Living and Learning With Faculty-in-Residence

When Jacob and Freda Smith go home at the end of the workday teaching and advising at the School of Communication, they don’t have far to go. In fact, they don’t even leave campus. The Smiths just finished their first year of living among students in Elder Hall as Faculty-in-Residence. Their role, part of Northwestern’s Residential Community Program, is to provide leadership in the hall by organizing intellectual, cultural and social events, or just giving residents a good, solid piece of advice when needed. Jacob Smith, an associate professor of radio/television/film, offers an inside look at his family’s experience during the last year.

It started out as a standard Sunday morning. The family woke up, gathered in the kitchen and made a cup of tea or two. We warmed up the waffle iron and pancake griddle. But what happened next makes our family’s Sunday morning different. When we opened our front door, 150 Northwestern freshmen were waiting to share our breakfast with us. That’s because our home is theirs too: I am the Faculty-in-Residence at Elder Residential Community, and I live in the faculty apartment with my partner, Freda, and our son, Henry. This was our last event of the year, a waffle and pancake breakfast to say goodbye before the Elderites finished their final exams and headed home for the summer.

The academic year began 10 months earlier, when we welcomed arriving students with an open house and trays of candy apples. We wanted every freshman in Elder to know who we were, where we lived and how the Faculty-in-Residence would fit into their coming year. Students were surprised to find a snazzy family apartment stuck onto their residence, and it still surprises us sometimes that a step outside of our quiet home, there is a busy student hallway and lively dining hall. That is the blend that makes the Elder residential community special — the hall is a space for diverse interactions with the broader Northwestern community. Our apartment was a place where students could have informal chats with faculty about Super Bowl ads, the environmental impact of consumer products or the depiction of race in Hollywood films. It was also a place for socializing at casual buffet dinners with faculty or in small yoga classes by the fire.

Our home was part of Elder, and the rest of Elder felt like part of our home. On weeknights, we ate dinner in the dining hall and sometimes ended up doing impromptu student advising. Every Sunday we served hot cider in the first-floor lounge where students would take a study break and hear short talks about Northwestern organizations. In the spring, I taught a class on the history of recorded sound in Elder and held office hours onsite. It was amazing to have a walk downstairs be my commute to work! We converted the classrooms into a soothing retreat during Reading Week by hosting relaxation nights with professional chair massage and meditation tips. Our programming reached beyond the building into the broader community as well, like when we took field trips to Chicago to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Looking back over this remarkable year, from candy apples to pancakes, I’ve learned that a “Residential Community” provides a unique experience at the University. Elder is a community composed of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and Residential Life staff, all of whom share a space, eat together and interact everyday. Together we explore the many different interests, career goals and commitments that make up the University, as part of a community that is big enough to allow for amazing diversity and small enough so as never to be intimidating or overwhelming. It has been an incredible opportunity for me as a member of the faculty to interact with students as part of the Elder community. My family and I will soon be warming up the cider pots and waffle iron for what will surely be another fascinating and engaging year!

Weightless Wonders: Students Perform Experiments in NASA’s Zero-Gravity Simulator

This summer, a team of four Northwestern students got the chance to conduct experiments like they were in outer space without ever leaving Earth’s atmosphere by flying in NASA’s famous “Weightless Wonder.” The undergraduate group, assisted by David Dunand, the James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science, and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, hopes their experiments, if successful, could lead to better solar cell production for greener power on Earth and, eventually, in Earth’s orbit and beyond. Kristen Scotti, a School of Professional Studies biology major, led the group. She recounts her long journey to microgravity flight.

“Float like an astronaut and fly like a superhero” is the tagline used by Zero G Corporation to describe the experience of parabolic flight.

I might add, “Fall like a meteorite hitting Earth,” somewhere in between floating and flying.

A microgravity flight consists of a series of parabolic maneuvers or flying in a trajectory shaped like a parabola. Each begins with 20 seconds of hypergravity, followed by approximately 25 seconds of microgravity. It ends with an additional period of hypergravity.

