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Personally Speaking/A Lived Experience of Learning

My fondness for college residence halls began with a death.

When I was in graduate school, my best friend died suddenly and I was in serious emotional distress. Also, I had nowhere to live; my friend and I had been planning to get a house together. Then the university’s dean asked me if I would like to live in and direct a residence hall – a humanities-focused undergraduate hall that would mimic a small-college atmosphere on this large university campus. That hall – called “Hobbiton” (OK, it was the ’70s) – was better for me than any antidepressant. Grief about my friend had turned me into a sad hermit, but now I was tutoring, advising and running academic programs for fellow residents, who quickly became treasured friends. I embraced life again. I also got permission to teach my English literature class exclusively to students in Hobbiton. I believed that teaching and learning are forms of friendship – teacher with students, students with each other, and all of us with the course material. I wanted to experience such friendly learning with the people I was living with, people who had helped me heal.

After receiving my Ph.D., I again was given the chance to run a residence hall, this time at an experimental place in Massachusetts. Hampshire College was wonderfully odd: Dogs were allowed to live in the residences (the campus was an excremental minefield) and there were no grades or required classes, and students addressed all faculty and administrators, including the college president, by their first names. I was a residential student-affairs employee who taught classes on the side, but quite a few regular faculty also lived on campus as a way to create a “living-learning nexus.”

Living and working at Hampshire College was a strange, wonderful experience, and it cemented my sense that when teachers and students come together as friends something transformative can happen. I taught all my classes sitting on the floor in my on-campus living room, and they felt like parties; my son took his first steps not to me or my wife, but to a student. This truly was homeschooling.

Then came St. Norbert College, where I arrived in the 1980s. And since I didn’t live on the SNC campus, I felt a bit cut off from the students; I missed the strong integration of living and learning. So I approached an administrator and asked if I could base a literature course in a residence hall. No, I was told, that would be logistically impossible – and why would I want to do such a thing anyway? St. Norbert had not yet heard of the living-learning nexus.

I didn’t give up, though, and in 1990, when I found myself directing a multi-section first-year course called Freshman Seminar, I decided to try again. Freshman Seminar was an SNC course for about 75 first-year students that used readings, films, lectures, writing and small-group discussions to facilitate reflection on values and life goals. The material was powerful and sometimes very personal, and it seemed artificial to confine it to 50-minute meetings inside the walls of a classroom. I was sure it would work better if it were based in a residence hall.

This time, I got a green light. Cindi Barnett, then-director of Residence Life, thought the idea sounded interesting, and she happened to have a women’s hall that was chronically unpopular with students: Bergstrom Hall. Bergstrom became St. Norbert’s very first coed residence hall and the new home for the Freshman Seminar class. Discussion sections for the seminar now met in Bergstrom’s lounges, and the themes of the course dovetailed with programs run by creative hall directors and RAs. Whether it was evening conversations facilitated by the hall director, or overnight retreats held at Camp Two, or a 1 a.m. prayer service to grieve a car-train accident, Bergstrom/Freshman Seminar – though an academic class with a hefty reading list and challenging writing assignments – was about much more than intellectual knowledge acquisition. This was family.

I’m pleased that Bergstrom continues to be used as a living-learning nexus. The fact that my own living-learning practice began with the death of a friend seems to me not morbid but fitting, since real communio is fiercely honest about the pain as well as the joy of relationship. But most of all, communio is about healing such pain, which is what the transformative experience of living and learning with students in residence halls has done for me.

March 20, 2018