Friday, August 19, 2005

What does a faculty resident do?

This is a pretty long blog but may be interesting to some new AU students and/or parents. The point of it is not only knowing but doing. It will have served its purpose of some of you who are AU students feel motivated to take advantage of some services that the faculty resident provides.

It is the script of a DVD I made for members of AU’s Board of Trustees about life in a dorm. Possibly I may have posted it before, but it seems timely for ‘Welcome Week,’ which began today.


I regret that I cannot be with you personally. A long-standing conflict commitment that could not be moved made this impossible. But I hope in this brief video, to share residential life at AU, from a faculty resident perspective in way that a combines a recounting of experiences with visual images that you might otherwise not see. .

I first met with this Committee to speak about the Faculty Residence Experiment – now the Faculty Residence Program – at American University, in the Spring of 2002.

At the time, I had been living on campus for all of seven weeks. What drew me to what has now become known at the Faculty Resident’s Apartment, 101 Anderson Hall? Motivations included my own experiences as a Dartmouth College undergraduate; and a Student Confederation President’s public plea for closer faculty-student ties, outside of the classroom. There was one of President Ladner’s Fifteen points, calling for faculty-student engagement in a caring campus community. There was Vice President Gail Hanson’s often expressed vision of a more vital residential living learning experience at AU, similar to Residential Colleges at Cambridge, Oxford, Yale and a growing number of other Universities in the US and abroad. When I shared the idea with my two adult children, one an AU graduate, they said “go for it Dad.

In that first talk, I spoke of participating in resident assistant orientations, RA staff meetings, a floor program, and my first fire alarm evacuations. I had invited various AU administrators to my apartment for a meal and a tour of what was foreign territory for and hosted my first dinner for residents. I had described my experiences to curious, bemused colleagues at a Faculty Senate meeting. A flattering article had appeared in the Eagle and after 25 years living in Washington, I wondered about the expose that might mark the end of my honeymoon period, headlined “New Faculty Resident Disappoints.”

More that three years have passed. Innumerable South Side residents, and especially three cohorts of resident assistants have become my mentors, companions and friends. Gail Hanson’s tolerance, flexibility and encouragement, backstopped by the support of Julie Weber and her staff, have permitted the faculty resident’s role to grow organically. There has been space to learn about residence hall culture – or cultures - which was an unfamiliar even alien culture to me and most faculty colleagues. There has been time to seek out and exploit targets of opportunity that would enable me to connect with students, learn from them and make a difference in their lives.

What does a faculty resident do?

It seemed useful to begin by highlighting a few activities that provide opportunities engage with students and describe residential life to other campus communities. Then I want to describe what I see as 6 of the most important functions faculty resident can perform.

First – activities.

Because I like to cook, the faculty resident’s dinners may be the most rewarding and fun of all, so I have put these at the top of the list. On five or six Sunday night’s each semester I cook and serve a dinner for about ten students and often one or two faculty members Usually the cuisine is international, for example Sri Lankan curry, which provides an opportunity to talk about countries where I have worked and lived. Our last dinner of the year, served two weeks ago, is Peking Duck. Professor Joe Campbell, from whom you will be hearing later was among my first faculty dinner guests and I like to think that this experience, may have helped raise in his mind, the possibility of moving on campus. Over three years there have been several hundred student dinner guests (some repeat customers, of course, and perhaps 25 faculty members.

Two other activities also draw students, and in the case of the second parents, into my apartment for food and conversations. These are study break hours and continental breakfast on “moving in day” weekend in the fall and moving out day weekend in the Spring. Study break hours are held from 10:45 until midnight (or later) on the nights before final examinations each semester. They feature coffee, tea, Klondike Bars and other high energy snacks. Continental Breakfast, typically served from 8 until noon of moving out weekend if is a particular popular event with parents, providing a brief oasis of civility to which they can retreat from what can be an exhausting, stressful day.

The faculty residents weblog, is a new an popular way of communicating with students that initiated last fall, at the suggestion of the student assistant who helps with my dinners. Almost since it was initiated, dormgrandpop has been ranked as AU’s most number one blog by the student run competitor to AU’s portal, Daily Jolt. More about dormgrandpop later.

Another communication vehicle is the faculty resident’s bulletin board in the front lobby of Anderson Hall. We normally do about seven displays a year, including one for summer interns describing the sights and avidities of Washington. Some are standards, such as “welcome to AU and Anderson Hall” which goes up each fall and “dealing with stress” which publicizes messages from AU’s counseling and academic support centers in late November. Others are more topical such as a display on Tsunami relief and how students can help, posted in late January, and a display on my new book, Paradise Poisoned: Lessons About Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars, posted after the book’s release in April.

I also give two or three floor programs to groups of residents each semester, normally about 9 in the evening. Among this year’s topics were “Choosing the right courses”, “what to do when you have a bad teacher” and “Hooking up with a great mentor”. Sometimes I will also join in on floor programs given by others, including, interestingly, “sex milk and cookies”, the student lead program on sexuality, condom use and sexually transmitted diseases. I continue to attend resident staff meetings and host meetings and meals for faculty and staff in my apartment.


The functions I have described, and many more, are intrinsically valuable, but far more important because of the opportunities they provide for a faculty resident to learn from and contribute to students, often in one on one conversations. Here are ______ ways that I believe a faculty member can learn and contribute.

First is the faculty resident as mentor.

One night about 11 PM. I was returning to Anderson from my office. One of my RA friends caught me and asked if I could help out with personality conflict she was having with a faculty member. She felt that a personality conflict was threatening her success in the course and was fearful a bad grade would ruin her chances for graduate school. I connected her with the Associate Dean of her school, a close personal friend. On another occasion a student told me she had recently been chosen for Peace Corps Service in Africa and I was able to put her in touch with a network of returned peace Corps volunteers. A third student knocked on my door about 10 PM seeking help for assignment (probably due the next day) the required an interview with someone who had personally experienced the Viet-Nam war era. Fortuitously, I had been an active duty Naval Officer and my brother, a leading war protester. Last Thursday night at 11:30, I took a student to my apartment and helped him copy a term paper from AU’s computer network. He had forgotten that the Library’s all night computer lab closed after final exams completed

When a faculty member lives or has his office on campus, there are numerous activities for such formal and informal mentoring.

A second contribution might be termed the faculty resident as ombudsman.

About two years ago, topic of AU’s Health Center came up at a Sunday night dinner. Student views of the Center were almost universally negative and when I probed for details, one told us about a recent circumstance where she felt Health Center Staff members had treated her insensitively and unprofessionally. I coached her on an appropriate, constructive response (not writing) to President Ladner. Soon afterwards I arranged for the Health Center Director to visit Anderson for an informal discussion with students about their concerns. There have be numerous other instances, where it is been possible to coach students in seek constructive solutions to institutional problems that concerned them.

Bridge building is the way I would describe a third contribution.

In some ways, having a faculty administrator as faculty resident is not a great idea. The Center for Teaching Excellence, which I direct supports faculty in raising the quality of academic instruction, it helps socialize new faculty to our community and helps mentor them through the tenure process. In manages our on-line instructional system, Blackboard and trains faculty members in used. It manages information technology laboratories that provide services to thousands of student and faculty clients. It manages AU’s audiovisual services, supporting both classroom instruction and much more. I also teach in the school of international service and participate in a number of University-wide task forces and working groups. All of this means less time for one on one interactions with students, especially during daytime hours. But does provide numerous activities to communicate a student-centered perspective, from the vantage point of a 30 year AU veteran and senior faculty administrator in venues where this perspective is rarely heard. To cite just one example, not only did I discuss on campus living with members of the Middle States Accreditation team, but the entire team visited me in Anderson Hall, escorted by the Provost. Unfortunately a tight schedule did not allow them to stay for dinner.

