By Matt Sellman, third-year in the College

This is a chance for students and faculty to make real connections.””
—John Boyer

Second-year College student Jamie Mermelstein waited anxiously on a recent evening for her work to be judged by English professor Richard Strier.

But Mermelstein’s creative assignment was culinary, not literary. She and her fellow students from Dodd-Mead house in the Burton-Judson Courts residence hall were vying with students from the dorm’s other houses for the title of “BJ Iron Chef champions.” Their challenge: With $50 and eight hours, combine French cuisine, a quintessential American dish and the “spirit of the Girl Scouts” into something that could please the palates of the panel of faculty judges.

The dorm competition was organized by Burton-Judson Resident Masters Josh Scodel and Mayumi Fukui, who play a role that is distinctive to the University of Chicago housing system. They wanted the Iron Chef contest to offer the students more than a way to hone their cooking skills. It also was an unusual chance for them to interact informally with the accomplished scholars judging the cook-off, such as Strier, Classics professor Michèle Lowrie, and John Boyer, Dean of the College. In between Strier’s sips of Dodd-Mead’s homemade, spiced hot chocolate, small talk about the team’s gustatory inspirations drifted into a discussion of a Shakespeare course Mermelstein was taking.

It was the sort of exchange the widely admired Resident Masters system was created to make possible. Chosen from senior faculty members, Resident Masters live in apartments among students in residence halls and reinforce the College’s intellectual values in their daily lives. They are not called upon for routine questions of residence management. Rather, they often play host to student activities such as barbecues, sports and theater outings, afternoon teas, and guest lectures. In those varied settings, the Resident Masters build community, set a social and scholarly tone, and help students establish intellectual links on campus and beyond.

“It’s important that faculty members come to understand students as people who are concerned about public issues, political issues, their own career issues,” says Boyer. “They’re concerned about much more than their next homework assignment. This is a chance for students and faculty to make real connections. And for students, these are the College relationships they may remember more than any other 20 or 30 years from now.”

Finding connections, from ballet to barbecues

One criterion for choosing Resident Masters is their passion for ideas to enhance student life, such as the Iron Chef competition. John Lucy, a professor of Comparative Human Development and Psychology, and his wife Suzanne Gaskins, visiting professor in Linguistics, organize live music performances, comedy acts, study breaks, and trips around the city for students in the South Campus Residence Hall West, where they are Resident Masters. They also enjoy daily aspects of dorm life, like eating with students in the dining hall.

“We’re faculty, so just by being here and interacting with students, we make other faculty seem less intimidating,” Lucy says.

A desire to lower the barriers between students and faculty spurred the creation of the Resident Masters in the early 1970s, following the upheavals of student protests in the ’60s and ’70s. “There was a gulf between student culture and faculty culture,” Boyer says. “This arrangement gives students and faculty members a chance to get to know each other as three-dimensional people.”

All of the six largest residence halls have Resident Masters. Their role is distinct from that of Resident Heads, who typically are advanced graduate students or faculty members, and who provide more individual guidance and support to students. Many Resident Heads are couples with children, adding to the unusual mix of adults and families in UChicago residential life.

The College grants Resident Masters discretion for the creative use of funds for student activities, supported by the Parents Fund for Housing Activities. Lucy and Gaskins say they follow one of three rules when scheduling such events: “The first is to allow students to interact in more grown-up activities; the second, to connect students to faculty; the third, to make the dorm feel like a social unit.” Past events for South Campus West have included a trip to the Joffrey Ballet and “First Fridays with Faculty,” a once-a-month reception with four to five faculty members. Along with co-hosts Larry and Cathe McEnerney, the Resident Masters from South Campus East, Lucy and Gaskins held an end-of-the-year salsa dance complete with a nine-piece salsa band.

The Resident Masters of other dormitories follow similar guidelines. In their eighth year as Resident Masters of Max Palevsky, David and Kris Wray have continued the popular “Wirszup Lectures” series started by Izaak and Pera Wirszup when they were Resident Masters of Woodward Court. Andrew Siegel and Patricia Jones, Resident Masters of Pierce Tower, host an annual inter-house athletic competition dubbed “Sports Frolic.”

Model inspires other schools

Even without the help of Resident Masters, intellectual exchanges are a spontaneous part of student life in the College, Boyer notes. But the frequent, informal contacts with senior faculty members boost students’ confidence in their intellectual capabilities, and open up opportunities that could be difficult to find otherwise.

“The accessibility and affordability of these events provide ample opportunity for students to plant amazing seeds in their intellectual lives,” says Katie Callow-Wright, Assistant Vice President for Campus Life and Assistant Dean in the College. “For $10, a student who’s never been to the opera may see Carmen at the Lyric Opera and uncover a latent passion.” By connecting with faculty at Resident Master events, some students can find lab jobs and summer internships in their fields of interest.

The Resident Masters also give faculty members who do not live among students a valuable window into students’ lives and concerns. In addition to the events where faculty members join students in the dorms, Resident Masters report back to their fellow faculty members about student needs and interests.

Other colleges have long admired UChicago’s Resident Masters initiative, and some see it as a model for their own efforts. One advocate for the UChicago model is former Resident Head Benjamin Sax, now an assistant professor in the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech. Sax recently was selected to lead Virginia Tech’s new residential college initiative, which takes inspiration from UChicago’s housing system.

Sax fondly recalls the Resident Masters program. “It takes away that supercilious divide between professor and student,” he says. “One of the critiques of higher education today is that it’s taking on a corporate model, that the professor is becoming more of a boss. But at the University of Chicago, you have a place where the living situation blurs those distinctions, which does everybody a favor.”

Originally published on April 2, 2012.