the union place…

I’ve been blogging a lot based on current books I’m reading and how they relate back to the student affairs or college union experience, and if that isn’t your cup of tea… my bad, but…

I don’t know when I’ll get back to writing funny things or things completely unrelated to college unions, urbanism, and other such things as such… such.

So, my current read while riding the T is The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg (my at home read is 1Q84, a book larger than Mongo by Haruki Murakami).


I’m not even half done with The Great Good Place, and yet, I am compelled to blog about a couple of passages already because it has been overall a great read.  Oldenburg explores the concept of the ‘third place’ in this book, the place that is not our home, and not our work, but another place, where we go to relax, gather with folks familiar and new, and essentially shoot the shit with.  The third place, in history, is the basis of community and is a cornerstone of informed and well-debated views and opinions.  Even though Oldenburg often oversimplifies societal problems, the third place and its decline in recent decades has increased the disconnection within our communities that we so often see today (want an example of overgeneralization – I just got done with some thirty pages of an ode to the 1950’s Leave it to Beaver soda fountain).  Think- complaining about people only staring at their phones at dinner rather than talking with friends and having good conversation – ON STEROIDS! OH NOOOOES!

Which one is your local?

So, you are probably asking yourself… omg, Joel is advocating for a pub in every Union (ok, maybe I am), but what I really want to examine is how our unions can potentially serve as this third place for our campuses, our student, staff, faculty, and local communities.

I found the ‘third place’ concept through this article, written by Loren Rullman and Jan van den Kieboom, where they indicated a third place often has the following characteristics:

…they are typically free or inexpensive to use; food is commonly available; they are easily accessible and proximate to first and second places; one can expect to see regular users; the ambiance is welcoming, comfortable, and playful; rules are few and neutralizing to hierarchy and status; and conversation is the primary sustaining activity.

A couple of passages and thoughts popped out to me when considering the union’s role as campus and community third place, particularly this one in a chapter focused on Main Street USA:

By their definition, a core setting in a neighborhood or community is that place where one is more likely than anywhere else to encounter any given resident of the community… in the common vernacular, [it] is ‘where the action is’

This sounds awfully familiar to how we view our own campus centers and student unions, that they are a hub of activity, drawing students from all areas of campus and academia into a building for a variety of reasons and where they can be exposed to new opportunities and ideas.  Art galleries, events, marketing, post offices, dining, student organization space, finance and ID card offices – they are all likely to find homes in our buildings and are all likely to lure campus community members only to offer them something new once their primary activity has been completed.  It’s where the action is, it’s the hub, the living room, or the heartbeat of campus.

What’s your hub?

So, now that we have a basis for understanding unions as a third place for our campus community, what happens in those third places that benefit our students?  In another area of overgeneralization from Oldenburg, he talks about the negative influence the 24 hour news cycle and television news media has had on the democratic and political participation process in our country.  TV offers a wide breadth of information in an efficient manner, but it does not offer the opportunity that a neighborhood tavern or a union lounge does to immediately “question, protest, sound out, supplement, and form opinion locally and collectively” upon hearing news.

This is something that I think is key for the student union experience, especially in our heritage and founding as debate societies, and especially in the UK context of a student union, an advocating and policy-making body that directly influences the student experience.  The union has to be a place where, with support, views and opinions can be challenged and folks can get out of their comfort zone in a productive way as local, national, and global events play out and become part of the current social landscape.  I’m all for concerts and stuff (and don’t get me wrong, they have their place and I love planning me a good concert), but some of my favorite programming that I have ever done was serving as an emcee on panels talking about What’s Next for places like Libya, after the fall of Ghaddafi, and Fukushima, after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and giving tours of 3 Ohio-based panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt while at Wooster.  I sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to continuously engage students who were at the top of their game in topics they cared about, wanted to know more about, and could spend hours talking about.  I don’t really care if we consider ourselves co-curricular or extracurricular in our unions, but we need to challenge, we need to be mindful of current events, and we must help students realize their place and role in what is going on.

The 24 hour news cycle also does not give us the local flavor that a third place can, informing us more “about a school bus accident in a South American country than of the actions of a local city council, which will have a far greater impact upon our lives,” and which we can easily see in issues like local voting rights for college students.

This article popped up in my Twitter feed from another master of the overgeneralization, Jeff Selingo, decrying the fact that the new student union at Miami University features lamps that cost $1035, but offers an interesting perspective into how institutions are funding new construction in different ways.  Granted, any chance most people can get to tack on another #adminbloat hashtag, they’ll take it.

What I found interesting from the article was further down, talking about why we are seeing new unions being constructed nowadays, in the recent financial barren landscape, with more modern, comfortable amenities and services that feature elements more conducive to the millennial student experience rather than the 1950’s malt shop student experience.  Dan Hurley, a spokesman for the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said “With regards to students, those buildings have served as a nucleus of student activities, academic programming, activities, cultural and entertainment activities,” which is backed up by supporting statements from the Miami student body president about its usage and benefit to campus life and experience (granted, how much of the SBP’s statements are scripted… you should read for yourself to decide).

I am not one for unnecessarily raising the bill for students to attend college, and if a union can be renovated or reconstructed to be made a better third place for this generation and the following generations (there is a reason why the field has been screaming FLEXIBILITY these last few years) in a sustainable and cost-effective manner, I’m all for it.  We need third places on campus, for all our constituents, and we in the student union biz are uniquely suited to serve as such.  So, let’s do it then, huh?

Sit down… let’s conversate… wait, how did you just sit in that chair? What the hell? Why? #Riker #dealwithit


4 thoughts on “the union place…

  1. Great thoughts. Third place is a great concept to build upon. I’m currently reading Space and Place: the perspective of experience.

    Unions have always had amenities seemed extra. Remember the “men’s clubs” they started out as in late 1800s, billiard halls, barbers, color TVs, and the list goes on. This is no different than a chain pharmacy store, gas station, grocery, liquor store on your neighborhood corner. All are amenities. Sure college costs can be reduced but are local services ready to pick up the burden of the need for services. Then local gov will need to upgrade their community facilities (cultural centers, community centers, senior centers, etc). Higher ed and town/gown relationships have always been an interesting topic. Wanna get real with the convo, eliminate athletics and let’s see if the locals (non students/employees) still feel we should cut out of class “extras”. Those 45k+ people on gameday sure aren’t complaining about college costs. There is no magic bullet, but if we are honest, everything should be on the table.

    As far as third place. It’s important to note that while the union strives to be everything to everyone, it just can’t. This is why there shouldn’t be an arms race on campus for the best place but rather varieties of space (libraries, residence halls, unions, cultural/identity centers, rec centers, outdoor fields, classrooms, etc) that enhance and support students. Without the physical environment being safe and inclusive, we can’t even focus on involvement which is needed to support community (Strange & Banning). We often forget that those amenities and fancy unions make people feel a certain way which allows us to have that challenging conversation. There is a reason they get renovated, most often because students abandon them when they aren’t meeting needs. The same is true for everyone…think that new grocery/restaurant in your neighborhood or that run down one you avoid.

  2. Pingback: the third union place… | Polar Bears and Coffee

  3. Pingback: What’s Missing from Our Boring Downtowns? | goodtownblog

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