvard perceive their role on campus, and how do they hope to leverage their influence to effectuate change?"

Behind the Scenes of this Project
My research project asks questions related to leadership development, effective student-staff partnerships, and building a cohesive social network in a residential community. The concept of communities and belonging has been articulated by education scholars as directly contributing to the success of a school to support a student’s learning (Masika and Jones 2016 and Thomas 2012) and further, a robust residential life contributes to a sense of student belonging (Masika and Jones 2016). Jessup-Anger finds a link between residential experiences and a students’ inclination to inquire and capacity for lifelong learning (2012). The theory of “social capital” equates an individual's connectedness to human networks as an indicator of wellbeing and success (Putnam 1995). A robust residential life contributes to a sense of student belonging and enhances social capital, but Harvard College faces the unique challenge of developing a sense of belonging among students from every background and every interest. 

In my research, I consider what mechanisms allow for student leader success in contributing to a giving their peers a sense of belonging. Organizational studies have found that participants feel valued and empowered when they share ownership of organizational development (Boyd and Bright 2007), and my research both confirms and complicates this hypothesis when student residential leaders praise the freedom they have to claim ownership of their activities, but also lament exhaustion from burnout. What’s more, serving as a house committee co-chair engrains students with authentic pro-social leadership values rather than competitive or unethical values (Kiersch and Peters 2017), positive qualities that will enable students to become civically minded leaders.

Jacobi et al. argue effective partnership with students is built on instilling students with a belief in their power to achieve important outcomes. They also teach that building partnerships with students requires living with ambiguity and finally that the range of learning experiences should shift at different stages of development. For house committees, students find empowerment when left to develop their own projects and goals, but one thing that house life lacks universally is a path for “development” in connecting house events to one’s growth experience at Harvard. Perhaps it is for this reason that house committee programming is less appealing to upperclassmen; it leaves no dimensions for growth. Jacobi et al. advocate engaging students in “paraprofessional” positions as a model of partnership such as residential advisors that take for-credit courses that equip them with the skills necessary for their positions. Jacobi cites Fiere (1970) as a theoretical anchor because Fiere believed that political transformation was possible with education, critical reflection, and social action.

Do house committees allow for appropriate reflection in considering the type of community they are trying to reflect? Or do the demands of event planning mask any moments for reflection? When I was house committee co-chair I started off each semester with an open brainstorm and discussion of our goals instead of jumping into event planning, because I believed that we had to pause to evaluate the impact of our actions and which parts of the house we were neglecting to serve.
 In the context of my study, I posed semi-structured questions to identify the beneficial aspects of the roles of the student leaders in residential life -- House Committee Co-chairs at Harvard and College Council leaders at Princeton. Participants were self-selecting as they had the opportunity to volunteer to respond to my research, introducing bias in terms of engaging the most passionate students in answering questions about their role in developing a sense of belonging among their peers. However, this bias is decreased by the increase in quantity of participants, and still, the semi-structured nature of the interviews allows for discovering and generating theories about residential life rather than confirming my own theories.

Throughout this project, it will become important for the student leaders of the house committees to articulate their understanding of the “purpose” of the house committees as I predict a variation in the articulation of “purpose.” Who best articulates that central mission of the house committee? Does it come from within? Does it follow the articulated mission of the house administration? Does it follow campus-wide administration’s ideas about house committees?

After collecting qualitative data on how these house committee co-chairs understand the purpose of the committee, it will then become necessary to understand the limitations to achieving that purpose. This project will analyze the internal limitations of the student committees, as well as the external limitations and opportunities facing the house committees. “Internal” limitations to the function of the committee include organizational structure (i.e. the fact that the committees are led by two “co-chairs” sharing the responsibility in co-creating a functioning committee and the fact that each house committee is structured differently). Does the way that a house committee is structured intersect with how these committees believe in their ability to function productively toward a central purpose? “External” limitations and opportunities include the partnerships that the committee forms with house adults (tutors) who are involved with the committees’ everyday functions in varying degrees. Does the way that adults interact with the committee empower or limit the committee’s sense of fulfillment? “External” limitations also include the adults (resident deans and house administrators) in the house who may not work directly with the committee but set broader policies and help adjust budgets.
The interview questions will be directed toward a sample of House Committee Co-Chairs from various houses. An outline of the questions asked is found here and these questions were adapted for Princeton College Councils:
  1. What are the aims of your house committee?
  2. Do you feel your committee met its goals last semester?
  3. What are additional successes of your committee?
  4. How do tutors/administrators interact with the committee?
  5. How does your committee operate?What are its internal structures/describe the positions?
  6. How do you recruit students to join? Do you feel this is effective?
  7. How, if at all, would you seek to improve the committee?
  8. What, if any, are the barriers to achieving the committee goals?
  9. How can the university support your work?
  10. What do you see as the future of Harvard House Committees? 
Boyd, Neil M., and David S. Bright. 2007. “Appreciative Inquiry as a Mode of Action Research for Community Psychology.” Journal of Community Psychology 35 (8): 1019–1036.
Roberts, Joanne. 2006. “Limits to Communities of Practice.” Journal of Management Studies 43 (3):623–639.
Thomas, Liz. 2012. Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Putnam, R. (1995). Bowling alone: America's declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6(1), 65-78.
Jessup-Anger, J. E. "Examining How Residential College Environments Inspire the Life of the Mind." The Review of Higher Education, vol. 35 no. 3, 2012, pp. 431-462. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/rhe.2012.0022
Bloomdahl, S. C. & Navan, J. "Student Leadership in a Residential College: From Dysfunction to Effective Collaboration." Journal of College Student Development, vol. 54 no. 1, 2013, pp. 110-114. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/csd.2013.0005


This page has paths: