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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trinity Faculty Going Downhill (Part 2)

At Trinity University, some believe that drawing faculty members physically downhill – from the upper campus academic area to the lower campus residential area – can create an enriching and meaningful learning environment for students. It is a sometimes controversial issue because faculty members can only be stretched so far and students often like to separate, rather than integrate, their in-class and out-of-class experiences. This three-part series will take a look at the history, issues, and current standing of the blended educational experience at Trinity University.

Part 2: Collaboration
Trinity’s mission boasts a residential campus experience. On a very basic level, the three-year residency requirement is in place to shape the student identity as being immersed in the traditional college experience; to house students close to one another; and to offer easy access to lectures, athletic contests, and plays. Beyond that, the requirement affords the University a tremendous opportunity to foster interactions between students and faculty members outside the classroom.

One of the reasons that the campus pub – the Tigers’ Den – was so attractive when proposed and implemented, was that it created a space where professors and students could sit down over a beverage and wax poetic about Kant and Nietzsche in a setting that a classroom doesn’t allow. An experienced professor here wishes the University would buy housing near campus so faculty members can live close by and participate in campus events and have meaningful informal interactions with students. It makes senses, as sometimes the best interactions aren’t planned, and they happen in the most unusual settings and at the most unusual times. Creating opportunities allows for these types of interactions to occur.

One of the most sincere, yet damaging programs created on campus to create this dynamic occurred in the late 1980’s, when the then Residence Halls staff proposed and implemented a program called Faculty Friends. The idea was to connect students on campus with professors who would become informal mentors and leaders. Because the relationships were artificial the program failed miserably. Professors saw little benefit to going downhill for a dinner with students who had been cajoled by Resident Assistants into participating. Moving faculty from that era beyond that experience has proven challenging for years and even decades.

Generally, bringing professors and students together on campus is more of a challenge on larger research campuses. At schools like Trinity, professors will regularly serve extensive office hours and relish the opportunity to assist students outside of class and in small groups. This is what students view as the most significant part of their educational experience here. Most think that is enough, whereas others come from campuses where there were language houses and special living units, and regular night-time and evening interaction that made the experience really meaningful. One professor (not from TU) recently made a strong case for the benefits to students and faculty when professors live among students.

Faculty members do not speak with the same voice related to their outside-the-classroom roles on campus. Indeed, faculty members are judged almost entirely on the quality of their teaching and on research, a measure of one’s engagement, productivity, and ongoing development of expertise within a discipline. Service, such as serving on committees, comes in a distant third. Several years ago a professor helped advance a faculty-generated proposal that Residential Life would pay for faculty meals in the dining hall. The Faculty Senate declined, fearing that the ones who didn’t participate would be judged negatively, or that this would create an expectation for all professors that would interfere with the important business of teaching and research.

Likewise, I have been asked by professors why there is “this push to get faculty into the dorms.” On the flip-side, others have asked why we aren’t creating a better, more interactive environment on lower campus between faculty and students. One such professor challenged me personally years ago to include a residential option with the Humanities 1600 course. The success of that program has been transformational for me, and for the Residential Life program at Trinity.

Coming in Part 3: What works


The MacGregors said...

I think it's interesting this is an issue at Trinity. I always felt like most of my professors and other staff members were highly involved in activities outside of the classroom whether it was coming to cheer at a softball game or catching up over lunch. I guess it, like everything, could always improve.

David Tuttle said...

It's pretty good here, but you have to wait for part 3 to see how much the faculty really are involved. Later Noelley! Thanks for commenting, by the way. This is not as fun a topic as some others.

The MacGregors said...

Waiting with bated breath. :)

Digital Subway said...

In my high school where all students lived inside school (boarding school), more than half of faculty also lived within school premises.

But that was high school and moreover I think many professors are already so involved with students.

ABakshi said...

It is a good idea but will take some doing. The benefits are tremendous.It, however requires a very committed type of Professor.
It is quite common in UK and India especially in residential schools. Some universities, too, follow it. In India there are many Schools some Universities which follow the 'Gurukul' (Professors House & Family) system, which basically is an even more intense for of Teachers/Professors living with the students and doing all their daily routines together. The bonding and mentoring in such systems is amazing.
All the more strength to Trinity U if it can implement it.
Anil Bakshi