Online Additions

Teacher in the House

By Lynn C. Barlett, Assistant Professor of English

As I circulate among freshmen and their parents at the House tea held at the beginning of the year, someone is sure to ask, after I have let it be known that I am a House Fellow, “What do you do, exactly, Mr. Bartlett?” A fair question. Unhappily, the brief answer I have to give, amidst the clatter and confusion, is likely to make me sound like either a House Mother or a House Detective. These are honorable professions, to be sure, but the whole point about the House Fellow, properly conceived, is that he is neither, though to the casual glance he may appear to be both. The purpose of this article is to suggest what he is—or, more accurately, what I think he should be, for I am speaking only for myself and of my own three years’ experience as a Fellow in Strong House. The faculty and administration are by and large agreed on the general purposes of the House Fellow plan, but one of its characteristics is to give the individual Fellow freedom to work out his own ways of doing things. There are differences among the Fellows in matters of emphasis and detail; and not all of us, I suspect, have quite the same feelings about our role. I cannot presume to speak for my colleagues, nor for the administrative officers who work with us. I expect, however, that most of them would agree with most of what I have to say here.

For those alumnae who may be unfamiliar with the House Fellows plan or not up-to-date on its recent history, a sketch of its outlines may be useful. Its basic purpose is the same as that of the former system of residents: to make life in the halls an organic, vital part of the total educational function of the college. Among the features which distinguish the new structure from the old, the following are the most notable: (1) Residential positions are now open to married men as well as to single women. (2) Self-contained, well-furnished apartments, complete with kitchens, free the residents from dependence upon dormitory facilities, give them year-round homes, and insure greater privacy. (3) And more recognition is given to the importance of the resident’s service—recognition that takes such forms as credit toward promotion and, whenever departmental conditions permit, reduction of the teaching load. In short, the proportion of faculty who can participate in the residential system have been much increased, and living in the halls has been made more dignified and more attractive to the individual teacher. The ideals remain the same; the ways of realizing those ideals have been extended, developed, and improved.

Established in 1951, and put into operation in three halls that year, the new system expanded until by 1954 it was in effect in all halls except Main (which is still not included in it). Two teaching members of the faculty (one in the case of Ferry Cooperative House) live in each hall and perform a wide variety of advisory and administrative duties. At present, the term of appointment is three years, with the possibility of a second two-year appointment; in practice, most Fellows so far have held their positions no more than two or three years. An idea of the variety of faculty members taking part in the plan may be had from a look at this year’s roster: there were four full professors, one associate professor, four assistant professors, and six instructors; eleven departments were represented; four of the Fellows were women, and eleven were men; and ages (here I am guessing!) ran from the late twenties to the early sixties. As a group, the Fellows are organized, under the chairmanship of the Dean, into a committee which meets frequently, together with the Board of Residents (consisting of the residents in Main, and headed by the Warden) to discuss problems and policies.

Proctorial Duties

So much for an over-all view. When one looks closely at the work of the individual House Fellow, one sees that his activities cover a considerable range, going all the way from those that must be regarded as merely proctorial to those that correspond, though on a reduced scale, to the functions of the master of one of the great houses at Harvard or one of the residential colleges at Yale. Indeed, this variety may make it difficult, at first, for the newly appointed House Fellow to arrive at a viable conception of his role. Like any administrator—and his job is partly administrative—he has to spend a certain amount of time dealing in small change, in performing duties which, though necessary, make little use of his higher abilities and which, in his particular case, seem to carry him far from his proper place as a teacher and scholar. Such duties include granting special permission for returning to college after regular closing hours, signing leave-cards of freshmen, and taking telephone messages from students who wish to alter their leave-cards. But only the last-mentioned is really annoying, in my experience, and none are especially burdensome. As a matter of fact, in the last three years, as procedures have changed, the House Fellows have been called upon less and less to do this kind of work.

On a somewhat higher level—for here judgment and responsibility are more likely to be needed—is the House Fellow’s duty to determine the whereabouts of any student who has not returned within a reasonable time after the hour at which she is expected. This job is likely to involve waking room-mates, phoning sleepy and puzzled parents, and consulting other officials of the college—the Warden, for instance. At such times, I feel great sympathy for physicians, for they, too, so often have to get up in the middle of the night. We have been fortunate in Strong House in that all the late-night calls we have had so far have been due to mere undergraduate carelessness rather than automobile accidents or other disasters. I hope our luck holds!

Advisor to the House

The Fellow is more clearly playing his proper role as teacher when he is acting as advisor to the college government as it operates at the level of the individual House. The principal function of House government, which is largely in the hands of the students themselves, is not only to enforce specific regulations, but to promote a general atmosphere of order and decorum appropriate to a place for serious study. This, everyone will agree, is a large undertaking for any college! The House Fellow’s job is to suggest and advise, not to act as law-maker or policeman. He makes known his views of what constitutes a high standard of conduct, but he expects the members of the House to see that standards are maintained. He attends meetings of the House as a whole and frequently discusses with the student officers plans for organized social affairs, the cooperative work program, relations with the Department of Halls, and all sorts of other matters incidental to the running of the House. I myself have always tried to work as much as possible—and as informally as possible—through the officers and other recognized leaders.

