A Message From the Masters: "Get a Life"

To the best of Adams House co-Master John G. "Sean" Palfrey's understanding, Harvard physics professors have never given a lecture on how to find an apartment in New York City, nor has the economics department has ever offered a tutorial on cooking for one.

In order to fill this gap between academic and practical knowledge, Palfrey will inject the Harvard education with a little "Life"--the name of a series of seminars designed to prepare House residents for their post-college existence.

"I came up with the idea as soon as we [Palfrey and his wife, Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics Judith S. Palfrey '67] were appointed masters," Palfrey says. "My original premise was to teach all of the things that Harvard didn't."

Although Palfrey says he is aware of similar offerings, such as Harvard Dining Services' cooking classes for seniors and House-sponsored lectures on proper etiquette, he says he envisions a much broader project.

The seminars--which will begin next Monday--will focus on a range of issues, including how to read a contract, "Plumbing 101" and "Advanced Doing the Laundry."

"A lot of the topics involve personal things," Palfrey adds. "How do you deal with a loved one who's depressed? A family member dying? How do you fire someone? How do you live through being fired?"

He says some topics, like cooking, will spawn a series of their own. Several members of the House's Senior Common Room (SCR) have already expressed an interest in teaching students about international cuisine--and Palfrey says he could even envision a spin-off seminar, just on cooking.

To brainstorm additional topics and find out what students want to learn more about, Palfrey held an organizational meeting in January that drew about 20 students.

"It was a lively discussion driven in a large part by seniors who wanted to learn this stuff before leaving," he says.

Adams House Committee Co-chair Jennifer J. Hoffpauir '00 says she came away from the meeting excited to take part in the seminars.

"I would like to learn how to file my taxes because I've always had my dad do them," the senior says. "And auto maintenance--maybe we'll take apart a car."

Hoffpauir says the "Life" seminars will teach real world skills where their parents may have left off.

"Ideally you would learn these things at home, but a lot of people haven't, especially at Harvard where you have a lot of people that went to boarding school," she says. "The masters are House parents in a way."

And as a father of two sons, both recent Harvard graduates, Palfrey says he knows firsthand that parents do not always teach their children everything they should.

"Some of my kids left my tutelage without knowing how to fix a broken lamp or unclog a toilet," Palfrey says.

But he says the seminars will be anything but the typical parental lessons.

"The first rule is no pontification," Palfrey says. "These are not lectures; they are discussions. I've called the people leading the seminars facilitators as opposed to teachers."

Part of the motivation behind the idea is the opportunity to unite students and members of the House's vast SCR.

Hoffpauir says the seminars will be a good way for residents to bond with frequently "shy" SCR members.

And in addition, Palfrey says he hopes to rope in his friends in the Boston area with a broad spectrum of practical skills.

One of Palfrey's good pals, a "prize-winning car salesman" and professional oboist, is lined up for the car buying seminar.

He sys his dream seminar facilitators would be Click and Clack of NPR fame, though they have yet to answer his repeated messages.

Palfrey says he will not lead any of the seminars, but plans to participate actively.

"I'm a little bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Of course, the other part of that phrase is 'and master of none,' " he quips. "These are topics I've had experience with, but we have such a rich environment. I hope to learn in every single one of them."

Most of the seminars will take place in the masters' private residence, where the living room seats about 40 people and the basement shop is ideal for fix-it demonstrations.

When it comes to the seminar on automotive repair, Palfrey anticipates a mini field trip of sorts.

"We could go out to that parking space, have people dress up in grubby clothes and check the oil, change tires and exchange radiator fluid," he quips.

And although the seminar series will receive no official funding from the College, Palfrey says the University can contribute in other ways.

"For [the seminars] that need equipment, Harvard has enough broken toilets and I have enough broken lamps," he says.

For all other costs, Palfrey says he will foot the bill.

The first seminar, topic still to be announced, is scheduled for next Monday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in Apthorp House. The seminars will only be open to Adams House residents.