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Tip-of-the-Month: Fire Alarms and the Front Line

— My colleague John Richardson is doing wonderful work to lay the foundations for a residential college at American University in Washington, D.C. (See “The professor down the hall” in A.U.’s American Weekly.) John recently wrote to me about a disruption that will be familiar to anyone living in a modern and thoroughly-wired residential college:

Periodic fire alarms have been the bane of residential life during some semesters at our large southside residential complex…. However they have become, curiously, a bonding experience between me and some of my neighbors. Recently I have tried to reinforce this by becoming a more visible presence at these events. In particular, I try to hold one of the doors open as students stream back to their rooms and greet my growing number of acquaintances. Some of them actually seem glad to see me and respond with wry remarks about our common plight.

John’s observations are perceptive, and his strategy is a wise and effective one that is borne out by my own experience. A newly-renovated residential college building I lived in several years ago was so far behind in its construction schedule when the beginning of the year arrived that the fire alarm system was never tested before the students moved in. The consequence was that for the first week or two there was often more than one false alarm each day. The fact that I had to endure the situation along with the students earned me some points with them, and they could see that I wasn’t one of the rear echelon people who wandered through every few days to announce that something would be done about the problem soon. Alas, I couldn’t do anything about the problem either, but at least the students could see that I was being beat up by the system just like they were.

(And to show the universality of the experience: I was rereading John’s message late in the evening last week while sitting in the science building at Middlebury. Out the window across the snow I could see Ross Commons, one of Middlebury’s new residential colleges. Every aperture of the Ross Commons buildings was flashing with strobe lights: a fire alarm.)

If you are a residential college officer, keep a dish of candy or chocolate by your door and when you are awakened in the night along with your students and driven out into the cold, take the candy with you as you go. Walk the shivering and bleary-eyed ranks and feed them. That will generate more good will in the long run than you might ever imagine.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021