Faculty role in residential life assessed

Among the five goals outlined for the neighborhood system in the 2005 Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) report was one promoting opportunities for students to interact with faculty and staff outside of the classroom. Indeed, in the recent report released by the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) 63 percent of the students who responded agreed that providing interaction with faculty was an important goal of a residential system. Only 19 percent, however, thought the goal was being met by the current neighborhood system in place.

History

According to Philosophy Professor Will Dudley, who was the head of the CUL when it released its 2005 report and as such a key figure in creating the neighborhood system, student-faculty interaction was an element missing from the College in the years preceding neighborhoods. He said that under the house system in place from the 1960s to the 1990s, every house had a faculty affiliate who often dined with students and helped organize other student-faculty events. When this system was replaced by free-agency housing in 1990s, Dudley explained, the type of close student-faculty affiliation that had been based on residences was lost. By making student-faculty interaction a goal of the neighborhood system, he said, the CUL hoped that such interactions could be reinvigorated.

Dudley noted that an ideal residential system should cater both to student satisfaction and to the educational mission of the College. “Student-faculty interaction does both of these things,” he said. “It’s enjoyable for its own sake, and it is an important part of the distinctive sort of education provided by a small liberal arts college.”
Like Dudley, many are aware and supportive of the value of student-faculty interactions. “I think faculty-student interactions should be the defining feature of a liberal arts education,” said Evan Skorpen ’11. “Not only is it important for students to see their professors as more than lecturers, but I think it helps breed a sense of intellectualism on campus. I think that students and faculty discussing academics at lunch, dinner or anywhere around campus is an amazing way to get students invested in the material they’re covering.”

Students and faculty both recognize that the small size of the College offers opportunities for interaction that not all colleges and universities provide. “Williams takes as one of its core tenets the concept of being a teaching college – a place where faculty are here not for their personal research, but to help the intellectual development of 2000-odd kids,” said Dave Thompson ’11. “I think a lot of people see that development as being confined to the classroom, in the area of expertise of any particular professor, but the professors here are all very interesting and accomplished people, and if all we do is listen to them lecture I think we’re missing out.”

Even seemingly small things that reinforce students’ relationships with faculty members have an impact. “When you arrive on campus during your freshman fall, depending, of course, on which classes you take, there’s a good chance your professors will know your name, which is a fairly superficial measure of student-faculty interaction but I think a pretty symbolic one nonetheless,” said Andrew Forrest ’10, explaining that student-faculty relationships are one of his favorite things to emphasize when giving campus tours to prospective students.

Julie Pedroni, assistant professor of philosophy, agreed on the importance of taking advantage of the intimacy of small class sizes, noting that she finds value in “finding out about students’ interests outside of class, trying to work those interests into class and helping students pursue their interests,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed making bonds with students that last beyond the four years here.”

The role of residential life

Without disputing the value of student-faculty relationships, many students and faculty alike have considered both its successes and effectiveness within the context of residential life. A range of perspectives have emerged on campus as of late, with some questioning the usefulness of the random assignment of professors to neighborhoods, saying that the best student-faculty relationships are those based on shared interests and personal initiative, not chance-based arrangements and forced interactions.

“My sense is that the most meaningful student-faculty interaction for me happens in relation to a particular issue, event or shared goal,” said Katie Kent, professor of English. “Interaction just for the sake of interaction often feels forced and, while it can be successful, seems less central to the goals of the College than interaction with a shared purpose.”

Others believe that student-faculty interactions can work with residential life in some cases better than others. “I am skeptical of a residential system’s ability to provide better student-faculty interactions,” Skorpen said. “I think it could work in the entries, but I don’t think inorganic interactions like neighborhood dinners are effective at all. I think it works best when faculty are invited by a specific student.”

Some acknowledged that certain kinds of interaction outside the classroom are more ideal than others. “There can be some discomfort on the part of faculty – I know any time I go into a residence or a dining hall, I feel a little odd,” Pedroni said.

Indeed, some students have wondered why student-faculty interaction would be a goal of a residential system, since student-faculty relationships are part of the classroom sphere. Trillia Fidei-Bagwell ’11 noted that social relationships between students and faculty can conflict with the primary relationship in the classroom – that of learner and “imparter of knowledge.”