The final hypergravity portion is immediate. In an instant, you go from floating in the air to slamming into the floor at a rate of about 17.64 m/s2. It only takes a few parabolas before you learn to prepare yourself for the fall.

My journey goes back to 2011, when I was attending classes at William Rainey Harper College and was selected as a NASA Aerospace Scholar, earning an internship at Marshall Space Flight Center. My first NASA flight was a year later.

Visiting Marshall was one of those life-changing moments, where once you get a taste for something, there’s no going back. I was surrounded with like-minded students and NASA personnel who were motivated purely by their desire to learn.

Some of the other Aerospace Scholars and I decided to form a team and propose an experiment to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program. Surprisingly, our proposal was accepted. We began our experimental flight preparations. This was my first experience managing a research team.

It was then I transferred to Northwestern University with the assistance of a Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. Once at NU, I reached out to Dr. David Dunand and Dr. Bryce Tappan (Los Alamos National Laboratory) for guidance.

A few months later, a mentor at NASA advised me of an opportunity to propose a program to NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. I reached out to Dr. Dunand and Dr. Tappan again, and with their agreement to continue to offer guidance, I felt confident enough to give it a shot.

I compiled a team of NU undergraduate students, and we submitted our proposal to create titania foams as electrode materials for dye-sensitized solar cells in microgravity. Nearly a year later, our proposal was accepted by NASA as both a knowledge and a technological advancement payload.

In other words, our experiment served two purposes: to understand the effects of gravity during metal foam formation and to enhance the material properties for maximum efficiency in dye-sensitized solar cell applications.

This past July in Ellington, my experimental preparation felt very different. I had a bit more experience, so I knew what to expect; I felt I’d be better able to prepare myself for the falls.

Our team integrated students from three schools within Northwestern: Kimberly Clinch (Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences), Emily Northard (McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science), Felicia Teller (School of Professional Studies) and myself. As a team, we armed ourselves with knowledge as we immersed ourselves in literature, bounced ideas off of each other, solved problems and genuinely respected one another for our individual strengths.

When we hit a trough, we worked together to soften the fall.

Visiting NASA has always provided me with new vigor and desire to learn. NASA is the epitome of passion, commitment and the joining efforts of individuals in the pursuit of knowledge. Our team flew four flights in July; I was on three of them.

I left Houston feeling very proud of the team that I was a part of and excited to continue working with them over the next year analyzing our samples and incorporating them to improve overall efficiencies.

At Home with Death: Reflections on a Residential College Tutorial

Balberg Tutorial at Movies

Death is a difficult topic to tackle, but Mira Balberg, assistant professor of religion and Willard Faculty Fellow, found an intriguing way to make the subject accessible to students living in the Willard Residential College. With plates of cookies handy and a variety of ancient and modern texts as guides, Balberg created a powerful 21st-century academic learning experience. Modeled on the Greek symposium, the residential college tutorial brought together a small group of avid learners in a lively conversation in a non-classroom setting. In designing the tutorial, Balberg was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients, “who famously believed that an awareness of death and an ability to look death ‘in the eye’ as it were, is the key to good, meaningful living.”

As in many other things, the ancient Greeks were the first to get it right: they considered the most meaningful and enjoyable form of learning to be a conversation, which takes place not in a classroom but in a banquet hall. The Greek symposium was essentially a small gathering of friends who dined together while discussing a topic of choice, considering intellectual stimulation to be the flavor of the evening. The Greeks thought of the process of learning itself as a feast, in which, as Plato described it, “wisdom flows from one to the other like wine into glasses,” and found it only appropriate that it would be conducted as such.

Can a college class in the twenty-first century follow the model of the Greek symposium? Insofar as wine, sofas and hired musicians in the background are concerned, probably not: but insofar as genuine, lively conversation taking place in a non-classroom setting among a small group of avid participants is concerned, I discovered that the answer is a resounding yes. It’s called a Residential College Tutorial, and as a faculty fellow at Willard Residential College I had the fortune of teaching one of those in the spring of 2014.

