Emory Report
September 7, 2004
Volume 57, Number 03


Emory Report homepage   >   Current issue front page

September 7, 2004
Living in a classroom

Arri Eisen, senior lecturer in biology, lived with his family
at Clairmont Campus during 2003–04.

Imagine this: You’re teaching a senior seminar, and you get into a heated discussion with a number of students that continues after class. So you leave class and walk across the sidewalk—to your apartment, which is on the same floor as many of the students in your class.

Then, one weekend, just in front of your apartment, you run into a group of those students developing a research project for your class. While you and your 6-year-old toss around a baseball in the sun, you discuss the project with the students and help them shape the foundation of what eventually evolves into a superb video and research presentation.

This scene played out for me, in Technicolor, last fall.

It had been 21 years since I’d lived ‘on campus’, and at that time I was glad to get off—wanting to “be independent” and “have my own place.” Now I was moving back—with my wife and two young sons, no less—not quite sure what to expect. Granted, the new Clairmont Campus and its Olympic-sized pool and apartments with kitchens and Lullwater in the backyard was a far cry from the dorm life of yesteryear: two tiny beds and desks crammed into a room with a small rented fridge full with moldy mustard and questionable brands of beer. Nevertheless, living on the same hall with 28 undergraduates promised to be an intriguing experience.

It was an effort dreamed up to bring Campus Life and Academics back together in students’ consciousness. In the old days, of course, there was no such thing as “Campus Life,” with a capital C and L. You went to class, came home, studied, saw your friends, played Frisbee, maybe belonged to an organization or two. That was your life, and you didn’t much worry whether it took place on campus or not. Times have changed—mostly for the better, as Campus Life (we’re talking about the division proper now) puts a lot of effort into making students’ extracurricular lives exciting and engaging.

Students in this millennium are always doing something; for this generation, downtime is for wimps. Now, as Campus Life as a concept and organization has grown bigger and bulkier around the country, as human institutions tend to, it has become its own force, separate from academics.

Many folks at Emory, led by John Ford in Campus Life, have tried to figure out how best to rejoin campus and academic life so they enhance and complement each other, instead of just being parts of a list of things students check off. Another sad result of the evolving university—especially one like Emory that struggles to be both a Research University and a place that truly educates young people—is that the system discourages many faculty (especially our youngest and most energetic) from really spending time with students outside the classroom in any substantive way.

Thus, BASE (Bridging Academics, Service and Ethics) was born (as was the Center for International Living and other programs), with support, ideas and funding cobbled together from Campus Life, the Center for Ethics, Emory Scholars and the Program in Science & Society.

It is fair to say I had no idea what I was doing when I signed up for a 12-month tour of duty at Clairmont. It was sort of like teaching a course outside your field for the first time—and having to live and eat inside the course for nine months.

We selected 28 students from a pool of applicants who represented about as diverse a group of Emory students one could find in terms of their backgrounds, interests and major areas of study. The students saw all this, the diversity, the encouragement to live with different people (not folks who were already their friends), as an enormous strength for BASE. One room had a gay black student from the deep South, a Caucasian, a Puerto Rican and a second-generation student from India, all of whom became great friends while wrestling through many differences, especially around the racial discussions and events that occurred on campus last year.

Two startling things I learned right off: First, how hungry for community the students are (“community” seems to reach a high among Emory undergraduates during their freshman year and then goes downhill from there); and second, even given this hunger, how difficult and time-consuming it is to build community when you’re battling students’ long to-do lists, modern living facilities built to accommodate privacy and separation, and automobiles (i.e., when your enemy is 21st century American Life).

We had to be very intentional about setting up get-to-know-you meetings among small groups of students. The residence hall, affectionately known as Building B, has no spontaneous gathering places, only rooms that require reservations and keys, and the hallways are concrete and stark—nowhere you would want to be for more than 60 seconds.

Another big challenge was that there are few groups of people on earth that have schedules more different than undergraduates and families with a 1-year-old and a 6-year-old (it might be surprising to many, though, that the latter group is much louder).

Despite these challenges, we had a great time “on BASE”; we developed a great social and intellectual community. In addition to the course I taught, we had group dinners twice a month, highlighted by intensive discussions with President Jim Wagner (our neighbor for a time), public health’s Howie Frumkin on urban life and health, visiting lecturer David Suzuki on our global environment, and political science’s Merle Black on the coming elections. We had a successful retreat to North Georgia, participated in worthwhile service projects, made award-winning movies, shared birthday parties for my kids and enjoyed many social/cultural outings.

For the most part, as with anything one does with a group of good people, it was a successful first year. One good sign: My family and I are doing this another year, as are 90 percent of the folks on the hall who were juniors last year. With their leadership, and some frank discussion about what worked and what didn’t, we’re sure to have another great experience in 2004–05. The students recommended developing the whole campus (or at least an entire residence hall) into similar programs in the future.

I strongly recommend the experience and encourage any faculty who are interested in doing this to contact me and come visit BASE. You never know what can happen on a sunny afternoon outside the classroom and a couple of well-thrown baseballs.