Inside the Mind of a House Professor

Astrophysics professor Ryan Hickox will lead one of the new housing clusters.

Astrophysics professor Ryan Hickox will lead one of the new housing clusters.

Editor’s note: Part of President Hanlon’s much promoted Moving Dartmouth Forward plan includes the reinstitution of House affiliations for all Dartmouth students. In early May, the College selected six professors from over twenty applications to serve as House Professors across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines. To learn more about the new House plan and what the role of their House Professors will be, The Dartmouth Review sat down to speak with Professor of Physics and Astronomy Ryan C. Hickox, one of the six announced House Professors.

The Dartmouth Review: For readers who are not aware of the housing community initiative, can you provide some broad details about what the House communities will entail?

Prof. Ryan Hickox: The on-campus residences at Dartmouth will be divided into six Houses that will provide a continuous sense of community and strong residential identity for every student, each of whom will have a House affiliation. Incoming students will be randomly assigned to a House before their freshman year, and their cohort of students will remain members of their House for all four years at Dartmouth and beyond. It’s important to note that students will keep their House membership even if they move to a Living Learning Community, Greek Organization, off-campus residence, or off-campus program, and so will be still able to take part in House activities such as dinners, intramural sports, and student governance. Whenever a student returns to living on campus, they will go back to a room in their specific House. In addition to the House Professors, House members will also include faculty, postdocs, graduate students, staff, alumni, and other associates of Dartmouth, so that the Houses become a true cross-section of Dartmouth in which we all take part in activities and traditions together.

TDR: What are your personal goals for your future residential community? 

RH: I hope that our House community will represent a “home” for students where they make strong and lasting friendships and can really feel comfortable being themselves as they grow intellectually and personally over their four years here. I hope that students develop a very strong and positive attachment to their House, so that when alumni meet after graduating, one of their first questions would be, “Which House were you in?” On a personal note, I hope to make our House Professor residence a welcoming and useful space for students to meet and use for their activities. I’d like students to feel at home in the House, but especially so in our own home.

TDR: What cultural, academic, or intellectual change do you hope will result from faculty-led housing communities?

RH: I hope that the remarkably rich intellectual and cultural interests of Dartmouth students become fully incorporated into their residential lives. I’ve heard a number of students say that they experience a different Dartmouth during the day and at night, and it would be great to remove that distinction. An undergrad’s time at Dartmouth lasts only four short years, and students should be able to take every opportunity to engage as intellectuals in a fun and exciting way with their amazingly interesting and diverse peers. If you’re doing a senior thesis, writing a play, or building a business, the House would be community in which you can share your passion with students, faculty, and staff of all backgrounds and interests.

TDR: You went to a small school down in a rough part of Connecticut (Yale). Yale and Harvard — where you went to graduate school — are universities with a very famous tradition of residential colleges. How comparable will Dartmouth’s housing communities be to those types of traditional residential college systems?

RH: The basic concepts behind a “House” or “College” system date back to some of the world’s very oldest universities, most prominently Oxford and Cambridge, where some of the colleges have been around for almost 800 years! The systems at Harvard and Yale (and also that at Durham in the UK, where I was a postdoc) were built on this model, but each has its own unique character. These previous systems have informed the motivation for the initiatives here as well, but our House Communities will certainly have elements that are distinctive to Dartmouth. One way in which I think our Houses will really stand out among our peers is in the active involvement of many faculty, postdocs, graduate students, staff, and alumni. Given our somewhat isolated location and the remarkable dedication of our faculty and staff to undergrad education, we can really be leaders in building a vibrant and active sense of community for all members of the College.

TDR: As a professor of astrophysics, how will you approach intellectually connecting with your future residents who are humanities or social science majors?