Living on campus also provides an opportunity for a faculty resident to share his life as a practicing scholar with students.

I believe it is important for a faculty resident to be an active scholar and for students to be exposed to that side of a faculty member’s life. Students should have the opportunity to learn that that their faculty resident does more that cook gourmet dinners, hand out Klondike Bars, and make himself available for interviews and mentoring at odd hours. Many students seek role models who are active scholars and are intensely curious about that facet of faculty member’s lives. Sadly, students are rarely exposed to this in typical classroom settings, especially in first and second-year courses. My strategy bridging this gap is simply to have copies of my books present visibly, but not obtrusively in my apartment. Perhaps fortunately, a priority of mine has been to make technical subjects accessible to non technical audiences. Books I have written and to which I have contributed often have attractively designed covers and evocative titles: Groping in the Dark, the First Decade of Global Modeling; Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future; Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has Come, and the latest: Paradise Poisoned: Lessons about Conflict, Terrorism and Development From Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. When a student visitor to my apartment, for a dinner, study break, mentoring session or office ours, picks up one of these books, it provides an opening to discuss my work and the life of a practicing scholar.

Equally important living on campus provides an opportunity for a faculty member to share his life with students when he is not functioning as practicing scholar, senior faculty administrator or “agent of the university”.

I believe it humanizes a faculty member, making stronger connections possible, for students to see him when he is living in the role of classroom teacher, practicing scholar or, in my case, administrator. Living on campus 24 hours each day, makes it impossible to avoid this kind of interaction. Many of the activities described above make these informal connections even more probable. My blog, dormgrandpop is another channel for making myself more accessible to students by sharing unofficial parts of my life with them. Postings range from the profound, to the spiritual, to the topical to the banal. This is typical of blogs. Tiles of some recent postings will give you the idea”

Five life changing books; and more


AU’s Coffee Controversy. Social Choice and Individual Values

Save our Teams: A time Empathy, Compassion and Civil Discourse

Back from Halfway Around the World (after a trip to Sri Lanka)

Vulnerability, Sri Lankans face a second tsunami

Love is patient, love is kind

A lesson in humility, and

The Joys of Cooking Peking Duck

A final contribution might be called “paving the way.”

When I first moved into Anderson Hall and began speaking about it, the Faculty Resident Experiment was mostly viewed as a curiosity. The most frequent question I received was about fire alarm evacuations, which were notorious on the South side in academic year 2002-2003. My biggest concern was that the experiment, even if it succeeded, would be seen as depending on the idiosyncrasies – some might say eccentricities – of a particular individual.

But as the faculty resident survived and seemed to for one year, then two and then into a third years, I could feel that perceptions were changing. A growing number of faculty, mostly my dinner guests, began dipping their toes in the water with hypothetical questions about whether their might be other opportunities to live – or at least work in a resident.

As you know, there was one faculty member, my colleague Joe Campbell, who pursued this with patience, enthusiasm, creativity and characteristically high energy. When space opened up in McDowell Hall, Joe was not only willing but eager to move in. The faculty resident experiment had become the Faculty Resident Program. What is particularly exciting about Joe’s year in McDowell, as you will soon here is how he has capitalized on a very different set of assets and somewhat different North Side culture to create an ambitious, highly visible program, that breaks new ground in areas that might never have occurred to me.

Thus if I am to rank the contributions of my three plus years in residence, picking number one is easy. Along with Gail Hanson, Julie Weber and many others it is to have helped create a climate that encouraged a colleague of Joe Campbell’s caliber to commit himself to an “in residence program” with the great results that this has already produced. Moreover Joe, Gail, Julie and I believe that the Faculty Residence program, as it has evolved so far, is only a baby stop to ward the vision of a living learning campus community that President Lander envisioned so eloquently as one of his fifteen points. Giant steps lie ahead as you will hear. With your ideas, encouragement and support, we intend to take them.


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