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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  1. Not for the first time, I wish I'd had a professor like you in university. But now I find myself also wishing my daughter could have a professor like you during her studies.

    My one question is: how do you manage to make the time required for everything you do? (I seem to be slow as molasses and struggle to get things done.)

  2. Dear Jenny,
    What a great question! I say “no” to lots of things. I've tried to narrow the boundaries of my life. I hope your daughter connects with many professors in college!

  3. Thank you for your reply; it made me think, and I realized that I could say “no” to a few things too – ones I do for myself. People need some time for themselves, but I have been taking more than my fair share 🙂 I will try for a better balance.

  4. Love it!

    I graduated from Colby College, a small liberal arts college in Maine, where students often connected with faculty outside the classroom. It was, I believe, my academic village that got me into medical school. When I arrived woefully unprepared for college and bombed my first chemistry exam, I didn't drop the class or struggle namelessly. I was able to talk to the professor (the actual professor!) get help and encouragement from the lab instructor, and set up tutoring. At the beginning, I'm sure I couldn't have looked less like an aspiring medical student, but nobody told me to bail. They encouraged me and welcomed me, so that by my senior year I was so proud to be one of a group of ten students (some chemistry majors, some “friends of the department”) that were envited to the O-Chem professor's appartment for dinner. One year later, I aced the MCAT (and emailed my lab instructor to tell her). Two years later, I enrolled at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. I credit my supportive and dedicated proffessors for helping me stick to my original dream.

    I wish this kind of connection and thoughtful, supportive environment for all college students.
    Thanks for keeping up the good work!

  5. I'm so thankful for the school I go to. Most of our professors live on campus and they truly care about their students. We are allowed to call or visit our professors if we need help with something. Some of the faculty and staff are involved in our intramural sports and other campus happenings. It's neat to see them involved in our lives. I go to a fairly small school (1,000 students) and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I really enjoy being able to go and talk with my professors not just on an academic level, but also on a personal level. It's really great. I'm excited that you did this for your students!

  6. I am far removed from academia but wish I had experienced this. BTW, what is “grappled?” Is it like “awesome?” Am not up on new slang :(. wonderful post – we are all just people, after all, with hopes and dreams. Gad to hear multiple campuses operate in this community spirited manner.

  7. I'm finishing up my last year as a undergraduate at University of British of Columbia and I reallyyyy wished I had a professor like you during my time here. This campus is huge in comparison to most other universities – more than 10,000 undergraduate students!!! Being in sciences major myself, majority of my classes were always >100 students and I really wished that I had smaller classes with more specialized instructor attention. Next term, I'm taking a biotechnology course with only 15 other students so it will be my smallest class to date and I'm super excited!!

    Your students are truly lucky to have you as their professor!

  8. Such a great end to the semester, Heather! Rita Dove sounds like a great professor (she was just arriving at UVA when I was in grad school there, but I remember being at a party welcoming her). Were you able to invite all of your students to your house? And just some came? Or was one class more interested than others?

  9. AH! I wish our class could've done this Dr. H! What a great way to end the semester!

  10. People were created for community yet they fear it. Once we taste others in community we find life. Our life journeys are community projects, not individualistic pursuits. Great innovative approach to teaching!!