This year, three Clemson professors are taking on dorm life
By Angela Nixon and Margaret Pridgen
EDITOR’S NOTE: This program was featured on the NBC Nightly News in October 2011. Watch their report here: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/#44749895.
Clemson University housing is breathing new life into an old concept with the start of its new Faculty In Residence program. Three faculty members will live in residence halls on campus this year. They will plan programs and mentor students, giving them more opportunity to interact with faculty outside the classroom.
The idea is nothing new and was once more common in higher education. But over the years, as schools wanted to encourage more independence and autonomy for students, many schools moved away from having faculty living in student residence halls.
“While some may associate faculty living in residence halls with the period of in loco parentis, faculty lived in the buildings with students before, during and since this time,” said Suzanne Price, associate director of residential life for academic initiatives in University housing.
According to a recent study by the Education Advisory Board, students who live with faculty members are more willing to approach their teachers and feel more comfortable in the college environment. The same study showed that faculty members benefit, too, by gaining greater insight into the lives of students.
“Students can interact with faculty members and their spouses outside of the classroom; both benefit from these less formal, yet meaningful, interactions,” Price said.
This year, Clemson students living in the Fraternity and Sorority Quad, Holmes Hall and Stadium Suites will get to know their new neighbors – Vernon Burton, professor of history and director of the Clemson University CyberInstitute; Chris Grau, associate professor of philosophy; and Tamara Mitchell, lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages.
Students in the Quad will have the extraordinary chance to learn from one of the nation’s very best college teachers — and not just those lucky enough to take a class with him.
An award-winning professor, author and scholar, Burton joined Clemson last year as professor of history and director of the Clemson CyberInstitute.
A few weeks ago, he and his wife, Georganne, left the dream home they built with their own hands on Lake Greenwood to move into an apartment in Norris Hall.
Why? Because the Burtons — empty nesters after raising five daughters — love being surrounded by young people.
“We’ve always had students over for dinner and enjoyed getting to know them outside the classroom,” Burton said. “Those close relationships with my own teachers are the ones that I remember and treasure. They mean so much to me even to this day.”
Burton has spent his career researching and writing about issues of race, family, community and religion. Now he wants Clemson students to understand that there are many viewpoints and many stories that make up the American story. He hopes each student will take the opportunity while here to connect, in a meaningful way, with classmates from different states, different races and different cultures.
Burton also thinks the couple can help Clemson students, and South Carolinians in general, understand and appreciate our state’s complex racial history in all its fullness. He’s teaching a seminar this semester on the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina.
His wife is from Illinois, but Burton grew up in Ninety Six, a farming and cotton mill community just down the road from Clemson. He attended Furman University and then earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University. There he also served as assistant Faculty Master of Woodrow Wilson College, a living-learning community.
“My life has been one of crossing boundaries,” Burton has written, “boundaries of race, geography, class, and status. I crossed boundaries from southern rural-small town to northern urban. I crossed the boundaries from farm and working class to professional.”
Chris Grau has long been interested in participating in a faculty in residence program. The timing for Clemson’s program couldn’t have been better for him and his wife, artist Susan Watson. The two are living in Holmes Hall, which houses students in the Calhoun Honors College.
As an undergraduate studying philosophy at New York University, Grau remembers one of his favorite professors, Robert Gurland, living in the residence hall next door.
“The thought that he was a part of that was inspirational to me,” Grau said. “This type of program brings the professor ‘down to earth.’ Students get to see them and interact with them outside the classroom in a way that goes beyond office hours. That is something I’ve always kept in mind and wanted to be a part of at other schools where I’ve worked.”
Grau earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and went on to teach at Florida International University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before joining the Clemson faculty in 2007. He inquired about faculty in residence programs at each school — including Clemson — but none of the schools had a program at the time. When he learned earlier this year that Clemson was launching a program, he knew he wanted to apply.
“You have to be at the right spot in your life for this to make sense, and we were at that spot,” Grau said.
Having just received tenure, Grau said he and Susan were thinking about moving out of the farmhouse they have been renting in Seneca for the past four years. Grau said he also felt like it was time for him to get more involved in the campus community.
“I’ve spent four years here, but living fairly far from campus has made it difficult to get involved in events on campus,” he said. “This is a great opportunity not only to get to know a group of students, but also to interact with other faculty and staff. This will give me the chance to be a bigger part of the University.”
The move will also allow Susan, who teaches art classes at Tri-County Tech and the Clemson Arts Center, to have time to continue painting. She plans on leading some art workshops for students in Holmes Hall.
Grau’s areas of expertise include ethics, philosophy of mind and philosophy of film. He is the author of 10 articles, the editor of three books on philosophy and film, and is currently at work on a book — under contract with Oxford University Press — that explores ethical issues in film. He sees the faculty in residence program as an opportunity to introduce the humanities to students in a variety of majors and in a setting other than a classroom. He hopes to hold film screenings and discussions and invite other faculty members from across the University to give presentations to the students.
Grau and Susan will be joined in their Holmes Hall apartment by Emma, their Jack Russell terrier. Grau said Emma is fitting right in on campus and students are already dubbing her their “pet in residence.”
Tamara Mitchell, lecturer of Spanish, said her time leading a study abroad program in Barcelona, Spain, has prepared her to live on campus with students. As a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, she accompanied 30 undergraduates to Spain for six weeks in 2008. She lived with the students, planned their activities and excursions, and taught them language and culture, so living among students is nothing new for her.
Ironically, however, the Kansas native never lived on campus during her own undergraduate career at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. At age 27, she will get to experience campus living for the first time.
“I think I will be a good resource for students because I’m somewhat close to their age,” Mitchell said. “I understand those transition periods when you start college or when you’re about to graduate and go to graduate school or start a career.”
Mitchell came to Clemson in 2010 after a year of teaching English at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. She hopes to bring her techniques for teaching language to the Stadium Suites residence hall, where she will live primarily with sophomores.
“In the classroom, I try to ‘trick’ them into learning language by also teaching culture and fun facts. I get them to learn through living the language and culture,” she said. “The Faculty In Residence program seems like the same concept – learning outside the classroom and getting students involved and excited about nontraditional learning. It seemed like a good opportunity to incorporate my teaching philosophy outside of a language class. I’ll get all the fun perks of teaching without having to grade papers.”
Mitchell said she looks forward to getting to know students on a more personal level than she does in class.
“In my classes, we all speak Spanish all the time. I feel like we don’t get to know each other very well because they’re speaking to me in a second language,” she said.
Mitchell said she believes the experience will be as enlightening for her as it will be for the students.
“I learn from my students in the classroom every day,” she said. “They’re incredible.”