Live & Learn
- By Thomas Weaver
by Thomas Weaver
To explore the roots of residential learning at UVM, we could begin one of two places. With an inch-thick report, tattered and yellowed, titled “University of Vermont: Project 73 Living/Learning Center: Request for Design/Build Proposals.” Anyone? Anyone? Or with Professor Richard Sugarman—affable, rumpled raconteur, learned, spiritual man with a memory that easily conjures the title of a campus lecture from forty-one years ago.
Agreed, let’s start with the professor.
First, step back a year to before the professor was a professor, but was a cabbie driving a taxi in Boston—“very unsuccessfully,” he explains. “Every time I went somewhere, I ended up on Storrow Drive.” Sugarman put Boston’s street-maze behind him when a friend called with a part-time job offer teaching in a new UVM residential learning venture called the Experimental Program. Created in 1968 as the brainchild of the late Professor Bill Daniels, the program was very much a product of the era. “People would always ask us, ‘Well, what’s the nature of the experiment?’” Sugarman recalls. “I would say, ‘Every day.’”
Relatively free-form in terms of curriculum and grades, the Experimental Program seemingly ran with that freedom and a group of highly motivated, liberal-minded students who were more than happy to take the path wherever higher education done differently might lead.
One example: The Dawn Seminar. As Sugarman describes it, we envision a land long ago and far away, a place where the students in Coolidge Hall awoke at dawn to the cry of a rooster named Kelvin; then, bleary-eyed, assembled for a lecture. “Six o’clock in the morning, we would have a presenter come in and speak about a subject, which would be discussed for the next several days in all classes, at all times, carrying over into the dining halls,” Sugarman says. “I think it was incredibly effective. A colleague from St. John’s College came and gave a talk ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’… absolutely brilliant talk. Most everybody got a great deal out of it.”
While the Dawn Seminar, Kelvin Rooster, and the Experimental Program would prove, to varying degrees, to be short-lived, they blazed a trail, suggesting that UVM students’ academic lives and residential lives didn’t necessarily need to be separate lives at all.
Which brings us back around to that musty document mentioned before, “Project 73: Living/Learning Center.” While there are mundane matters of square footage, preferred snack bar foods (pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs), budget ($6.5 million) and capacity (six hundred students, and ten faculty), there is also a glimpse of the big picture—why the place was being built in the first place. And that rationale spun off the educational wild west pioneered by Sugarman and colleagues.
“This Experimental Program,” the report says “confronted the following three problems of university education:
fractionation of knowledge
lack of relevance
loss of a sense of intellectual community.”
In essence, the Experimental Program was just the first trial in an experiment that has continued across decades at UVM and continues today in a variety of residential learning communities that find their own ways to confront those issues defined in the late sixties.
Had John Sama ’84 taken the counsel of his campus tour guide during a prospective student visit to UVM more than thirty years ago, the development of residential learning initiatives at the university might have taken a very different course. The director of Living/Learning is sitting in his homey, comfortably cluttered office as he recalls this advice he eventually chose to ignore.
“He said that L and L wasn’t a good place for first-year students to meet other first-year students,” Sama says. Nevertheless, Sama was tempted by the fact that Living/Learning was a fresh, six-year-old facility, and discovering a suite, Emergency Medicine, that aligned with his personal interests impelled him to sign on.
Some thirty-six years later, it would be difficult to find anyone at the university with a deeper history and connection to the place. Sama became a leader in the Emergency Medicine suite and later a resident assistant during his student days. Just months after graduation he returned to L/L for a “one-year” post that, well, has morphed and grown and is still growing strong. Today, in addition to his Living/Learning duties, Sama oversees the five other residential learning communities at the university.
As Living/Learning marks its fortieth birthday in August, Sama says the labyrinthian block of three-story brick buildings are still serving students well, particularly thanks to renovations across the past decade. Programming is also flourishing, with forty programmed suites this year and more student ideas proposed annually than the complex can accommodate.
It’s that continual renewal, both in residents and in programming, that keeps Living/Learning fresh, Sama says. “We’ve always wanted to be sure we maintained the opportunity for students to create programs because that gives us a lot of richness. It would be very easy for the university to say we can’t afford to have this luxury of having students come up with random ideas. But I think it’s that randomness that makes us interesting.”
Asked for an example of this randomness, Sama ponders a moment, then recalls a proposal for “Exploring Culture Through Tea.” He admits to fully anticipating an, uh, “BS” presentation. But, instead, listened to students present a thoughtful, thorough pitch that delved into history, culture, ritual and and would prove to be an engaged suite that brought an inclusive, international flavor to all of Living/Learning.