On the whole, though relatively unused to the difficult task of exercising authority over their contemporaries, the officers I have known have carried out their duties with tact and good humor and have done a good job. Since they are at an age when personal popularity probably means more to them than it will later in life, some of them, it is true, do need a bit of moral support from the Fellow on occasions when they really have to invoke the law. For instance, when Spring-time madness sets in, and undergraduate thoughtlessness, noisiness, and all-around silliness rise to flood-level, I find that I can help the officers by delivering to the assembled House what might be best described as a give-‘em hell speech. The House Fellow’s task, then, is to aid, not to run things by himself. However, his strong sense that his is primarily an advisory position should not blind him to the fact that he is, after all, a responsible officer of the college. When situations arise which undergraduate officers are naturally not qualified or experienced enough to handle, or when emergencies occur, he simply has to step in and do what has to be done. Such occasions are rare.

Problems—Personal and Academic

The House Fellow also spends a great deal of time—hours at a stretch in some cases—on the personal problems of students. Girls with troubles usually come to him on their own initiative, but, in some cases, he may spot what looks like anxiety or distress and point out that he is available. Problems range from the relatively mild, such as a dislike of the hours kept by one’s room-mate, to the quite serious, such as a violent falling-out with one’s family. Students with health problems, of course, the House Fellow sends along to the college physicians, although he may take the liberty of pointing out that two hours’ sleep a night and a steady diet of shredded wheat do not make for much energy. Those with really serious emotional problems he routes to other people in the college more expert in such matters than he is. Others he himself tries to help. “Help” is an important word here. Rightly conceived, the function of the House Fellow is not to hand the student a neatly worked-out solution of her problem, but to aid her, as a young adult, to see her own difficulties clearly and find her way out of them. Often all he needs to offer is a little objectivity and perspective; sometimes he just acts as a sympathetic listener. The chief aim of the House Fellow’s counseling, like the ultimate purpose of similar work done by other members of the faculty and administration, is to remove barriers to academic progress. Sometimes the barriers may be too high. The student’s personal problems may be so great, or she may be so immature, that she cannot handle them and maintain her academic standing at the same time, even with all the help which the college can give her. In that case, she simply does not belong at Vassar. I may seem to be making too much of the obvious, but I have the strong feeling, based on some experience, that there is considerable misunderstanding of the role of the advisor among both those who believe that we are overprotecting students and those who believe, just as firmly, that we are under-protecting them.

Each House Fellow also serves as general academic advisor to a certain number of freshmen and sophomores in his house. (It ought to be noted that various other members of the faculty also do this kind of advising.) His task is to help his advisees overcome any difficulties they may have in adjusting to college work, explain curricular requirements, explore with them the relations between their studies and their other interests and plans, and finally guide them to a sensible choice of related studies program, at which point the departmental advisor takes over. Little more needs to be said here about academic advising except that it cannot be neatly separated from the personal counseling I have discussed above, nor, for that matter, from any of the other types of advising that are within the Fellow’s province.

In all his advising, of course, the Fellow has frequent occasion to consult with the Deans, the Warden, and other members of the faculty and administration. The girl who comes in for a conference usually does not realize how much home-work the Fellow may have done to prepare for it, nor how much communication and coordination such individual attention requires. Most Vassar students, unfamiliar with other systems of education, seem to take ours for granted.

I have been talking all along, obviously, about what the Fellow tries to do. Like everyone else, he fails at times to do what he has set out to do, or, at least, has the uneasy feeling that he might have done more. His awareness that he is dealing not with things but with human beings at an especially important time of their lives certainly adds to the various subtle strains which his job imposes upon him.

As Resident Scholar

It is relatively easy to define the House Fellow’s duties as an advisor. It is not so easy to describe the part he plays as an intellectual influence in the House. In the attitudes that he brings to bear upon the specific problems that are set before him, he is, to be sure, exerting such an influence, but I am referring now to what he does in general to promote an intellectual atmosphere. It is here that he is on his best ground, that of the scholar (I am using the term broadly), and it is here that he does his most important work. In speaking of his trying to exercise an intellectual influence, I hope that I am not giving the impression that I think he should go around shining like a beacon. There is no one more tiresome or less effective than the academic cheer-leader. But, avoiding he traps that lie in the direction of excessive self-consciousness and crusading, he may do countless things to extend his intellectual activities and interests into his life as a House Fellow. The final value of what he does, of course, lies in what he is as a human being.