“Obviously in a small liberal arts college, these spheres will often find themselves intertwined, but that’s all the more reason why, at the structural level, the College should attempt to keep them separate,” Fidei-Bagwell said. “If residential life needs a goal, it should be to foster more relationships among students of various classes and neighborhoods.”

On the other hand, Frank Morgan, professor of mathematics, believes that student-faculty relationships should by all means extend beyond the classroom sphere. “We have to work together in all areas. The faculty can take the lead in the classroom and students can take the lead in other places – it should be a collaborative, consultative experience,” he said. “It makes you a better student when you take an active role in the classroom, and conversely it can make you a better faculty member when you take a role elsewhere.”

Morgan admitted that there can be a level of discomfort, but explained that unfamiliarity plays a part. “There are misconceptions, like thinking that faculty will be annoyed if a student asks them to have a meal,” he said. “The faculty also feel a little nervous, but students can be great hosts, and that interaction makes the next day in class more enjoyable.”

Neighborhood initiatives

Forrest, the current president of Wood neighborhood, admitted that the student-faculty interaction goal of the neighborhoods got off to a difficult start. “While I can’t speak for the other neighborhoods, I’ll be the first to admit that over the past four years, Wood has not done a very good job of getting students and faculty together,” Forrest said. “In the past, we barely even knew who our faculty advisers were, and many professors had no clue what neighborhood they were in.” However, Forrest noted that so far this year, Wood neighborhood has hosted pumpkin carving, apple pie baking and neighborhood dinner events that were attended by faculty members and their families. He noted that the improvement has been due in part to an active neighborhood faculty associate.

According to Forrest, student-faculty interaction is a “reasonable” goal for a residential system. “Many other colleges and universities with similar residential housing system to ours – indeed, the Yale and Princeton systems upon which our system was based – integrate faculty into the system, and I think it’s a great way to foster student-faculty relationships outside of the context of the classroom,” Forrest said. “I think we’ve made great progress this year and will continue to design creative, fun activities to encourage more [interaction] in the future.”

According to Dudley, the neighborhood system indeed has the potential for fostering student-faculty interaction. He cited Spencer neighborhood dinners as “a step in the right direction,” but suggested that the Lyceum dinner format, in which students issue personal invitations to professors, might be more popular and successful.

Dudley expressed hope that this type of interaction is a work in progress. “If the neighborhood boards and their faculty associates continue to experiment creatively, they will discover what works, and some of the events they create will become enduring traditions,” he said. “I absolutely think that enhanced student-faculty interaction is a goal that a residential system can and should meet. Of course there are also other ways that student-faculty interaction can be encouraged, but these different means are not mutually exclusive – they can and should complement each other, so that student-faculty interaction at Williams is as successful as possible.”

Moving Forward

Morgan believes that student-faculty interactions are of paramount importance to the College’s mission. “In my opinion, everything at Williams should be a joint endeavor of students and faculty working together,” he said. “The best things that have happened at Williams have been the ones in which both students and faculty have been involved,” Morgan said.

Morgan recently piloted a program to foster student-faculty interactions in which first-year entries invite faculty members to entry dinners. “Many entries go to dinner together regularly anyway, so it’s a perfect opportunity,” he said, noting that building student-faculty interactions beginning with first-years might inspire a trend. “The things you start freshmen year are the things you continue,” he added.

Skorpen, a Junior Advisor (JA) in one of the entries participating in Morgan’s pilot program, agreed that familiarizing first-years with the concept of interacting with faculty outside the classroom could be beneficial. He said that the pilot program might lay the groundwork for faculty-student interactions throughout a student’s time at the College. “By letting students know that it is normal and ‘okay’ to get lunch with a professor, hopefully more students will take the initiative,” he said. “I think if the College can find a way to get all the entries to invite professors to dinner, there will be a huge windfall effect since kids will become accustomed to seeing faculty in the dining halls and thus will feel less awkward inviting a professor of their own.”

Kent suggested that there are ways to foster student-faculty dinners outside of the context of the neighborhoods. “Gatherings organized around a particular intellectual or political topic also seem like a very positive way to promote faculty-student interaction, as do the various committees on which students and faculty serve together,” she said. Kent stressed that student invitations are key, in that they signal a desire to continue a conversation or get to know a faculty member better.

Pedroni said that however students and faculty connect, the contact should take place in a comfortable way. “Student-faculty relationships are improved by anything that allows us to interact without intruding on each other’s personal space,” she said.