Faculty families find a new home - in a campus dorm

My wife and I live with a lot of kids. Two hundred, to be exact.

Fortunately, only two of them are ours. We live in a freshman dorm. On the inside, our three-bedroom apartment looks nothing like the typical haven for late-night pizza eating and studying - it could belong in any modern apartment complex. But when we step outside, we find ourselves surrounded by backpack-toting students scurrying off to class or other activities at Washington University in St. Louis. And, yes, we chose to be here.

Washington University is remodeling its student campus, and - following the path of a handful of other universities - it's turning its collection of dormitories into residential colleges.

That's where we fit in. An integral part of the residential college system is having professors and their families live among the students.

Two years ago, when we sold our house and moved into the Danforth House of the Eliot Residential College, we were the only faculty family on campus. Now, construction of new dorms has allowed two more faculty families to come aboard, on the way to a total of eight.

The idea behind collecting dorms into residential colleges is to build a stronger sense of community between groups of students, faculty, and staff members, as well as to help bridge the gap between student life and academic life.

Cram sessions in PJs

We hold classes right in our building. Students can come to evening study groups in their pajamas. We invite faculty to have dinner and talk with students. Academic activities are not just the students' day jobs - they come into their home.

While I have the role of resident faculty fellow, our work is really a family affair, so we refer to ourselves as the "resident family." We bring a reality check to the house, whose residents would otherwise have a distribution of ages tightly centered around 18 years old. With a family living here year-round, students see the building less as temporary housing and more as a home.

Many students miss their younger brothers and sisters, and welcome the hijinks of a rambunctious five-year-old boy and charm of a one-year-old girl. There is also an added incentive to keep the hallways and study rooms in good shape, knowing that two little children could come running through them the next morning.

We work hand in hand with a residential college director, whose full-time job is to oversee the staff of upper-class student residential advisers and the daily programming and activities of the three buildings in our college.

My family's and my role is less specific. My days are still occupied with research and teaching (on earthquakes and other aspects of geophysics), and my wife has her own work in addition to being the A-team in raising our children. But we spend a lot of time with the students in many different ways.

We see our presence on the student campus as a kind of ministry. We are like older, watchful neighbors. We eat many of our meals with students. We help organize functions within our college.

We also attend as many sports games, concerts, carnivals, and ethnic festivities as our schedules permit.

As the resident professor, some of my activities are strictly academic, too. I advise students on courses and majors. I also communicate regularly with the entire college (460 students in three buildings) through e-mails, reminding them of course deadlines, career-planning activities, and providing tips like, "Remember to make parents weekend restaurant reservations at least a month ahead."

Sometimes it's hard to define the full scope of our activities.

One day, my wife read over a student's paper on the politics of Eastern Europe. The next, my son and I judged a contest in dorm-room miniature golf course design, and the next, we gave out pans and tips on making a birthday cake.

But the most significant contribution we make is simply our presence. It often takes 45 minutes for us to walk the 300 feet to the dining hall, because we stop to chat with students along the way: "How was your exam? Are things better with your roommate? Did you see the championship game of the women's basketball team?"

My son helps me with names when we approach groups of students we don't know well.

One time, a student argued earnestly that faculty should not live on the student campus. My many counterarguments were not persuasive until I asked him if he had ever had such a determined half-hour discussion with a professor before.

Sometimes we feel like ambassadors in a strange land. The natives speak a different language, eat different foods (bottled ginseng teas are in vogue), and they definitely listen to different music.

We're on their side

Ambassadors have two roles, however. While I certainly represent the faculty to the student campus, I'm also an advocate for the students.

I often serve on faculty committees that decide a variety of academic policies that directly impact student life. I now bring a unique perspective to this work. I can assure my colleagues, for example, that our own undergraduate experiences, decades past, bear little relevance to the issues facing our current students.

As more and more faculty members share our experience, there will be an increased sense of empathy for what students face. As the program continues, the students will also have a better understanding of who the faculty are, not as course instructors, but as people.

Too much consumerism

This broader feeling of understanding will be very welcome. There's been an unfortunate trend within college education toward a sense of consumerism.

I hear my faculty colleagues complain that some students now walk in and out of class at will, or talk with their classmates loudly during class. When questioned, they respond that since they are paying for their education, they do whatever they want during class.

And with increased pressures to obtain research grants and publish papers, faculty members feel a temptation to treat teaching as a chore that should be completed quickly and efficiently - thus allowing them to get back to their research.

Both of these forms of consumerism are possible if there is no personal connection between students and faculty. It doesn't happen when you have continued contact with each other outside class. It would be embarrassing for any of us to face one another if we weren't all trying our best in the classroom. We know each other in richer ways than just our classroom roles, and it gives us great respect.

In a year, we'll likely finish our tenure as a resident family.

After we go, another faculty family will take our place. The lessons we have learned from the experience, however, will last a lifetime.

*Michael Wysession is an associate professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Washington University in St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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