“For years I was pretty defensive about people thinking we were the ‘crunchy granola’ place,” Sama admits. “But I finally embraced it.” (Footnote: L/L’s computer server was once named “Granola.”) Embracing that identity, Sama says, meshes with Living/Learning’s enduring reputation as a place that celebrates diversity—whether that’s racial/ethnic/sexual identity or the “outsiderness” of a suite of kids passionate about their science fiction.
“I think that’s one of the most important things about Living/Learning,” Sama says. “Lots of people find a place here.”
Just as the opening of the Living/Learning Center in 1973 introduced a new era in residential learning at UVM, so it was with the opening of University Heights in 2005. Many generations of UVM alumni will remember University Heights as an incongruous neighborhood of humble ranch houses plopped down in the middle of campus. Razing the houses and creating some eight hundred new beds of student housing in the two adjacent complexes, University Heights North and South, was a key element in the campus transformation that took place during Daniel Mark Fogel’s years as UVM president.
Inside or out—private bathrooms, air-conditioning, green roofs—these were not your dad’s cinderblock dorm. Beyond the amenities, the new buildings would be about community and were built with a mind to that—seminar rooms, lounge space with fireplaces, kitchens, faculty/staff offices, and faculty apartments.
UHeights North, as it’s known in campus shorthand, is home to the university’s Honors College. Abu Rizvi, dean of the college and professor of economics, offers a historical perspective on the rationale for a residential learning community such as the HC. “There is a long Anglo-American tradition—the residential colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, the houses at Harvard and Yale. Cotton Mather said that in the United States there is a distinctly ‘collegiate’ way of living.
“Students were not anonymous. They didn’t interact primarily with other seventeen to twenty year olds. There wasn’t this huge division between what happened in the classroom and what happened for you the rest of the day,” Rizvi says. “Those were much more tightly integrated in the past and in many places—and that was one thing we wanted to recreate.”
He adds that he, founding dean of the Honors College Bob Taylor, and colleagues were motivated by current research as much as centuries-old tradition. Literature on student learning in higher education, Rizvi notes, indicates that as much as half of the learning that goes on in colleges takes place outside of the classroom.
Core to the Honors College experience is a common course that students take in fall of their first year. The first-year students also all take part in a lecture series on the theme of diversity and weekly plenary lectures. And there are less formal events—such as a chili night in January hosted by resident faculty Guillermo Rodriguez and Steve Budington with their spouses—that knit the community together.
It would be easy to pigeonhole the Honors College’s next door neighbor to the south, GreenHouse, as being tailored to an archetypal UVM student. Yes, Birkenstocks, might be a part of that picture and that sort of familiarity is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think really the hope for these programs is that students come into an atmosphere that is welcoming for them and that they form a community on some level,” Walter Poleman, GreenHouse program director and lecturer in environmental studies says. “That goes against the idea that in college as you bump up against difference all the time, you’re expanded in your thinking. I agree that happens, but I think some of these first-year communities are about being in a like-minded place.”
That said, Poleman is quick to stress a fundamental shift in his own thinking and in how the program has come to be defined during his years leading GreenHouse.
“I was interested in getting students out canoeing, climbing mountains… but the environmental field has an earned reputation of not being inclusive of everybody’s background. Coming to terms with that was a watershed moment for me,” Poleman says. “While the environmental element is still essential to who we are at GreenHouse, we’ve made a real move to thinking about social justice and environmental justice.”
Success at the GreenHouse, and other residential learning communities, means first-year students come in full of ideas and open to experience; sophomores sign on for another year in the same hall and become peer mentors helping to guide programming; and juniors and seniors return as aspects of their academic lives mesh with the RLC’s focus.
While students in the Honors College and GreenHouse form the majority of the residents in the University Heights complexes, it’s a different approach with Dewey House for Civic Engagement, where thirty members of the community live in first-floor rooms in Harris Hall. As is the case with all of the RLC’s, the intention is that the programs aren’t just a positive force in the experience of the students in the programs but ripple out to influence other undergrads down the hall and throughout the campus.
The focus at Dewey is getting out into the local community. As program director Kailee Brickner rattles off students’ volunteer work and places they’re making a difference—from Fletcher Allen Hospital to the Committee on Temporary Shelter to King Street Center—it’s clear the program is doing well by the man it’s named after.
“We don’t use his language—‘education for democratic purposes’—specifically,” Brickner says with a smile when asked about the influence John Dewey, UVM Class of 1836, swings on the first floor of Harris these days. “I don’t think that would appeal as much to students. We talk, instead, about ‘how do I make a positive social change.’” No matter the words, his influence is evident in the students’ actions.
For his part, Professor Richard Sugarman sees John Dewey’s legacy laced through all of UVM’s residential learning communities. “Most people have come to think of John Dewey as this harmless old groggin,” Sugarman says. “But he was an influential force, a pretty radical guy in education, and I think, in part, our programs were inspired by his sense of experimentalism.”