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The Dorm Transformed, continued

 

Growing Community
    Sitting down in April to talk about the college-house experiment, Brownlee surveys the campus residences like a patient gardener, tending to the individual needs of his seedlings. "We are now engaged in the process of harnessing the human resources that we put in place to the project of building communities. And that isn’t a top-down process where you say, ‘You go out there and build a community using Formula 227 out of the handbook for community building.’ It is like gardening. You plant things and step back and watch to see what grows in a particular climate, where the soil is enriched by faculty and graduate students of a particular kind with students of a particular kind, in facilities of a particular kind."
    To give an example, Brownlee refers to a blood drive taking place that day in Hamilton College House, the residential tower where his office is located. "I think it’s fair to say that no high-rise in the past had sponsored a blood drive. But now this is Hamilton College House, and it is the seat of the community-service residential program." (Students committed to community outreach occupy the building’s 12th floor.)
    Harnwell College House, the high- rise where he lives as faculty master, has traded in on residents’ interest in the arts to organize a variety of cultural activities, including Saturday-evening concerts in its rooftop lounge. With improved lighting, says Brownlee, this long-neglected space has become a viable study and social venue.
    Building upon its 29-year tradition as an active residential community with a focus on African-American culture and literature, W.E.B. DuBois College House sponsored a scholarly, community-service conference this spring–a logical extension of a course taught on site by faculty master Dr. Howard Stevenson, professor of psychology in education. The house also has commissioned collages by a local neighborhood artist and is raising money to create the Paul Robeson Student Research Center.
    "These are the different flowers that are beginning to appear," says Brownlee. In the coming year, he adds, "The principal thing is to stand back and continue to provide as much support and nourishment as we can for these things to develop in diverse ways."
    Brownlee wasn’t present for the germination of Penn’s college-house system in the early 1970s, when a small group of faculty, including Kors, organized Van Pelt Manor House around the idea of undergraduates, professors and graduate students sharing intellectual ideas and living space. He was heavily influenced, however, by his own undergraduate and graduate years at Harvard, where he lived and tutored in college houses. "I would say that the great lesson for me was the splendid ordinariness of an academic community in which it is just taken for granted that someone down the corridor knows something that you’d like to learn. When you have an interest, you can find support for doing it, and when you have a problem, you can find resources for solving it within the community."
    On the surface Penn’s college-house system resembles programs that have thrived for decades at Harvard and Yale. "It recognizes that universities, when they operate real estate, ought to be operating it to support their primary mission, which is education, not real estate development," Brownlee says. But there are striking differences, as well, he points out. Penn, for example, currently can house only about 55 percent of its undergraduates on campus in university-owned buildings; as a result, a great number of students live in apartments off campus or in Greek houses. Penn’s program is also distinguished by the large number of faculty living among students on campus (currently 28), the growth of small residential programs within the larger houses (with the addition of a program focused on entrepreneurial management at Spruce College House this fall, they number 19), and the 21st Century Wheel project–a spectrum of academic-support services that can be accessed from the residences, either electronically or in person.

Looking Back
   
"For those of us who have watched the evolution of the college houses over the years, it’s quite a gratifying moment," observes Dr. Peter Conn, an English professor and the newly appointed deputy provost of the University. He has served as the first faculty master in two college houses–Hill and Community–during his three-decade career at Penn.
   
What began as "a bottom-up, almost counter-cultural statement, has emerged as a central part of the University’s educational undertaking," Conn notes. "Students find themselves coexisting in their residential spaces with all sorts of activities and academic services."
   
He continues, "A large number of people deserve credit for this significant accomplishment, including [emeritus English professor] Bob Lucid and [English professor] Al Filreis, who led the residential faculty in the formative days of the college house program, and David Brownlee, who is providing superlative leadership right now."
   
Still, even supporters of the college-house system, like Conn, are aware of challenges ahead. "One of our principal challenges in the coming months and years is to embed this new organization securely in Penn’s academic culture, not just among students, but among faculty as well. Not all of our students are going to be equally enthusiastic about the new system, and not enough of our faculty are fully informed about what we’re up to. But it needs to be emphasized that all of this is very much a work in progress, and will take several years to mature."

Inventing the Wheel
   
College students with late-night hunger pangs have long been able to phone for pizza delivery, but those seeking help with differential equations typically have had few resources to call upon after hours. With the development of the Wheel, Penn undergraduates can avail themselves of a range of academic-support services–including math, computing, writing, library and foreign-language advising–without leaving their dorms, or in some cases, even their dorm-room computers.
   
"Every week we get an e-mail from two math advisers at Spruce," says Mike Pezzicola EAS’02, who has benefited from the Wheel. "They say, ‘These are going to be the hours,’ and they normally sit right over here on the other side [of the study lounge]. You just go and sit down and say, ‘I need help with this concept or this problem or this practice exam.’" In-house computing help made PC hookups at the beginning of the school year a cinch, he adds.
   
For many, the 21st Century Wheel Project is one of the most exciting components of the college-house system. It "represents an exceptionally shrewd use of technology and of administrative staff," Conn says. "It also exemplifies our larger purpose, which is quite simply to transform the nature of the undergraduate experience." In the near future, he adds, "the Wheel will expand to include additional support," including a public-speaking component.
   
Part of the push to develop the Wheel, explains Brownlee, "was the fact that Penn has four undergraduate schools with no center to provide these services. What the college houses offer is one place where students in all four schools can find these things."

 

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