RH: One of the most wonderful things about being at a college with a strong emphasis on the liberal arts is that you can continually explore interests that fall outside of your primary intellectual endeavor, be it the major subject for undergrads, or the topic of research or professional interest for grad students, postdocs, faculty, and other members of the community. I have many interests outside of science — I’m fascinated by medieval history and architecture, world geography, pretty much all sports, and contemporary rock and pop music, just to name a few. I’m really looking forward to being part of a community full of people who have great passion and skill in those and other interests that far exceed my own! I can’t wait to spend time with members of my House in the dining hall or at events and learn about what most excites them. Likewise, I know that many humanities and social science majors are really interested in the fundamental ideas of physics and astronomy, and I look forward to sharing my experience and enthusiasm on those subjects.

TDR: Dartmouth used to — before the era of the D-Plan — have residential communities based on buildings. Students used to live in the same dorm all four years during their time at Dartmouth. How similar will the new housing system be to this prior system?

RH: One of the main goals of the new House Communities is to bring back that important sense of continuity. However the Houses will be larger (including several dorm buildings rather than just one) and will include many more students, as well as other members of the Dartmouth community who would be associated with the House even if they might not live there. This will allow the programming and identity of the Houses to be much more expansive than what was possible with an individual dorm.

TDR: Students who frequent some of the older dorms on campus have probably noticed scoreboards of various residential dorm intramural sport championships – an artifact of the aforementioned residential system and a symbol of the type of close knit, even competitive identity these spaces fostered with their residents. What sorts of plans are there to help rekindle these sorts of old traditions?

RH: Intramural (IM) sports are a fantastic way to build House spirit and community, and I anticipate that there will be House competitions in a number of sports, as well as potentially friendly rivalries in other House activities and traditions such as a competition for the most environmentally-friendly House. If possible, I’d particularly love to see some new sports that aren’t currently included in our IM program (something like fencing, rowing, or even inner-tube water polo) where students could explore a sport that they might not have had an opportunity to take part in before.

TDR: How will the housing communities work with existing campus organizations, such as Greek Houses, clubs and associations, volunteer and charity groups, etc., that also play a significant role in the social and intellectual development of students?

RH: I think there are a huge number of opportunities for collaboration between different student organizations and House communities. As just one of many examples, one can imagine House hiking trips that are led by members of the DOC, and I hope that the Houses are able to tap into all the exciting activities that are happening in undergraduate life here. It’s important to keep in mind that, just as they already do,  students can have many facets to their identity on campus. Students can be active members in Greek organizations, clubs, and sports teams, while also having a very strong identity associated with their residential House.

TDR: What sorts of programming do you intend to have for your housing community? (e.g. speakers, student discussions, performances, etc.) 

RH: There can be a whole range of possible programming, of which guest speakers, discussions, and artistic performances are great examples. I hope that there would also be new House traditions such as formal dinners or outdoor trips. However while programming is very important, I expect that the most meaningful aspects of the House community won’t involve formal events, but will come simply from members living, learning, and having fun together.

TDR: This was the first year of the College’s Living Learning Community (LLC) program, which allowed students to form topical residential floors. My sense is that this initiative was generally very student driven – students got together, formed their own topic, and organized group programming to further explore their LLC floor topic. Will the new housing communities revolve around the faculty adviser’s leadership or, as with the LLC, be more decentralized and based on the initiatives of the students?

RH: Dartmouth has a strong tradition of student governance and that’s something I’d certainly like to see reflected in the House communities. While the House Professors will be the overall intellectual and cultural leaders of the House, I expect that most of the House activities and identity will be developed by the students themselves. I hope we can serve as advocates and guides to help students realize their ideas. Dartmouth students have great imaginations and amazing aptitude for making things happen: I can’t wait to see all the fun and exciting things that will happen in our House!

TDR: Finally, what do you see as the role of the House Professors in matters of discipline and enforcement of rules?

RCH: I think it’s important for House Professors to set clear expectations and provide a positive example of mature intellectual and social life in their House Communities, and we may end up having some role to play in setting or enforcing various rules. However, our primary role will be in developing a strong and vibrant House community, and certainly that’s what makes me and the other House Professors so excited to be getting started.