Talk About Teaching - Dr. Dennis



Teaching Outside the Box: A Residential Frontier for Pedagogy


by Christopher Dennis

        Universities are odd places. We confidently (and correctly) assert 

that the curriculum is at the center of undergraduate education. Every 

few years, involved faculty in their departments struggle with 

structuring just the right combination of requirements to offer shape 

and coherence to students' departmental majors. Only slightly less 

often, the same kind of reform takes place on the school level. 

Curricular redesign is a crucial feature of the educational enterprise 

and is a vital occasion for faculty to shape student inquiry and to 

think through changing points of emphasis in the various fields of 


        Yet students spend only about 15 or so hours per week in class, 

pursuing this painstakingly thought out curriculum. That leaves 85 to 

100 hours a week when students are awake and on the campus of a world-

class teaching and research university-but not in class. How should we 

analyze the logic of such a ratio? Is it pedagogically appropriate? Is 

such a ratio tenable in the harsher economic climate we face-where the 

costs and benefits of the educational experience are being more 

intensely scrutinized than ever before? One hears the sense of current 

constraints and the pressure to create more time to teach undergraduates 

in the campus discussion generated about the effort to add a few 

teaching days to the Fall term.

        We assume that the three hours of class per week will launch 

students into out-of-class encounters with substantial issues in the 

reading, written exercises and other problem-solving assignments between 

classes. But what do we know about the accuracy of this assumption? How 

does this happen? What out-of-class circumstances enhance and enrich 

these encounters? In truth, we lavish time on the 15 curricular hours 

but think far less intensively-if at all-about the 85. As a faculty, we 

need to apply much more of the same pedagogical energy and creativity 

that we use in fashioning and re-fashioning school and departmentally 

based curricula in shaping the out-of-class experience. I would argue 

that the University's residences offer important opportunities for 

realizing this goal.

        The modes of learning are changing rapidly. New ways of retrieving 

and organizing knowledge mean that we should be making sure students can 

skillfully retrieve data, texts, visual and audio materials from the 

myriad of electronic and other possibilities. We should probably be 

adding information management skills to reading, writing and mathematics 

as a foundational goal. How and when will this be done? One solution is 

to expand our sense of the curriculum and the classroom. Much has been 

written on the possibilities of how this could happen (and is happening) 

electronically, and all of that is to be encouraged. But we might also 

think in less virtual ways.

        Since most students spend most of their out-of-class time in their 

residences, we might think about that space as a promising new 

pedagogical frontier. We might choose to regard the residences as more 

than "dormitories," places where people merely sleep, and as more than 

sites only for the Colonial focus on moral education, or for the 

enactment of institutional obligations in loco parentis. Such a re-

vision of the residences might come in the form of comprehensive 

residential colleges, which could be institutional structures providing 

convenient contexts for out-of-class interaction between and among 

faculty and students. 

        Suppose as an institution, we energetically designed a co-

curriculum of (say) 15 hours outside of the classroom, offered up with 

as much intellectual attention as is currently invested in our 

traditional curriculum, and we looked at the residences primarily as 

sites for learning, to be developed as educational resources for the 

university's students and faculty. If we supposed that each student 

encountered-in fifteen hours outside of class-an extended curriculum or 

co-curricular series of offerings complementing in intellectually vital 

ways the credit-bearing work of the classroom and classroom assignments, 

we could find new opportunities for intellectual development and 

exchange. In this new frontier, there might be ample time and space for 

all sorts of intellectually relevant experiences, for trying out 

practical applications of theoretically based knowledge, for labs, 

research opportunities, service learning, collaborative learning and for 

developing new skills in the new technologies of learning that might be 

used and built upon during a lifetime. There might also be the leisure 

for meaningful exchange and discussion, which would bring us nearer to 

creating a true community of scholars. 

        To be sure, many faculty spend a great deal of time carefully 

designing out-of-class assignments (and students work hard to complete 

them). But many others may be constrained by logistical or technical 

difficulties. Suppose in an emerging residential program, each house or 

residential college had staff (graduate or undergraduate students) who 

helped faculty members with these arrangements. They would be-in effect-

pedagogical support staff handling many of the details of co-curricular 


        The residential programs currently in place offer some 

prototypical examples of possibilities. Twenty-five faculty and their 

families live in our current house system. In the College Houses, 50 

graduate and professional students are slightly older intellectual role 

models for our undergraduates, and students and faculty come together to 

define a program of social, cultural and intellectual events that works 

for the house. Last year, some 1700 programs took place in the Houses. 

Particularly for first- and second-year undergraduates, some formal, co-

curricular elements are in place now, elements such as Math Centers, 

supporting the Maple calculus initiative, residentially based Writing 

Across the University (WATU) sites, and residential computer labs (with 

access to PennNet, the library and the Internet, and up-to-date 

software), ResNet and visiting scholars programs.

        Much work has been done by energetic residential faculty and 

students, but the way to this particular pedagogical frontier has merely 

been cleared. If as an institution, Penn created an opportunity for 

faculty to shape an additional 420 (or so) hours per semester of "co-

curricular time," what new elements might Penn's faculty design? Could 

we redefine teaching and undergraduate education? The impressive 

possibilities allow us the time and the space to reimagine enriched 

educational experiences extending from an increasingly metaphorical 


(Pictute caption; picture credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Penn's Colonial Home


The first site of what is now the University of Pennsylvania was at 

Fourth and Arch Streets-a rectangular brick classroom building (topped 

by a steeple holding the school bell) that had been built for the 

Charity School and adapted for use by the Academy and College of 

Philadelphia.  The dormitory at right was added in 1762-63. Both were 

demolished in 1844 and 1845, and Penn was at Ninth Street until 

the "new campus" opened with College Hall in 1872. 

Watercolor by nineteenth century artist William L. Breton after an ink 

drawing (c. 1780) by Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere.

This article, fourth in a series developed by the Lindback Society and 

the College of Arts and Sciences, is by the director of Academic 

Programs in Residence (and of Penn's College House program). Dr. Dennis 

is also adjunct assistant professor of English.


Volume 41, Number 17
January 17, 1995

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