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F&M Professor, House Don Discusses How Houses Have Transformed Student Experience

Since opening at Franklin & Marshall College in 2005, the College Houses have transformed the campus culture, expanded classroom experiences, and enhanced the college curriculum, New College House Don Dean Hammer told a crowd during Common Hour Nov. 21.

Then, Hammer made a confession.

"I wasn't (initially) a believer of the House system," Hammer said.

Hammer, the John W. Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government, reflected on the positive effect the College Houses have had on campus life during a talk titled "Learning After Dark." Common Hour, held every Thursday during the academic year, brings together members of the community for enriching discussions and experiences.

  • Common Hour Dean Hammer
  • New College House Don Dean Hammer told the Common Hour audience that since opening at Franklin & Marshall College in 2005, the College Houses have transformed the campus culture, expanded classroom experiences, and enhanced the college curriculum. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Hammer became a don -- a House-based faculty mentor and adviser -- in the summer of 2011, when New College House opened. The Georgian revival-style structure became the College's fifth house, joining Bonchek, Brooks, Ware and Weis. Hammer said the College Houses, which are student-governed, have effectively merged residential life and the life of the mind, creating an atmosphere where students feel comfortable exchanging ideas and learning from each other.

"I think the Houses have started broadening for students what is possible," Hammer said.

Each College House also has an administrative dean on the premises. Dons and House deans guide and counsel the residents of their Houses and help them launch new student initiatives.

Hammer said he became a believer in the College Houses after watching students organize events in their House great rooms, neutral spaces where faculty and students often gather, and noticed they were cultivating their voices, taking risks, and demonstrating they cared about their House.

"We see this concept of caring for something in the [house's] student honor code,

Hammer said. "The place matters in some way to them."

Sharing an example of how he believes the Houses cultivate a culture of belonging and inquisitiveness, Hammer recalled observing students who attended an informal lecture with National Public Radio legal correspondent Nina Totenberg.

"They were sitting in their living room. They were sitting where they had experiences, where they had bagel breakfasts, where they watched movies, and they were talking with someone they admired and grew up listening to," Hammer said. "I remember standing there and thinking, 'This is what it's about.'"

Prior to speaking, Hammer stood on the stage and took a photo of the audience. Then he used a presentation of snapshots to illustrate that students are connecting and growing in the liberal arts fashion through the College Houses.

"I think of my years in college and they come to me in snapshots," Hammer said, flashing a photo of students at an event with Physics Professor Brian Greene, a recent Common Hour speaker. "Each picture is a language known only to its participants."

As a relatively new don in his second year at Weis College House, Professor of Economics Sean Flaherty said Hammer's discussion offered him inspiration.

"It gave me some ideas of what I want to do more of," Flaherty said. "The College Houses have achieved about what one could reasonably expect, and they continue to get better."

Senior Mandi Tembo, a public health and women's gender studies major, shared Hammer's view of the Houses. She said when she arrived as a first-year student from Zimbabwe, living at Bonchek College House made a significant difference in her F&M experience.

"I think it's like being on a sports team," Tembo said. "There's that spirit of being in a family, there's that spirit of pride."

Hammer arrived at F&M in 1994. He is the 2013 recipient of the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award and 2006 recipient of the Bradley R. Dewey Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the highest awards F&M bestows for teaching and scholarship, respectively.