Who Runs the Wheel?
by Alan Filreis
I like to think that Dennis DeTurck invented the Wheel--or perhaps
re-invented it. When several years ago he and his colleagues in Mathematics
chose to augment the teaching of calculus through the use of the MAPLE
software program, they faced a dilemma that no faculty innovator at Penn
will ever have to face again--now that, as of September 1998, our undergraduate
residences will be organized as twelve College Houses. The dilemma: where
to set up the program?
Dennis created an advising system that brought math help to students
in their on-campus homes. A few years earlier, Peshe Kuriloff, Director
of Writing Across the University, organized a service by which writing
advisors, engaged in a year-long apprenticeship, distributed themselves
across the residences at night and began offering walk-in appointments
to students seeking help with a writing assignment. A few years ago, some
computer-savvy students, working with the Residential Faculty Council and
Penn's central computing group (ISC), invented residential computer support;
it has revolutionized students' out-of-class access to information technology.
A little later, the reference staff of Van Pelt Library, with support from
the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience, created library
advising for students in residence. This semester the office of Career
Planning and Placement and the residential faculty are experimenting, in
one college house, with career services advising.
These services of the Wheel Project have already been dramatically
successful. To students on the receiving end, and to the members of Penn's
academic community who live in our undergraduate residences--26 members
of the schools' faculties, and a good many graduate and professional students--such
success comes as little surprise. It brings home to our students a few
basic aspects of their education. It is efficient every sense; it is academically
viable; it extends teaching to times and places where teaching traditionally
has not gone; it makes good use of an otherwise already paid-for computer
network; it inspires academic leadership among our students.
But these qualities were not self-evident from the start. It is worth
going back to Dennis DeTurck's quandary. Once he and his Math department
colleagues chose to use a computer program to provide out-of-class help
for students of calculus, they had to decide where the 2000 students enrolled
in these math classes would get access to the required software and hardware.
They also had to think about the direction in which supplemental academic
advising would go in the future. Would it be located near where the faculty
work and teach?
Consider what the options were, and you will come to share the view
that the decision to create a comprehensive system of residential College
Houses at Penn is essentially an academic one. Our colleagues in Math could
not imagine outfitting David Rittenhouse Labs to serve, into the wee hours,
as the place where students would come to use MAPLE and to be advised whenever
they ran into problems with course material. It would have been far too
costly to keep DRL open, equipped, and secure nights and weekends, which
are of course times of the day and week (no way around it) when math students
do their class assignments.
To the west, northwest and southwest of DRL have stood Penn's always
open, always busy undergraduate residences--staffed, accessible, and secure
at all hours, full of study space and computing labs. Committee after committee
had issued reports observing that our student residences were academically
underutilized. So Professor DeTurck went there. The software was loaded
into the desktop computers of all the residential labs; house offices were
made available for math advisors working evenings.
Residentially based math support, like the Wheel Project in writing
advising, was created from the convergence of two movements:
- the coming of information technology; and
- the maturing, finally after twenty-five years of success, of Penn's
undergraduate residential communities.
Electronic mail, used for asking and answering eleventh-hour academic
questions; the web as a ceaseless, efficient deliverer of course assignments;
and software programs like MAPLE-- meant that the faculty could extend
instruction outward beyond classroom time and space, and further around
the clock than was ever covered by traditional "contact hours."
At the same time the concept of "academic programs in residence"
was taking hold at Penn. In five "First Year Houses" and six
"College Houses," residential faculty, assisted by residence
deans or administrative fellows, graduate fellows, undergraduate RAs, and
activist student-run "house councils" have been organizing study
groups, house concerts, improv performances, reading circles, post-film
discussions, faculty teas, art shows, dinnertime seminars, theatre series,
literary clubs, webzines, community projects, "language tables,"
tutorials, and mini-courses.
These two movements meet in the Wheel Project, which sponsors collaborations
between schools, departments, and academic centers on the one hand and,
on the other, the college houses where many of our students live and work.
Trained advisors in core academic areas are "distributed" across
the residential system. Students seeking help need only know how to call
upon a Wheel advisor, who is usually a neighbor. Some initiatives--spokes
of the Wheel, as it were--routinely offer "house calls."
- Math Advising, already a winner, provided help to some 680 math students
in the Spring 1997 semester. But under the aegis of the Wheel Project,
the math faculty and student coordinator Laura Kornstein (C '99) moved
their advisors into each of the houses. The same project, now fully "distributed,"
suddenly put up big numbers: in the Fall 1997 term, 1427 students were
helped in individual sessions, including 108 who sought assistance electronically
- Working evenings in four residential locations, the Writing Advisors
of the SAS Writing Program held 831 individual conferences in a single
semester. Electronic Writing Advising (writeme@english),
staffed by the same advisors (with back-up support from faculty in the
Writing Program), posted an average response time of less than two hours--averaged
over all twenty-four hours of all seven days.
- Through the Residential Computing Support program, computing help for
undergraduates has been totally reorganized. Each College House has its
own team of Information Technology Advisors (ITAs), directed by a student
Computing Manager. Difficult problems are sent by the house-based teams
to Computing Support Professionals (CSPs). Most problems-with hardware,
software, networking, drives and storage, operating systems, printers,
use of course materials by web and e-mail, etc--are solved quickly right
there in the residence. First responses from ITAs typically arrive within
a few hours. In September 1996, when computing help for students on campus
was still centralized, the percentage of all on-campus students who had
connected their computers to the network (ResNet) by the first weekend
after the classes began was 38%. Through the Wheel Project, by the same
point in September 1997, ITAs and their professional back-ups, making house
calls from within the house, had helped 55% of the students make the network
connection. At a university where faculty now typically expect even new
students to receive and send electronic mail and to read syllabi on the
web right from the moment the term begins, this kind of service seems less
a luxury than a requirement.
- Library Advising, a smaller and newer project, has proved similarly
successful. Trained by Van Pelt's reference staff, Library Advisors in
each house last semester assisted students in the use of Franklin, Lexis/Nexis,
OVID, Medline, and the like. Those who took advantage of this advising
got better, earlier starts on research projects. Questions ranged from
that of one student who needed to find a style gallery for bibliographies
to another who had been unable to complete homework for a bioengineering
class that required using web-based library searches--to another who did
not know which information databases to select as he refined a paper topic
in South Asian studies. Librarians at Van Pelt were gratified to see 150
students from six College Houses participating in"College House Nights"--students
brought to the library itself by their residential Library Advisors.
Who runs the Wheel Project? The answer
is simple: faculty in academic departments and units that choose to take
advantage of the College House system as the means by which to extend discipline-specific
advising. The Math Advising program is directed, for example, by Undergraduate
Chair Ted Chinburg of the Math Department. Math hires and trains the advisors,
is responsible for needed improvements, and aptly takes credit for the
project's pedagogical achievement.
Penn's 21st Century College Houses make it possible for the faculties
of the schools to extend the reach of Penn's academic mission. "Student
life," a phrase that alas has come to mean, organizationally, everything
that the schools don't do, is being redefined by the 21st Century Project
for the Undergraduate Experience in this very basic way. When all else
is said and done, student life is an academic life.
Dr. Filreis is Professor of English, Director of the Writing Program,
and Chair of the Residential Faculty Council.