Resident fellows work to integrate residential living and learning

The current Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford is likely to result in an even greater emphasis on integrating education into Stanford's 78 undergraduate residences. Resident fellows, who are faculty or senior staff living in the residences, discuss how they encourage creation of an intellectual community in the dorms.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Rod and Kristen Taylor

Rod Taylor, lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, with his wife, Kristen, an administrator in mechanical engineering, are RFs in Robinson.

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) currently under way is likely to result in a greater emphasis on the intersection between students' residential and academic lives.

Key will be the 60 resident fellows (RFs), who are the faculty and senior staff who live in the dorms. They are charged with working with student residence staff to facilitate a culture of intellectual engagement in the residences.

Most RFs, like Rod Taylor, lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, do so by introducing their residents to their personal interests and professional passions – in Taylor's case, the bass guitar. Taylor is a second-year RF in the upperclass Robinson House with his wife, Kristen, an administrator in mechanical engineering.

A modernist literary critic, Taylor teaches the course Stepping Out from the Shadows: Music, the Bass Guitar and the Rhetoric of Revolution. So, naturally, the Taylors have invited such well-known bass guitarists as Grammy Award winner Victor Wooten to campus to talk about their work and to perform for – and with – students in the intimacy of the residences.

"I could try to have a Joyce reading club in the dorm, but there would be one person in it, and it would be me," Taylor said.

Dorm storms

The innovative dialogues the Taylors and others are creating are what SUES wants to encourage in the undergraduate residences, according to James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History and a first-year RF in the upperclass Lantana Hall. Campbell co-chairs SUES.

The 18-member committee was asked by Provost John Etchemendy to think critically about undergraduate education and submit a report next fall. Some of the members' most enlightening conversations, Campbell said, have been with undergraduates during the "dorm storms" brainstorming sessions members hold in student dining halls during dinners.

"A lot of faculty have done this kind of programming well, but on their own, with very little institutional support," said Campbell, citing the performances in upperclass Kimball Hall and the annual trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival by Donner Hall freshmen.

But RFs, he said, are challenged by a lack of continuity.

"It's very hard to build and sustain some kind of intellectual culture and to nurture the community you want when the residents are being completely reshuffled each year," he said. "In Lantana, we have 108 residents, and next year we'll have 108 entirely new residents."

Campbell said committee members are sensing that the Stanford undergraduate experience tends to be highly compartmentalized.

"Students have their majors, their general education requirements, their residential life and their co-curriculars, but there's very little connective tissue between them," he said.

Tough job

It may be that one connection is in the residences and through the RFs, who have one of the most challenging – yet rewarding – jobs on campus. In addition to their full-time duties as faculty or staff, RFs live 24/7 in apartments or cottages that are part of, or next to, residences.

Part authority figure, mentor and friend, RFs help students with the challenges of being a young adult.

Deborah Golder

Deborah Golder, associate vice provost for student affairs and dean of residential education, says flexibility is key to a successful RF program.

"It's about being present, so that people know you," said Taylor.

Besides the chance to share their scholarly passions and create an intellectual environment, RFs have the opportunity to interact with students who are among the most talented worldwide. Many RFs raise a family in the residences.

Ross Shachter, associate professor of management science and engineering, has been an RF longer than many students have been alive. This is his 21st – and final – year living in the freshman Serra House, and he says that raising his kids there was one of the best parts of being an RF.

"In all the Bay Area, I don't know where they'd be surrounded by such academically focused students with a variety of interests. It's been educational for me and fantastic for my kids," he said. "It's been both a labor of love and an honor."

Steve Weitzman, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and Religion, is a first-year RF in the four-class Roble Hall, where he lives with his wife, Mira, four sons and more than 300 students, including about 150 freshmen.

"It's been a great way to learn about the students," said Weitzman, who plans to teach in Roble's seminar room and has invited faculty colleagues to the dorm. "Seeing students outside the classroom has only left me more impressed with them."

Theme houses

Residential Education, which oversees life in the residences, is already overtly integrating education through themed residences. There are 10 theme houses, three new this year, including Education and Society in EAST House, Arts and Performing Arts in Kimball Hall and Global Citizenship in Crothers Hall.

At upperclass Crothers, Stephen Stedman, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and his wife, Corinne Thomas, have organized the Global Citizenship program to coordinate with FSI offerings. They have invited scholars from the institute and other prominent guests, including human rights activist John Prendergast, for events and dinners with students at their apartment.

Students living in EAST House had the opportunity to meet the producers of the provocative film Waiting for Superman and to get a sneak preview. World-renowned artists engaged by Lively Arts can often be found performing in Kimball's lounge. Residents in the writing theme hall, Adelfa, have met writers and poets.

In addition, the education offered in residences also has a distinctive lifestyle bent. Speakers sponsored by RFs and student staff are also likely to include everyone from the health coordinators at Vaden Health Center to the university bike coordinator to the wellness nutritionist at Stanford Dining to William Dement, the Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who talks to students about the importance of sleep.

Architectural challenges

As the university seeks to better integrate living and learning in the residences, Stedman anticipates that architecture will prove a major challenge.

While feedback to the Global Citizenship program has been positive, Stedman and Thomas say that creating community around programming is challenging in a large dorm. Crothers has 377 students, large enough that entire house meetings are impossible. Massive concrete pillars make large gatherings in the common spaces difficult, and the furniture is more durable than comfortable. As a result, said Stedman, common spaces are underutilized and Global Citizenship theme events are limited.

Also, residents eat at the nearby Stern residential complex, which means that without the proverbial watering hole to converse around, Crothers lacks the cohesion possible in smaller residences, like upperclass Row Houses that house 30 or so students.

"If we're serious about providing this opportunity to students, then the architecture has to match," said Stedman.

No one size

These issues are familiar to Deborah Golder, associate vice provost for student affairs and dean of residential education. Golder joined Stanford two years ago to enhance the learning communities in the dorms. Stanford's diverse residence system has called for flexibility in programming.

"There's no formulaic response," she said. "We have to be willing to be artists and to empower those closest to the situation. That's why I love the RF model."

Golder likens RFs, who serve four-year terms, to a group of brilliant musicians who all play different music. Their job is to look at their unique community and to maximize it in the best way possible. She hopes that as Residential Education and SUES explore undergraduate education in parallel, they will be able to add intentionality to the system.

By augmenting programs that encourage innovative programming and by creating more cohesion within the RF community, Golder hopes that – eventually – everyone from the RFs to the student staff to the student residents will see their community as more than just a social space.

"We're talking about a cultural change in many ways," said Golder. "It will be multifaceted and happen over many years."

Sam Julian is a former intern with University Communications.