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“The Professor Down the Hall” at American University

— This story by Sally Acharya about the residential work of Professor John Richardson recently appeared in the American Weekly, the newspaper of American University in Washington, D.C. The text is quoted in full; three photos by Jeff Watts are not included. The story gives an excellent account the work of a (de facto) residential college master, as seen from the inside.

The professor down the hall

Two weeks ago, a dozen undergraduates strolled out of their book- and CD-packed rooms and down the cinder-brick corridor of their residence hall for spaghetti, Klondike bars, and a lively bull session with their new hall mate. His door was largely the same as all the others. It had the name “John” scrawled across it and a collection of photos of John on vacation, John with his dad, and John with other family members.

Except, in this case, the family members included a wife, a son who graduated from AU some years back, and a group of former students. John Richardson of the School of International Service moved this semester into Anderson Hall, into an airy three-room suite with a spacious kitchen that’s just right for entertaining the neighbors—most of them freshmen and sophomores—and a curious trickle of visiting colleagues.

His move into Anderson is part of a project, largely of his own design, that he calls the Faculty Resident Experiment. Inspired by a Campus Conversation, he hopes it will help to break down barriers between faculty and students. “It seems to me the relationship between the work of the classroom and life out of the classroom should be more seamless than it is. Those two lives often seem to go on in hermetically sealed compartments,” says Richardson, a long-time professor of international development.

The experiment had roots in happenstance. Richardson and his wife, Emily, recently decided to sell their Arlington home and build a place in Virginia horse country. While the new place would be convenient for riding Emily’s horses, it would be less convenient for riding to work. “While living in the country is wonderful,” Richardson says, “I knew I didn’t want to commute.”

His compromise, he thought, would be to keep a small apartment in town where he could hang his hat on late nights. He toyed with the notion of renting a place in the Berkshire, a high-rise complex on Massachusetts Avenue that is the off-campus choice of many AU students. That, he thought, would have the advantage of bringing him closer to the office—and also into closer contact with students. After all, as a Dartmouth undergraduate in the late 1950s, he had been energized by the friendly student-faculty relationships that characterized life in the small college town, and he had long noticed that AU’s urban environment doesn’t seem to generate that same closeness.

Then, at a Campus Conversation, he listened as Ken Biberaj, Student Confederation president, and Faith Leonard, dean of students, told AU President Benjamin Ladner about the need for more interaction between students and faculty. That’s when the idea of living in the residence halls began to take shape in Richardson’s mind.

He started to research the growing trend of faculty involvement in residential life. Harvard has a longstanding tradition of faculty members living among the students as “house masters.” Other schools that have established residential “colleges” with close faculty guidance include Yale, Princeton, University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Middlebury, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, University of Southern California, Arizona State, and Michigan State. These all have the same goals: to enhance the undergraduate experience and to create an atmosphere for stimulating contact between faculty and students outside the classroom.

Attracted by the vision, Richardson decided to try a small-scale experiment. He worked out a plan with the Office of Student Services in which he would live among the students—in a comfortable resident director’s suite suitable for a faculty member—and would plan and participate in a variety of activities to bring faculty and students closer together.

He has already begun to devise projects with that end in mind. Richardson and John Doolittle, School of Communication, are currently planning a project in which faculty members could come to Anderson to be interviewed about their careers and life by SOC students for a CATV program. “One of my goals it to have students perceive and appreciate faculty as more complete human beings. I think that would be a good point of departure for breaking down the walls,” Richardson says.

Already, says Dale Booth, resident director of Anderson, Richardson’s presence helps students to “see different sides of a faculty member. Too often, in college overall, especially when students just get here, you have students who think they can’t go up [to faculty], although professors are eager to talk to them.”

The planned series of faculty interviews filmed in the residence hall might help students see their professors as less intimidating and would draw faculty into the places that are so central to student life but often so unknown to faculty. “Sometimes, the residence halls are perceived as an alien place,” says Julie Weber, director of residential life, who has worked with Richardson on the project.

Already, several colleagues who would not ordinarily have had much reason to enter a residence hall—including Pat Wand, university librarian, and Ivy Broder, dean of academic affairs—have come to Richardson’s for lunch or tea.

Richardson is finding that living on campus enhances his scholarship. He goes home on the weekends to Virginia horse country, but during the week he can stay late to work on his book with no trouble. His night-owl hours fit in well with the prevailing atmosphere in Anderson, where Richardson sometimes attends meetings at 11 p.m.

Of course, he doesn’t expect students to become buddies with him overnight. “In some ways I see it almost as a piece of ethnographic research. I’m going to learn a whole lot, and begin with as few preconceptions as possible,” he says.

So far, he laughs, he’s noticed that “particularly the younger ones, when they see me wandering the halls, they’re not really sure how to relate to me. Faculty members don’t wander about residence halls at 11 at night.”

“It really is an experiment,” he adds. “We’re all kind of feeling our way.”

He has gotten to know the resident assistants, the juniors and seniors who work under the resident directors and are each in charge of a hall. “I think there’s a real opportunity to build bridges, not only between faculty and students, but between faculty and student affairs professionals, so that faculty can really benefit from their rich experience and training,” Richardson says.

Booth hopes that Richardson will be able to inspire other faculty to become more involved in student life—not necessarily by living in a residence hall, but by attending programs and forming relationships with groups of students.

“The ideal situation in my mind would be if every floor had a faculty friend who came to programs,” Booth says. “It’s all about building that bridge first, and then seeing who we can get to walk across it.”

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