Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Sunday night dinner I didn’t have to cook.

Last Sunday night, the Resident Assistant of Letts Hall, third floor South, invited me to dinner with her residents. More than 25 gathered in the lounge for a meal of pasta shells, pasta sauce, garlic bread and Klondike bars for dessert (my contribution). This was not a “program” in the sense that I had been invited to speak about something. It was simply an opportunity to get acquainted. I asked a few questions to learn something about students’ background. Most were first year students from the United States. Only three had lived abroad, one in India, one in Egypt and one in Latin America. However all planned to complete at least one study abroad semester before graduation.

Toward the end of the evening I gave a bit of an informal talk on my role as a faculty resident. I spoke about how I could help students with academic issues and negotiating the intricacies of AU’s complex institutional culture. We discussed what it is like to live in a developing country and I shared some anecdotes from my years of living in and visiting Sri Lanka.

A question that students who don’t know me always ask is “why did you decide to live in a dorm?” (They always use the term “dorm” even though the politically correct, officially mandated name for where we live is “residence hall.”) I have been asked this question many times, in groups and in one on one conversations so I have ready answers: my goal was to bridge the gap between faculty and students outside the classroom; I was responding to expressed student wishes to become closer to faculty in informal settings; I wanted to avoid the brutal Route 66 commute between American University and where my wife wanted to live, in rural Faquier County Virginia; I wanted to learn more about a generation of students just slightly older than my oldest grandchild. I spoke about how much I had learned and how I was able to present a student-centered view in forums where student voices are rarely heard or given credibility: the Faculty Senate, the Provost’s Council, committee meetings where “what students want” is discussed with no students present.

By 9:30, conversation flagged as residents drifted off to begin evening studies, projects or socializing. It was time for me to do the same. The good news was that for once, i didn’t have to clean up and do the dishes.

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