Sometimes his approach may be more or less organized. For instance, on several occasions I have invited groups of students into my apartment in the evening to read and discuss T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Last spring another group came in to talk about a completely different kind of subject: an “open-house” tour of inspection that I had made at a near-by state prison. Sometimes a college-wide event may inspire a gathering in the House Fellow’s apartment, as happened in Strong at the time of the Conference on Education last year. Sometimes the House Fellow may arrange for other members of the faculty to take part in these informal sessions, or a group of students may invite a faculty member to dinner and then bring him to the Fellow’s apartment to continue conversation over coffee. I recall with particular pleasure the occasion on which Ruth Stone, who later won a national fellowship in recognition of her poetry, read some of her work to a group in Strong, and her husband, Walter, a colleague of mind in the English department, followed with analytical comments. Later on, several of the girls, encouraged by our guests, read or recited some of their own poetry. At that point, I felt that the whole evening had been very good indeed. This kind of organized gathering ought to be based on genuine interested among the members of the House. The House Fellow can propose and encourage such affairs, but he ought to be careful not to over-promote them. Some of the evening discussions which I have set up in Strong have simply grown out of dinner-table conversations which some of us felt might be continued at greater length and with more people.

The dining-hall in truth, is one of the House Fellow’s best assets. My wife and I have found that having lunch and dinner with various members of the House is one of the most convenient and enjoyable ways of getting to know them. (Breakfast I regard as an act too sacred to be performed in public.) Such casual associations, I think, represent a far greater opportunity for the Fellow than any organized programs he may put into operation. Besides the meals, there are the occasions when we invite small groups in for refreshments late in the evening, the House teas, and the famous “Open-House” during examination-week. The “Open House,” by the way, generally resembles nothing so much as an invasion of lemmings, but even such an affair as this almost always leads to pleasant discussions, rambling on until midnight. Conversations on all these occasions cover every subject imaginable: the lectures, concerts, plays and exhibits that Vassar offers so abundantly; extra-curricular activities; the books we are reading, the theatre, movies, the traveling we have done or expect to do, the jobs we have had, politics (I am the first Democrat most of the freshmen have ever spoken to), everything from pig-raising to modern dance. Sometimes, I am afraid, my dinner companions even have to endure my reminiscences about World War II.

Some Measure of Success

It is impossible, naturally, to assess the effect of all these continuing associations, all these discussions, all these conversations. At the very least, seeing the House Fellow at home may clear up some of the more naive misconceptions of the teacher and the kind of life he leads, and this clarification may lead to deeper insights. (“What do teachers talk about, outside of class?” a girl once asked me.) Many students, it seems to me, when they first come to college, are still in the stage where they regard the teacher as (1) the Voice of Authority, Who Must Be Appeased at All Costs, or (2) Father, Who Will Take Care of Everything, or (3) a Harmless Eccentric, Who Couldn’t Make Good in the Real World, or (4)—and this is the most embarrassing of all—the Noblest Roman of Them All. The Vassar student who declared that Vassar professors spend all their time re-examining their values needed to be told that sometimes they just sit and breathe quietly. She also needed to be told that there are some values which one finally settles upon. The student who gets a close view of the House Fellow, the professor who lives down the hall, may come to understand better how he thinks and feels not only about his own field of scholarly expertise, but about all the other things he knows and does. She may then be led to understand better what it means to be, not simply a teacher, but, more generally, an educated person; what it means to be committed, in one’s daily life, in public and private, to the tastes and values developed by the liberal arts. If the House Fellow—or any college teacher—can reach at least a few students near this level, he has had a measure of success, anyway. That the Fellow himself gains a great deal from his associations with the members of the House is beyond question. Not the least of his gains is his increased respect for the competence and potentiality of many students who may not be first-rate in the classroom. He makes discoveries about them, just as they make discoveries about him.

Pitfalls and Rewards

All in all, I myself have found that being a House Fellow is a highly satisfying experience. Such a life has its drawbacks, of course. There is, as I have already suggested, a considerable nerve-strain at times. There are times when my wife and I want to lock the door and speak to no one under forty for at least three days. There are the Saturday nights when the air is filled with shrieks of girlish laughter and the sputterings of MG’s from Yale. There are some pitfalls, too, serious dangers which seem to me to be almost inherent in the conditions under which the House Fellow does his work. I can see the strong possibility that a Fellow of a certain temperament might become too parental, too much involved emotionally in the interests and problems of the members of the House. One of the values of the House Fellow, as I see his role, is that he is not a parent, but simply an educated and experienced adult who can establish a fairly uncomplicated relationship with a student, whether he is giving her advice or merely carrying on a conversation.

Another danger confronting the Fellow is that, unless he is careful, familiarity and informality may get out of control and not only seriously intrude upon the privacy of his own adult life, but destroy much of his effectiveness as a respected advisor and leader. If the distance between Fellow and student shrinks too much, the Fellow’s apartment may turn into a refreshment stand and general club-room and he himself may come to be regarded as not much more than just another one of the club-members. (The girls in Strong, by the way—if I may be allowed to praise them—have always understood that our apartment is our home and have gone out of their way to avoid disturbing us at times.) For his part, the House Fellow should not, out of misguided zeal, force his advice or his conversation upon students who obviously want to be let alone. Nor should he worry unduly about these who are not “members of the group”—they may have their own good reasons for walking alone. Out of mutual respect between teacher and student, each honoring the other’s individuality, may grow the kind of friendship which one really values. Friendship with students is not the main object of the House Fellow, but it is a pleasant bonus for him.

(From the October 1957 Vassar Quarterly)