“How are you holding up?” “What about the loud music?” “Do students knock on your door at midnight?” “Do parents call you?”
Reflecting on my first year as a faculty head of house in The Commons for first-year students, these are a reasonably representative sample of the questions I’ve fielded from inquisitive (and sometimes concerned) colleagues at Vanderbilt. Sometimes the assumption appears to be that as a live-in professor, you’ve become a sort of cross between Steve Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen and Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
My first year as a head of house is inextricably linked with the metaphor of a growing family. Our twin sons, Braden and Theodore, celebrated their first birthdays one week before my wife, Mary Ellen, and I were joined by 96 first-year students in East House in August 2008.
Whether encouraging our sons to take that first step across the apartment floor or watching East House residents take those first steps away from their parents as they said goodbye that August weekend, I’ve lived through a dizzying array of “firsts” that seem to touch upon some of life’s most basic transitions.
As my friend and dean, Frank Wcislo, said to me as we watched parents move their children into East House while my sons scurried about, “This is you in 17 years, Dalhouse.”
As a new parent and new faculty head of house, I have found it to be a remarkable trek.
I came to the job with some inkling of what to expect. As a newly minted Ph.D. in a tough job market 18 years ago, I had taken my first professional position as a residence hall director and part-time faculty member in a first-year residence hall at Miami University of Ohio. In that job I was responsible for managing a student resident staff and handling discipline. I lived through a gamut of experiences ranging from the tragic—a student arrested for drug dealing during the first week of school, to comic—my residents petitioning the dean for academic credit in astronomy because a faulty fire alarm had them evacuating the building and gazing at the stars at 2 a.m. on successive nights. (Yes, they really did petition the dean, and no, their entreaty was not successful.)
So I felt reasonably prepared for experiencing The Commons. My residence hall experience also left me with an abiding respect for the student life professionals at Vanderbilt who so ably run the halls and work tirelessly to promote student development.
This time, however, I was being asked to serve in a completely different role. I was the faculty head of house, the intellectual presence and mentor for 96 students beginning the most important academic journey of their lives.
What did that mean for my professional life at Vanderbilt? My days had, until then, a reasonable approximation of a beginning and an end. Now I would be living at work. And my work now would mean cultivating the life of the mind outside the usual comfortable confines of classroom and office.
More to the point, what did this mean for my students? In living out the answer to those questions during the past year, the single most important thing I have learned as a faculty head of house has been the power of presence.
I began the year with an ambitious programming plan that now, from the vantage point of a year out, seems almost quaint. I seemed not to have remembered that somewhere during the day, my students needed to eat, do laundry, participate in social life and study. What I saw instead, as my packed programming scheme gave way under the realities of student life, was the emergence of something much more meaningful. I didn’t need to create a second curriculum. I needed to be there.
The inaugural year of The Commons coincided, happily for a historian of American politics, with the most riveting election since 1968. Opening up our residence and watching with students as Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain gave their acceptance speeches; watching the candidates debate throughout the fall; and finally sitting with my students on that climactic election night when history was made—these all spawned innumerable conversations about what all of this meant collectively for us as a nation.
It also, more often than not, led from the global to the local. “How is that class going?” “How are your parents?” “How are you and your roommate getting along?” Around the time of the election in the fall, we also began what became the single most successful program in East House: our weekly Fireside Chats (remember the American politics angle?). Every Wednesday night at 9, we put hot chocolate and cookies out in the lobby. It was a very simple concept, yet a very profound one.
Out of those weekly conversations grew relationships, one student at a time. And out of those relationships came the intellectual mentoring—the sharing of a book, discussing a news item, offering advice on a research paper—that I wanted for my students. The Fireside Chats became a community staple for East House. Wednesdays we came together, and through it I began 96 relationships that continued through the year, and that continue today. We became a family.
I could not write about this memorable year without paying tribute to the nine other people who also became faculty heads of house. All accomplished scholars, all burning to make a difference in the lives of students, these nine remarkable colleagues, friends and family became wonderful companions on this journey. We felt ourselves a unique fraternity on campus—a band of brothers and sisters. We were the first heads of house. I cannot imagine this journey without them.
Much like my sons have done during this past year, my residents also taught me.
Through their eyes and experience, I felt the excitement of Election ’08, I felt the anxiety as our nation’s economic woes deepened, and I felt the sense of accomplishment as we finished the year together. The first-year experience encompassed all of us—both students and heads of house.
So I am holding up very well. I don’t mind loud music (and actually, there is less than you might think). I welcome the knocks at the door. I have learned that some of the most significant learning this year happened not in the classroom, but in the serendipitous moments that no amount of curriculum planning could have anticipated or planned.
My “family” has grown and expanded in ways I scarcely could have imagined a year ago, and it is a journey I would not trade for the world.