Upperclassmen. Resident Assistants. Campus minister. Resident Director. Public safety officers. Professors.
Of all the people on that list, the last is most interesting. While students are used to seeing RAs, RDs, Public Safety officers, and fellow students in their residence hall, for students in Henley, some of their neighbors are out of the ordinary.
Dr. Mark Sutton, Dr. Gina Florio and Dr. Kathleen Marks are the brave, pioneering souls lucky enough to participate in the University’s first student-professor integrated building.
Sutton, a theology professor, is originally from the Midwest and obtained his doctoral degree from Marquette University.
He and his wife Elizabeth live in Henley with their three daughters: Edith, 1, Anastasia, 3, and Felicity 4. He started teaching at St. John’s last year.
“[The University] is a great fit for the kind of teaching I want to do,” he said.
The undergraduate core requirements present many opportunities for him to teach different theology courses each semester.
Sutton said he wanted to live in Henley to create a “new level of engagement between professors and students.”And it’s working.
“My apartment is starting to become a beehive with different people constantly coming in and out,” he said.
Sutton hopes the presence of professors helps to make the dormitory a learning environment.
“It’s not just a place you live,” he said. “It is a place where you can learn, too.”
He said the goal in mind is to help students “become young intellectuals” by creating opportunities to have engaging conversations and activities led by professors, not to act as “homework police.”
He and the other professors plan to host events similar to a lecture series to stimulate intelligent conversation as well as outings to the city to see movies, dine and visit museums.
“It has stretched my understanding of being an educator,” he said. “It has stretched the classroom to include where I live.” Another faculty member that is stretching her classroom by living in Henley is Dr. Kathleen Marks. She lives with her husband Gregory and their six-year-old daughter Grace. This is Marks’ sixth year teaching English at St. John’s and she is up for tenure.
So far, living in Henley has “exceeded [her] expectations,” she said. “Besides the occasional fire alarm, it is peaceful and quiet.”Marks’ years as an undergrad at The Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire inspired her to participate in this test-run.
Marks said she savored the years she spent studying at a small liberal arts college because it promoted a strong sense of community. She said she wants to cultivate the same experiences for St. John’s students.
“We are trying to break down the student-professor barrier naturally by being neighbors,” she said.
Marks emphasized that the professors are not trying to force interaction with synthetic ice-breakers and claustrophobic door-to-door introductions. They want to meet the students organically, just as they would with new neighbors.
An example of this would be Marks’ “tour of the dead” in Manhattan. It will provide students an opportunity to, at their own volition, learn something creepy and fun about the city while getting to know a faculty member outside of class.
“It is important to engage with students outside the classroom,” Marks said. She and the other faculty have several events and excursions planned to interact with students on a more informal level, like going to see the next Twilight installment: The New Moon or just going to get something to eat at a nice restaurant. And since the faculty living in Henley receive a budget to host events, some of these outings will be paid for in part or in full.
Dr. Gina Florio is equally enthusiastic about strengthening relationships with students. She lives with Jon, her husband, Luca, her fickle-tempered cat and is expecting the arrival of her newborn sometime around finals. She hasn’t picked any names.
“We are the first people to do this. It is intimidating,” she said.
Florio was interested in the idea of a student-faculty integrated living environment. In 2007, she was selected to partake in a faculty-led St. John’s College Enrollment Task Force, a group organized to find ways to enhance student retention.
“Our research concluded that faculty participation in a residential setting helped increase retention,” explained Florio.Meanwhile, the University was thinking the same thing and arrived to the same conclusion separately.
In May 2009, Florio said she was happy to receive an e-mail from the Office of the Provost encouraging professors to apply to be Faculty in Residence (FIR).
“I saw the e-mail and jumped on the opportunity,” she explained excitedly.
She proceeded to immediately forward it to her husband, then apply with her CV, cover letter and some flyers from Learning Community events she hosted last year.
Living in the dormitory, Florio expected the faculty to have a positive influence on the students, but she said the students also influence the professors.
“I knew the presence of faculty would change the students, but the students changed our perspective of things as well,” she said.
Florio said the Provost, Dr. Julia Upton, referred to the FIRs as pioneers.
As such, protocols or guidelines for the faculty’s events are not as strictly regimented. Their requirements are not as rigid as those imposed on the Resident Assistants.
This freedom allows the professors to take creative liberty with selecting academic lecture topics and places to explore in the city.
“Our primary goal as FIRs is to build community,” said Florio.
“We can pursue whatever type of programming we thing will enable us to achieve this goal.”
Some events will be more entertainment based, some will be more about cultivating appreciation for the arts and sciences and some will simply be an excuse to eat cake. Sunday, the FIRs hosted their first Birthday Club social. They plan to host one every month to celebrate all the birthdays of people living in Henley.
Florio, for example, is planning a trip to the Guggenheim to view the latest Kandinsky exhibition.
The most important thing is not to dismiss these professors as imposters.
They are not Big Brother. They are just the people who live next door. But unlike the average neighbor, these neighbors actually want to get to know you.