How College Should Be

Last night, an entire class of students comes by my house with food for a huge potluck.  This isn’t part of the job description of a college instructor, and I know it’s unusual–at least at a big state school–to invite students into your home.

I’m supposed to keep my professional distance.

But my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia ruined me regarding professional distance.  In those days, I dined with professors nearly every evening.  As part of the Jeffersonian ideal of the “academic village,” professors joined students in dining halls or else invited them into their homes for dinner, dessert, or coffee.  Some of my favorite memories from college have to do with meeting my instructors outside of the classroom.  I remember walking into the living room of my English professor and sitting around a table with a group of other students and just talking–like it were an ordinary, everyday thing–about beauty.

Another professor, Rita Dove–the Poet Laureate of the United States at the time and Pulitzer Prize winner –actually hosted class in my dorm room.  She actually sat on my bed and talked to me about my poems.  The other students sat in a circle on my floor.  How could I not feel like I’d entered a portal into adulthood, into intellectual communities that wanted to hear my voice?

Later that semester, Ms. Dove hosted us all for dinner.

I talked about my life.  I talked about things I hoped for and things I cared about.  Those conversations changed me forever.

Those conversations made me feel truly adult, truly independent.   It was college at its best.  

My class piles into my living room, and one student plays her guitar while others sing around the piano.  We decide to talk about creativity, future careers, and the burden of having to decide how to choose a career when you love too many things.  And these students actually want to talk about their writing projects.  They pose questions, make comments, and grapple with their revision process all while petting my cats and eating homemade apple pie.  One student says, “Dr. H., I want to write my memoir about this,” as she gestures to our group gathered about her. 

I have to force them out the door so I can go to bed.  

When most people think of the college scene, they visualize the alcohol and the parties.  But for at least one night, a group of students sat around and talked about ideas–not because anybody was taking attendance–but because they wanted be together and share their ideas and their lives.  That’s what makes college so good.

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