I was recently at a 4-day Green Dot.etc train the trainer conference, and the room was mostly full of student affairs professionals. Neither of the presenters had a higher education background, but this program is marketed at colleges and universities, so they were familiar with the territory. Throughout the trainers, they went back and forth between saying “dorm” and “residence hall” when talking about campus life. Every time a trainer used the word dorm, a residence life professional from a different institution would conspicuously say “it’s a residence hall” from the back of the room. To say I was appalled would be an understatement.
As a Res Lifer, I feel like a double-crosser when I say that I don’t really care whether someone says dorm or residence hall to describe my area of expertise. I know some people who agree with my sentiments, but there are a lot more who do not. This same Green Dot training had me thinking a lot about my degree in communication and rhetorical studies, and the above interaction made me think of one of my favorite classes from that program: Communication, Space, and Design. In that class we talked about the difference between a space and place, which I think is at the root of why people get so heated in the dorm v. residence hall debate.
I’m not going to get scholarly and cite these definitions, but from what I took away from the class, a space is an area that just is, while a place has a personal meaning or significance. What is a place to me might be a space to you and vice versa. Monuments and memorials, they are designed to create a place for everyone, even though we might not have all been directly impacted by the event (think the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). It was the third day of this training when it clicked for me that THIS is what happens for me when people ask if I run the dorms at my institution. Did they invalidate the space I work in? Sure. Were they diminishing the place my staff and I create in-hall to make my students feel at home? No.
This is a two-fold conversation. First it’s about space versus place, and then it’s about intent versus impact. To outsiders, our halls are just spaces. The space they send their child to because for them, it isn’t going to be home, as much as we try to make it home. For us, it is a home away from home. It’s a place that holds significant value to us, our student employees, and hopefully the students we house. When people say dorm, are they really doing it maliciously? I can personally say in my 6 years in residence life, I’ve never once had someone call it a dorm in a malicious way. They don’t intend to offend us. When we get offended in their presence and lash out over the word dorm, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
Many of those who agree with me that this debate isn’t necessary believe that we have bigger fish to fry. I agree. We have students attempting and successfully completing suicides in our residence halls. By stepping onto a college campus, young people become exposed to the great possibility of sexual assault. Some institutions are facing enrollment crises while others can’t build fast enough to house all their students. The red tape in our field often feels less like tape and more like a minefield. And I’m supposed to be worried that someone who doesn’t know me or what I do called my place of work a dorm?
I’m not trying to change your thinking because I know that this can be a very personally frustrating conversation for some people. I’m just asking that you pause for a moment instead of jumping to correct someone who uses dorm instead of residence hall. Did they attack at your place—the work you do, the time you put in, the community you’ve created—or are they talking about a space with which they’re unfamiliar?
If you choose to correct them, I just ask that you think about the way in which you do it.