Resident Assistants are often criticized by residents who think RAs do little or nothing to add value to the dorm. In fact, an earlier (since deleted) post did just that, suggesting that RAs only had to do a few "pointless" tasks, such as "posting unimportant flyers," in exchange for a free private room. This seems to be a not-uncommon belief amongst dorm dwellers, so allow me to "set the record straight," as it were.
As a Hall Director, I was responsible for a co-ed dormitory for two years, and I had an exemplary staff of four Resident Assistants. Jet-Poop is correct in pointing out that RAs are responsible for numerous services, most of which the residents are barely even aware; more "behind-the-scenes" things go on in your typical dormitory than people realize. RAs do much more than they're given credit for and, in most cases, they're compensated fairly poorly, even when compared to their friends who flip burgers and make minimum wage.
In my dorm, RAs were required to fulfill a host of daily, weekly, and monthly duties. They had to do all of this, mind you, while balancing a full course load and (hopefully) maintaining some modicum of a social life. Meanwhile, they were also responsible for keeping a watchful eye on everything so the dorm didn't burn to the ground and/or become a gigantic meth lab.
Owners of perhaps the single-most thankless job, Resident Assistants are also generally expected to stay late and return early for all school holidays. So while the residents who think RAs do nothing are off at the beach developing their tans, it's usually safe to assume that one or two of the RAs had to stay behind to "lock up" and/or come back early to get everything ready for reopening.
While Jet-Poop does a great job of discussing the basics of being an RA on an individual level, it's also important to remember the group dynamic necessary for running such a large facility; in most cases, in addition to their regular work, RAs have team projects that are delegated to them by the Hall Director. These responsibilities can include dispatching workers to areas in need of repair, working with troubled residents to ensure they get proper attention and/or counseling, developing programs (Halloween parties, study breaks, talent shows) so the residents can socialize, etc.
It has been my experience that people rarely become RAs just for the free room. First of all, the life of an RA isn't that glamorous. Who would want to place themselves in a position where they regularly get knocks on their door at 3:00 in the morning because someone's smoke alarm is going off? Who would subject themselves to a job that put them on call pretty much 24/7, so that even if they have an exam the very next day, they still have to be responsible for the health and well-being of 30 or so other students should any of them slip and fall in the shower? Who in the world would do any of this simply to get a free room in a frickin' dorm?
No, during my years with Res Life, it became abundantly clear to me that RAs take the job because they are either very responsible people or they would like to become very responsible people. They do it for the experience. They do it because they like working with other students. They do it because they know they're going to look back one of these days and say, "Hey, I made an impact on someone's life."
After hearing complaints from students at other universities about their RAs, I can only assume that some folks simply have terrible experiences with either (1) an awful housing department that doesn't train their people worth a shit, or (2) an RA who shouldn't have been given the job and probably doesn't have said job anymore.
When I first got involved as a Hall Director, I too thought that the RA job was probably superfluous. But then I spent a week in a dorm with 120 residents living, eating, breathing, fighting, screwing, and God knows what else under one roof. My job was made monumentally easier by the seemingly tireless dedication of four, insanely responsible, RAs.
So while there may be one or two bad RAs out there, dissing the group as a whole is surely a mistake. (And if I come across as if I think the dorm would fall to pieces without RAs, that I never could have done my job without my RAs, etc., that's because I feel exactly that way, and I very much intend for that to be my point.)