A Residential College Tutorial is a small class, 8 to 10 students, which is offered specifically in one of Northwestern’s 11 residential colleges and is usually designated for the students living in that college. In some ways, it is no different from other college classes: tutorials count for credit and include obligations such as homework and paper writing. But it differs from a standard class in time, in place, and most of all, in feel. Tutorials take place in the late afternoon or evening, in the residential colleges themselves, and as such they generate continuity between two aspects of the college experience that are often conceived as completely disparate from one another: learning and living. A tutorial brings those two together, and therefore generates what is the key both to good learning and to good living: a sense of community. This sense of community is maintained not just during the formal part of the class, but also in going to dinner together as a group afterwards, or in going out to see a class-related movie together, as we have done. It is these seemingly inconsequential things that melt the boundary between disparate areas of college life and make it all the more meaningful – for students and professors alike.

And so it was: once a week ten students and I would gather in the Willard Library. Notable in their absence were laptops, tablets, smart phones and any other modes of distraction. Notable in their presence were cookies, which were a staple of our meetings – not just because of the usual peckishness of 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon, but also to make the point that we are, at least symbolically, partaking in a feast of learning. More notable, however, was what every student brought with him or her to each meeting: a well-crafted and pre-meditated series of thoughts and insights on the readings we were about to discuss that day, which each student wrote down and sent to me ahead of time. The students’ written responses provided the fuel for a lively and vibrant discussion, at the center of which stood a three-way encounter: between the students themselves, between them and me as an instructor, and between us and the third “participant” in our meetings – a silent participant which we have gradually started befriending – Death.

Indeed, the topic of the class was death. More accurately, it was the manner in which human beings confront death, their own or their loved ones’. In this choice of topic, too, I was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients, who famously believed that one’s entire life was essentially a preparation for death, and more importantly, that an awareness of death and an ability to look death “in the eye” as it were, is the key to good, meaningful living. In our own society, in which death is very much ignored if not entirely denied, and is removed from the realm of everyday life into the specialized care of professionals, this wisdom seems to have been forgotten. But death, as we know, remains a reality that we all, at one point or another, encounter nonetheless, now oftentimes without any conceptual or emotional tools to deal with it. As a scholar of Religion, I find the manners in which different religious and philosophical traditions confronted and explained death to be absolutely fascinating. I see death as a particularly potent and powerful prism through which we can explore the diversity of human communities and the development and change in modes of thinking and behaving across time – two issues that I consider to be at the heart of any discipline in the Humanities. However, my interest in this topic is hardly purely intellectual. I fully subscribe to Socrates’ statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and since I view death as a part of life – perhaps the most definitive part of life – I believe it must be examined rigorously, honestly, and courageously. This was the purpose that I set forth for this tutorial.

“Is it really possible to discuss death so openly and forwardly with a group of 19 and 20 year olds, who are in the prime of their (allegedly) care-free youth?” I asked myself before the tutorial started. But from very early on, I was surprised by how intensely engaged and committed the students were to this examination of death (and, naturally, of life). For some students, who have suffered losses of close family members, this topic was very personal; but even for those who did not experience death in their immediate environment, the questions we discussed were poignant and, I dare say, emotionally and cognitively urgent. This was a journey on which everyone was eager to embark, and fortunately for us, we had great guides to lead us through this journey. From the Greek poet Homer to the Roman philosopher Seneca, from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to American journalist Mary Roach, we spent each session with the works of wonderful (and very different) writers who spent a lot of time contemplating death and who gave us much to think about, with, and against. However, as fabulous as these guides were, I believe much of the success of the journey had to do with the fellow travelers: with the fact that we explored these texts and questions together, looking at and listening to each other, sharing thoughts, fears, and doubts, and no less importantly – sharing laughter. A lot of it.

Throughout this entire quarter, one sentence kept on recurring to me in respect to this tutorial: that’s how it should be. College education, at its best, is an opportunity to examine the world audaciously from within a supportive, warm, and friendly community of like-minded examiners. Residential College Tutorials prove that in can be this way, and that putting emphasis on human contact – between students and professor, between one student and another, and between students and powerful ideas of people from other times and places – has the power to make higher education truly significant for all those involved.

