Statement of Philosophy
Catherine McTamaney, Ed.D.
Faculty Head of Crawford House
The Margaret Rivers Ingram Commons
“Work hard. Play hard.” We hear this regularly on our campus, as students describe the balance between intense academic and social expectations. In my observations as a faculty member and undergraduate advisor, I have struggled with the ways in which students achieve that “balance,” recognizing that often students countered their academic achievement with social outlets that seemed more likely to undermine their success than to support it. In articulating my initial vision for Crawford House, I chose those same words, but tried to redefine students’ understanding of both “work” and “play” in their lives on campus. My goal remains to support residents’ scholarly engagements by meeting equally their social and emotional needs.
In my first year as FHOH, I sought to provide formal programming and informal mentorship which would challenge students to think differently about the opportunities they have as members of this community, to push them to engage in intellectual conversations outside of class while providing emotionally-responsive contexts to support a playful community. I planned a series of events throughout the Fall and Spring semesters which would welcome speakers to lead challenging conversations through a new series of events called, “Divergent Lectures,” and maintained the “inherited” events traditional to Crawford House, including the Haunted House and Festivus. I met regularly with my Staff and HAC. I attended informal and formal Commons-wide events. I checked off all the boxes on the list.
It worked, but something was missing. Student engagement in house events was high. Students appeared at my doorway to chat, to talk about their families or their lives on campus. We welcomed rigorous thinkers to events, shared dinners with challenging conversations and shared equally joyful and play-based events to “balance” it out. But despite fulfilling all the named items on my self-designed list of expectations, Crawford House lacked the depth of authentic engagement I aspired to. I recognized, in reflecting upon my first year, that my strategy for balancing residents’ academic and socio-emotional lives was focused more on programming than on relationships, on posters and events rather than eye-contact and dialogue. While I still felt confident about the balance I wanted to achieve, I realized that I had tried to get there through the same paths we often tread on campus: by schedules and programs and card swipes. And, not surprisingly, I got the same results: good attendance from my obedient students, but little change to the ways students defined themselves or their goals as a part of our University. Crawford House was a happy, healthy home to our residents last year, but it lacked the kinds of transformational conversations that, at the end of the day, were more important to me than the numbers on a formal report of engagement or participation.
Thomas Merton reminds us, “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
“The value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” In this, my second year at Crawford House, less than 40% complete at the time of this writing, my goals remain the same, but my strategy is much different. Having lived a year in this community, I have realized that the outcomes are driven by the community. My work is more rudder than wind. The value, rightness and truth of my vision for Crawford is in protecting this community as a safe place within which residents can question themselves and others, a place within which residents feel known and seen and, if we get it right, essential. Learning of any kind requires risk-taking, a willingness to transform our sense of how things work in order to make that vision more clear. If I want my residents to be open to learning and growth, I have to first start by creating an environment within which they feel safe to change. We’ll do the intellectual engagements, to be certain, but we’ll do them after we’ve first established the socio-emotional norms in the house that assure residents that their engaged curiosity is more important than their GPAs.
Toward that end I’ve kept many of the same structures in place as we enjoyed last year at Crawford House, but I’ve changed the sequencing. I’ve foregrounded opportunities for us to normalize the qualities I want to support in our house before we ask students to tackle the challenging conversations that have the highest capacity to transform. I’ve designed opportunities to both model for and evoke from our residents curiosity, compassion and courage, believing that students need concrete examples of a myriad of ways of being before we can expect that they will imagine those possibilities for themselves. I’ve asked my Residential Life Staff to play with me in visible and public ways and, in the doing, to help develop in the House a climate in which it is safe to change, to become new things, to transform into our better selves.
It’s a complicated task to articulate how one’s teaching philosophy is enacted in life on Commons, because our teaching here lacks the traditional limits of time, space or curriculum. I am teaching as intentionally when I walk my dogs as I am when I introduce an invited and notable speaker. My teaching is as evident in the kinds of floor-level programs I encourage as it is in the formal connections to our city officials and local nonprofits I enable. Concisely, I believe my work is to take courageously public risks, to be comfortable with the potential for “glorious, amazing mistakes,” driven by curiosity about the world and people around me and secured by compassion for those same people and for myself. I want to navigate with my residents an ease in discomfort, that sweet spot between what we are and what we might become, the place where true learning generates. In the end, it is within this “ reality of personal relationship” that the best outcomes lie.