The Professor Next Door

Melissa Keeley and Christopher Klemek outside of West Hall
August 19, 2010

By Jamie L. Freedman

The next time you stop in for a quick bite at the new dining facility at West Hall, don’t be surprised to see Professors Melissa Keeley and Christopher Klemek and their kids, Abraham, 3, and Madeleine, almost 1, at the next table. The family lives on the fourth floor of the new residence hall—one of four apartments housing faculty-in-residence at GW.

The university’s two top administrators—President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman—also live on campus. Dr. Knapp and his wife, Diane, reside in the historic F Street House in Foggy Bottom, across the street from the university’s largest freshman residence hall, and Dr. Lerman and his wife, Lori, recently moved into the Mount Vernon Alumnae House on the Mount Vernon Campus.

It’s part of a growing trend in academia to promote greater interaction between students and faculty outside the classroom. This year, four GW faculty members are serving as faculty-in-residence and another nine are working as faculty guides--professors who live off campus but spend many hours a week facilitating residence hall-based living-and-learning programs for freshmen.

“Throughout my career in housing and residential life, I have seen the tremendous benefits of faculty-student engagement programs in the residence halls,” says Andrew Goretsky, director of GW Housing Programs. “Since arriving at GW in 2008, one of my goals has been to expand opportunities for students to engage with faculty in the residence halls through faculty-in-residence, faculty guides, living-and-learning programs and other initiatives.”

According to Mr. Goretsky, GW faculty-in-residence and faculty guides held over 325 “office hours” in the residence halls last year and hosted more than 200 programs and events for GW students—from dinners to guest speakers, book clubs and museum trips.

“Faculty guides and faculty-in-residence provide an opportunity for students to interact with faculty members in an informal setting outside the classroom,” he explains. “Studies have shown that when a student regularly engages with faculty outside the classroom, it greatly enriches that student’s experience.”

Responsibilities of faculty-in-residence and faculty guides range from planning and implementing educational, recreational, social and cultural programs for students to serving as role models, mentors and advisers. Above all, the program strives to provide a seamless transition between the classroom and the residence hall—freeing faculty from the traditional formalities of the professor-student relationship while strengthening the quality of the GW residential experience.

“The greatest value of the faculty-in-residence program is the close, personal cultivation of student-faculty relationships,” says Peter Konwerski, senior associate vice president and dean of students at GW. “There are few other ways that students can regularly engage in as deep a relationship with a faculty member than in a residential community setting.”

According to Rebecca Sawyer, senior assistant dean of students, GW’s faculty-in-residence program started with two adjunct faculty in 1998 and has grown steadily over the past decade. “We are excited about the growth in this program and the ability to provide students the opportunity to interact with faculty outside of the classroom and right where they live,” she says.

“Students who take advantage of this program get to know a faculty member one on one and have access to a great resource here at GW,” says Ms. Sawyer. “Whether it’s an academic-related question, advice on careers or general information about GW, our faculty-in-residence talk with students in an open and honest way about their experiences and knowledge.”

Dr. Lerman, who served as housemaster of a graduate residence hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the past nine years before joining GW this summer, says he found that students desperately want that connection with the faculty.

“Students have a tremendous thirst to get to know faculty outside the classroom,” says Dr. Lerman, who hosted a monthly pancake breakfast, speaker series, and periodic dinners and jazz brunches in his MIT residence hall and knew every student in the building by sight. “It’s incredibly exhilarating to live with students, and Lori and I look forward to being actively engaged with the students on the Mount Vernon Campus.”

Drs. Keeley and Klemek are equally excited about their decision to live among students. Living in a residence hall was an easy decision for the couple, who met as freshmen at Ohio State University and have been together ever since.

“Campus life has been a big part of both our professional and personal lives,” says Dr. Klemek, an assistant professor of history, who served as a faculty member in residence with his wife for several years at the University of Pennsylvania while pursuing his doctorate.

“We’ve always believed in breaking down the barriers between our personal and professional lives,” he says. “The kinds of films we like to watch, the kinds of things we like to do in our spare time are all connected to the kind of scholars that we are, and we’re happy to have the chance to share that with our students.”

Dr. Keeley, an assistant professor of geography, public policy and public administration whose research focuses on urban sustainability, environmental management and land-use planning, will also head up the Green Earth living-and-learning program at West Hall.

“My work focuses on LEED green building standards in cities, so the opportunity to live in a green residence hall and work with the Green Earth cohort is very exciting,” she says. “I’m looking forward to bringing my students into my research as active participants and connecting them with environmental professionals I work with throughout Washington.”

An expert on urban history, Dr. Klemek plans to share his scholarly interests and fondness for exploring cities with students. “I walk around cities for fun and would be happy for students to join me,” says Dr. Klemek, who co-founded Poor Richard’s Walking Tours, a Philadelphia-based historical tour company, while earning his Ph.D. in history.

They both look forward to connecting with students on an informal basis as well. “One of the things we plan on doing as a family is to eat in the dining hall with some regularity,” says Dr. Keeley. “We did that at Penn, and found that sharing time informally over a meal was a great way to make ourselves available and approachable to our students. It helps demystify the faculty presence a little and adds to the rich and valuable living and learning experience for all of us.”

Student Life