Live in Purple: maeve & quinn perform “Fusion”

The Northwestern University Class of 2014 features a double dose of musical talent in the form of Bryce Quinn (violin) and Maris Maeve (piano and vocals) O’Tierney, twin sisters from Anchorage, Alaska who perform as maeve & quinn.

Before they graduated in June, the duo’s song “fusion” was selected as this year’s student-produced Niteskool music video, and the sisters were featured among Northwestern magazine’s “Senior Standouts.”

“We love making music together and we love people,” Bryce said. “The goal is always to keep finding new people to share the music with and new ways to do that.”

After graduation, Bryce, a creative writing (poetry) and violin studies double major, will pursue a master’s in creative writing at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Maris, a vocal performance, art history and political science major, will work at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C., as one of the selected interns for the Katzenberger Art History Internship Program.

Although they will soon be on separate continents, Bryce and Maris plan to continue performing whenever possible and plan to compose an album together.

Students Feed the Hungry with ‘Points for a Purpose’

Points for a Purpose

Throughout Reading Week and Finals Week, students can donate their leftover meal plan points to help feed the hungry through “Points for a Purpose.” The student group uses point donations from students to raise money to provide food for the homeless and homebound in Evanston and the Chicago area. Read more about how Weinberg sophomore Dean Meisel and McCormick sophomore Bryan Berger started the organization and how to get involved.

Points for a PurposeMy friend Rachel had just finished her last final of freshman year and was heading home early for summer break. Rachel had gone through the quarter without resorting to her meal plan, so as she headed home, she was leaving behind not only a year of memories and friends, but also $400 worth of equivalency meals and meal points. Determined to not completely waste this money, she handed me her WildCARD and suddenly I had my ticket to a freezer full of Ben & Jerry’s. But after a few days of Norris sushi, Frontera Fresco and way too much ice cream, my consciousness started to overcome my stomach.

I approached Bryan Berger, who agreed that there must be a better way to deal with the excessive amount of unused – or misused—meal points at the end of each quarter. Together we thought of the idea to connect the inevitable waste of the Northwestern meal plan with the food insecurity of the Evanston area. What if students had the ability to donate their leftover meal points to people who could use it more effectively?

Our idea’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity. To help feed the hungry, all a student needs to do is ask the cashier at any C-Store to donate ‘X’ amount of points to Points for a Purpose.  The WildCARD is swiped, and the food is later assembled and delivered.  Bryan and I spent the summer dreaming of the possibilities.

Fast forwarding to fall quarter of this year, Bryan and I e-mailed the entire list of contacts on the nuCuisine website. We were pleasantly surprised by their receptiveness to the idea, and a couple meetings later, Points for a Purpose was born.

Our quarterly drives run during Reading Week and Finals Week, and since we did not officially begin until Reading Week during Fall quarter, we had low expectations as to the success of our first drive. However, our friends helped us spread the word and the campus responded with enthusiasm. Only 11 days after our kickoff, the Northwestern community came together, sacrificed their finals week Cheetos binges and donated $1,246 to our beneficiary—Campus Kitchens at Northwestern University.

While Campus Kitchens at Northwestern provides an amazing service to the community—taking leftover food from dining halls and preparing it for many of its deserving clients including Evanston individuals, the YWCA, the Salvation Army and Connections for the Homeless—they often lack the funds to package anything other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their clients. With the help of the Northwestern community, they are now able to provide more balanced meals for homebound seniors, homeless people and other Evanstonians who depend on these services.

Since then, Bryan and I have been working passionately with Sodexo, Campus Kitchens and other groups on campus to attack food insecurity as effectively as we can. In addition, we have officially become a chapter of Swipes for the Homeless, a non-profit based in California with a similar mission. We added eight more students to our team and are looking for ways to not only expand our efforts at Northwestern, but to other campuses as well.

Points for a Purpose has not only contributed over $2,500—the equivalent of 1,000 meals—to fighting food insecurity in the Chicagoland area, but it has united the Northwestern campus and made many students aware of the harsh realities that our neighbors face on a daily basis.

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