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John Harvard's Journal

Friending the Faculty…and Others

March-April 2010

It wasn’t until my senior year, my third year as a Lowellian, that I had any meaningful interaction with the members of our Senior Common Room. The SCR consists of the House master and co-master, faculty members, graduate-student tutors, visiting scholars, and Harvard administrators and staff. It is intended to add to the House community a set of senior members with whom undergraduates can interact freely in a mutually enriching way, to broaden our education in informal settings outside the classroom—one goal of the College’s House system. I think many of us would welcome that broadening contact. But based on my own experiences, making these connections can be challenging.

“SCR” also refers to a room designated for use by its members only, the way undergraduates have their Junior Common Room in which to gather. I spent junior year living above the SCR. Returning from class on Wednesday afternoons, I had to walk past the open door of the room where the SCR members were holding their weekly meeting. Although I began to recognize many of their faces, I knew none of them. In fact, I always worried that I was disturbing them, because the noise of the entryway door closing behind me often drew glances my way. It’s likely those glances were just a reaction; nonetheless, the sense remained that I was distinctly separate from their group. 

A handful of nonresidential members do frequent the Lowell dining hall and introduce themselves to undergraduates. Once, over a meal with a visiting scholar who had decided to join us, my friends and I remarked that we knew very few SCR members. In reply, she remarked that it is intimidating to join a group of undergraduates in the dining hall: will they be receptive or annoyed? As a result, she said, most SCR members eat together—or don’t come at all. She had felt comfortable joining us because we were eating with a resident tutor whom she knew, who was able to introduce us. We had a great opportunity to hear her story and learn more about her field and about a poetry event she was planning.


That’s when I realized that many of Lowell’s SCR affiliates and I had something in common. Although a few individuals on both sides were willing to brave the initial awkwardness to establish a connection and become a familiar face, for most of us, separation is the norm. 

But Lowell does host an event that provides a platform to ease interaction. High Table, a tradition unique to our House, has been in existence since the 1930s, when Professor J. L. Coolidge, S.B. 1895, was master. Originally, High Table was an opportunity for the Senior Common Room and other invited guests to share a special meal with a group of undergraduates. The student invitations rotated through the year, so that each undergraduate could attend. High Tables were held every Monday, at the back of the dining hall, at a table that is literally higher than the others—it stands on an elevated platform. Today, the tradition continues, except that undergraduate guests are limited to the senior class. 

I spent sophomore and junior years watching seniors dressed in formal attire join members of the SCR at the back of the dining hall, eating food that looked much better than our usual fare, and could not wait until I had my turn. When I received my invitation to attend High Table this past November, I was excited to take part in this Lowell tradition. 

And the event managed to surpass my already high expectations. I entered the master’s residence for a pre-dinner reception, where I was able to mingle with classmates, SCR members, and Lowell alumni. Within minutes, I had met a faculty member from the Graduate School of Education and we were able to discuss my interest in Teach For America. After we had all had the opportunity to introduce ourselves, we proceeded to the dining hall, where a carefully planned seating chart had placed undergraduates near SCR members who shared common interests, and ensured that the two groups were well interspersed. 

The evening turned out to be more than just a break from dining-hall food, or an excuse to dress up. I had the chance to get to know SCR members who provided both entertaining conversation and helpful advice: topics ranged from what we did for Halloween to our academic and potential career interests. That balance of casual conversation and advising was great. Also, knowing that Lowellians have congregated at High Table for more than 70 years, and meeting some of the Lowell alumni who were enjoying the opportunity to take part once more, made me feel even more connected to my House and its history. 

 

Although I’m thankful that Lowell House has an established tradition that encourages interaction with the SCR, I wish I could have formed those connections earlier. Apparently, I’m not alone. The “Report on Harvard House Renewal,” published last spring, identified the lack of substantial interaction between SCRs and students as a fundamental shortfall, given the College’s aspirations for its undergraduate residences. 


In a letter introducing the report, dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds stated, “Of all of the concepts discussed by the subcommittees, faculty leadership and involvement may be the most fundamental to the mission and purpose of House life….The educational potential of College housing is even more promising when faculty shape the residential community and engage students in educationally purposeful activities.”

The House Program Planning Committee has recommended a trial House Fellows Program that aims to increase “casual yet meaningful interaction between faculty and students” by developing initiatives that build on each House’s unique identity and traditions: Lowell’s High Table is one example. But when Houses sponsor special faculty presentations, student turnout is often low. 

As for more popular, existing House events that help establish ties with nonresidential members—holiday dinners and gatherings at the master’s residence—the problem is that such gatherings don’t necessarily facilitate sustained connections or friendships. For example, the weekly Lowell master’s tea draws a mostly residential crowd, but also a few nonresidential affiliates. On one occasion, I met a European graduate student who was spending the year at Harvard. I have lived abroad and it was fun to talk about our travels and to get her perspective on the Harvard experience. Although her studies focused on science, she wanted to explore a variety of fields during her time here, and I was able to give some suggestions for good English courses. In return, she offered reassurances about not being certain of what to do after graduation, explaining that she was still exploring an array of interests herself. It would have been nice to keep in touch, but I never saw her again and didn’t have her full name or contact information. I could have attempted some detective work to find her; instead, I just accepted it as a one-time connection. Clearly, some other models need to be tested. 

In the past, some faculty members lived and worked in the Houses, increasing their visibility among the undergraduates. But as the undergraduate population grew and fewer faculty members remained in residence, the degree of interaction changed as well. I now know that broadening informal contact with faculty members is welcome and rewarding—and that it’s time to try harder to revitalize this unfulfilled promise of the House system.