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Close to home: Nearby professors blend home, work lives

Professors who reside near the University use their accessibility to home life to foster ties with students

Though his office hours were ending in two minutes, Professor of Music David Josephson still had time to meet with the final student waiting outside his door. As a professor who lives close to campus, Josephson was not on a tight schedule. 

Brown’s mission to create an environment in which students can best learn, discover and serve the community can be easier to uphold, some professors said, if they live in the community.

Professors working within two miles of their residences can transition between their desks at home — away from the distractions of University life — and their desks in their offices. With their two workspaces so close together, professors can shape their daily schedules without the constraints of a long commute.

Josephson said he cannot imagine how professors who live away from campus can effectively support the creation of a community and provide the best help for students. “You just cannot do collaborative work by telephone,” he added.

Some professors who live nearby reach out to students by inviting them for meals at their own homes as a chance to get to know each other outside the classroom. Michelle Graff ’13 works as a Meiklejohn with Professor of Geological Sciences Jan Tullis and dined at her house with their advisees last year.

Being able to go to Tullis’ house adds something to their relationship, Graff said. “It’s closer to colleagues,” she said. “We have more equal footing.” She added that her advisees appreciated the chance to eat at Tullis’ house.

“They all thought it was great compared to what their friends were experiencing,” Graff said.

Tara Nummedal, professor of history, also said she was happy to be able to host her first-year advisees.“I have fond memories going over to my professors’ houses as a college student,” she added.

When Lisa Mignone, assistant professor of classics, did not plan her usual annual breakfast for her Latin students at her house a half-mile off campus, “students informed me it was happening (anyway),” she said. “I think they like being in a sort of home.”

Besides helping their students feel at home, professors living nearby said they can easily attend events at the students’ “home” — the University. “College isn’t all in the classroom,” Mignone said, adding that she enjoys the opportunity to support her students’ interests by attending their performances and sporting events.

Professors also have a life beyond their professions. Those who live nearby said they can show students their personal lives outside of academics. As a kid, Josephson always lived close to where he studied and grew up near a library. Today he still spends hours of his own time in the Rockefeller Library, while Professor of French Lewis Seifert said he works out at the Jonathan Nelson ’77 Fitness Center.

“It’s nice to run into students on a weekend,” Seifert said. “They seem surprised that I have a real life, too.”

Nummedal said living nearby has let her engage her 3-year-old daughter with University life. “It is a good feminist point for students to see me with my daughter,” said Nummedal, who brings her daughter to the Blue Room on the weekends for chocolate chip cookies. Like students, she said she has a busy life outside of her office on Angell Street.

But professors also noted that living nearby can complicate their routines. They may have the simple conveniences of a short commute in bad weather or the opportunity to stop at their offices to pick up papers they had forgotten and still need to grade. But with this proximity, some said they feel they must work harder to separate their private and public lives — convenience can cause the two to blend easily. Professors must carefully select their coffee shops and restaurants to foster this divide.

Thayer Street, with all its allure, is as attractive to professors as it is to students. When professors encounter their students outside class hours, there is an understood code of conduct.

“We both know to say ‘hi’ and wave but then to move on,” Nummedal said, though the interactions are on occasion uncomfortable.

“As long as you are able to set boundaries, it works,” Mignone said.

By not living nearby, “you’re not around for the mess of life,” Josephson said. “And by mess, I mean a good thing.”

Josephson said professors who live too far away and have too much of a divide between their home and their job are not always around to experience the culture of Brown and to support their students — they are “substitutions for the real thing.”


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