Why the Residential Part of a College Matters
20 September 2004 (collegiateway.org) — Teachable moments don’t happen on a regular schedule, and if we limit higher education to things that can be fit into a daytime schedule two or three times a week we will neither teach nor learn many of the Great Things the world offers. When people live together in a residential college, however, teaching and learning can take place around the clock, morning or night, as circumstance and serendipity permit. This can give rise to a whole “invisible university” existing in parallel with the formal curriculum, and about which some of my students have written in the past.
In a residential college, where you can almost always find a few people around late at night, early in the morning, on weekends or on holidays, you can take advantage of circumstances like last night.
The weather is turning cold here in Vermont, and the first touches of color are starting to appear on the hills around Middlebury. Last night was clear and cold, and as I left my office just after midnight the Milky Way was bright overhead and Orion the Hunter was rising up over the Green Mountains. If you only see students during class, you can tell them about this the next day (to minimal effect). But in a residential college this is the precise moment to pull a few students out from the late-night TV room or away from the late-night microwave in the kitchen, point to the sky, and read to them from one of the great works of American nature writing, Henry Beston’s The Outermost House:
So came August to its close, ending its last day with a night so luminous and still that a mood came over me to sleep out on the open beach under the stars…. South of my house, between the bold fan of a dune and the wall of a plateau, a sheltered hollow opens seaward, and to this nook I went, shouldering my blankets sailorwise. In the star-shine the hollow was darker than the immense and solitary beach, and its floor was still pleasantly warm with the overflow of day.
I fell asleep uneasily, and woke again as one wakes out-of-doors. The vague walls about me breathed a pleasant smell of sand, there was no sound, and the broken circle of grass above was as motionless as something in a house. Waking again, hours afterward, I felt the air grown colder and heard a little advancing noise of waves. It was still night. Sleep gone and past recapture, I drew on my clothes and went to the beach. In the luminous east, two great stars aslant were rising clear of the exhalations of darkness gathering at the rim of night and ocean—Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, the shoulders of Orion. Autumn had come, and the Giant stood again at the horizon of day and the ebbing year, his belt still hidden in the bank of cloud, his feet in the deeps of space and the far surges of the sea.
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