Master Perspective: Tom and Verena Conley on Harvard House Life
In July 2000, Romance flooded Dunster Street. Three of the four new House Masters taught French or Italian literature at Harvard: Among them were Kirkland House’s new additions, Tom C. and Verena A. Conley. Tom teaches in the Romance Language and Literatures Department, while Verena is a professor of comparative literature. Both were chosen according to a rubric of professional distinction, personal character, and the ability to lead a community of students and scholars.
“We were babes in the woods,” recalls Tom, leaning back into one of two green linen chairs (Verena occupies the other) opposite a matching sofa in their 85 Dunster St. residence. He looks over at his wife, who shakes her head with a laugh. Before a former dean asked them to apply, they hadn’t thought much about it, they say.
“We had no idea what House life is like,” Tom recalls.
Thirteen years later (“the lucky 13,” Verena says ruefully), the Conleys are more well-versed in the art of maneuvering the intricacies of the Harvard House system. The two are natural hosts in their Dunster Street home. Books and DVDs cram the shelves of their dark-oak-paneled sitting room; the granite countertop of their (Harvard-renovated) kitchen has hosted cooking classes for students sponsored by the Food Literacy Project. A few minutes after I arrive the doorbell rings: It’s two Kirkland students returning from walking the Conleys’ Bernese mountain dogs, Max and Bella. The dogs settle between the green linen chairs where they will remain for our conversation, nudging their owners’ legs, tugging at Verena’s shoe. “They love the attention,” Tom says. Max and Bella never have to look too far for such attention, with a constant stream of dog-walking volunteers and willing dining hall company.
A Student Connection
Both the Conleys understand these interactions with students to be central to their role as House Masters—a role they take care to distinguish from that of professors uninvolved in House life. “You get to know the students as people,” Verena says, “and not as Harvard students, capital H.”
“Not as papers,” Tom adds.
Tom and Verena say they tend to see the students in their departments always in the same setting, in their classes in Boylston or the Dana Palmer House. In class Tom is known to act out scenes from medieval French poetry, writhing on the ground in mock-pain. Verena is slightly quieter, a faint Germanic accent modulating her words and gestures. When either of them grows animated they tend to talk over each other, two parallel conversational threads until one yields inevitably to the other.
The couple is recognized within and beyond Kirkland for presiding proudly over a community that supporters might call quirky, or detractors incestuous, but one that most Harvard students would agree constitutes a quintessential example of an immersive House environment. The Conleys revel in their role at the center of it all: As House Masters they claim a privileged understanding not only of Kirkland students, but also of the possibilities and challenges inherent to the Harvard House system—and of the steps necessary to forging a successful House community.
Their interactions with students within Kirkland, the Conleys say, permit a more nuanced understanding of their personalities, their particularities. The students whose faces they might recognize from class take on a greater depth when encountered in a different context than the classroom.
“Those who are not House Masters,” says Tom, “who are not intimately related with House activities, have very little idea of what Harvard undergraduates put onto themselves. How much they overbook—in a very positive sense.”
Tom claims that this nuanced understanding of student life has directly influenced his teaching style, that it has allowed him to be more easy going, for example. Modifying his expectations, according to Tom, has done much to improve the students’ classroom experience in general. “When there’s less pressure,” he explains, “students will be inventive—will take greater, more daring, and more productive risks.”
Professors might get to know a student one semester, then never see him or her again; they might have a conversation with someone in office hours that is never followed up. The Conleys have learned from their perspective in Kirkland that the role of House Master allows them to prevent students from slipping through the cracks. Verena grows animated as she mentions seeing students evolve from the time they arrive at the House as 19-year-olds until they leave as full-fledged adults.
“You see the problems they have,” she says, “the pains of growing up. They’re really changing in these three years.”