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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

A Week in the Life of a Residential College Master

— An academic colleague who is learning about residential college life and organization expressed a wish that someone would tell him what a typical week is like for a residential college master. There is no fixed formula, of course, and roles may differ somewhat from institution to institution. But agreeing wholeheartedly that such sketches can be helpful, I offer the following.

  • Sunday. Since one of your own weekend hobbies is gardening (volleyball, rowing, bird-watching, singing, rock climbing), you come out for an hour or two on Sunday afternoon to cheer on the college’s gardeners (strikers, rowers, birders, harmonizers, climbers) in their weekly labors.

  • Monday. At 4:30 p.m. you preside in the Senior Common Room over the weekly college staff meeting with the dean, college secretary, and all the resident tutors and assistants. You hear reports from all the resident staff on their own students (problems, accomplishments, rumors, etc.). “Jane” in staircase A is having medical problems and may have to withdraw. “Bill” in staircase C clearly has a drinking problem and his neighbors are starting to complain. The student council is organizing study groups for upcoming exams and the staff should help promote this. (Once a month the housekeeping staff joins this weekly meeting to keep abreast of college administrative issues, and to keep the other staff informed about problems and building issues they have been concerned about.)

  • Tuesday. After lunch in the college dining hall, you meet with the director of campus maintenance for your monthly walk-through of all the college buildings, taking note of any leaking ceilings, broken doors, or missing pieces of furniture that haven’t been addressed already. Whenever you pass by open doors on your walk you stick your head in and wave to the students who are studying, playing, or chatting. Personal attention of this kind, by upper-level staff, is vital, and it sends a very important message to the students. Next week at this time you’ll be attending the monthly meeting of masters from all the residential colleges on campus (the “heads of houses”), a meeting that rotates from college to college each month. ¶ At 4:30 p.m. you preside over the weekly college tea in the Junior Common Room, circulating among the people nibbling on cookies and drinking punch. You network for them by example: did Dave know that Professor Jones over there is from his hometown? “Here, come talk to him.” It seems Cathy is thinking about changing from English to History. “Richard is a senior History major, let’s go see what advice he can give you.” ¶ After tea, you meet for a few minutes in the college office with the dean to discuss a schedule to advertise and interview applicants for graduate resident tutorships in the college for the coming academic year. Announcements will go out in a week, with interviews three weeks from now.

  • Wednesday. At 6:00 p.m. you join your own weekly “topic table” in the college dining hall for an hour of unstructured conversation about biology (or art history, or philosophy, or geography, or linguistics, or whatever your own academic specialty might be). Several of the college’s fellows host weekly topic tables like this on their own specialties over lunch or dinner. ¶ After dinner, you sit in on the weekly student council meeting in the college’s committee room. The main topic of discussion is the upcoming (snowball fight, croquet tournament, art show, spelling bee). You remind them of several very successful features of the chosen event last year, and encourage them to amplify those features this year to make the event even better. After the meeting you spend a few minutes in the college office writing a personal note to an alumnus who had stopped by to visit yesterday when you were out, and then before heading across the street to your house you take a five-minute walk through the students’ weekly coffee bar, which follows their council meeting each week.

  • Thursday. In the afternoon, you add a several items to the college newsletter which goes out from the office each Friday: one solicits volunteers to join the college’s welcoming committee and give tours to prospective members for the coming term, and another reports on three students who have won study-abroad scholarships for the summer. You spend some time with the college secretary going over administrative expenses for the month (your cookie budget for tea has been overspent because people appear to be loading up paper bags and smuggling large quantities out). More importantly, the university is pressuring the college to postpone a promised renovation of the college library over the summer, and is drawing back from giving five new computers; this will have to be taken up next week with all the heads of houses.

  • Friday. At 12:30 p.m. you preside over the weekly Senior Common Room lunch for the fellows of the college. Half way through you take a moment to welcome everyone this week, introduce an academic visitor to your department who is joining the group today, announce the upcoming (snowball fight, croquet tournament, art show, spelling bee), and encourage the fellows to join in. You confirm with one of the biology fellows that she will host a lunch-time discussion for pre-med students next month, and with one of the political science fellows that he will be hosting a lunch-time discussion for pre-law students next month also. ¶ After lunch you review and approve the new text of the college’s admission form, drawn up by the dean during the week. And with the college secretary you go over last year’s files to begin planning for this year’s “Parents’ Weekend” which will take place next month.

  • Saturday. A local business group (historical society, travel club, charitable organization) is holding its twice-yearly meeting in the college’s conference hall—the president of the group is one of the fellows of the college. You drop in at the opening reception to welcome them to the college and wish them an enjoyable afternoon of conversation. On the way back across the college courtyard you notice that the very first specimens of Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’ that were planted by the freshmen as part of orientation last fall are just beginning to emerge. That’s going to be a big announcement for next week.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021