Master Bruce Chalmers of Winthrop House slouches down in his easy chair and regards you inquisitively; before long, you're talking and he's listening. If you make a chance remark about how Harvard education might be bettered, he quickly encourages you to continue, and you've usually hit upon something that he's thought about himself.
Chalmers came to Winthrop from a world of crystal structures and cryogenics. An authority in the filed of metallurgy, he was one of the earliest people to work with single crystals and the discoverer of a method of growing double crystals and studying the boundaries between them. After joining the Harvard faculty in 1953, he was named Gordon McKay Professor of Metallurgy and spent most of his time working in research with graduate students. A freshman seminar and Nat Sci I, "Energy in Science and Technology," which he volunteered to give in '61, provided his first experiences in undergraduate teaching. Chalmers was "a little surprised" when he was named to replace David Owen as Winthrop's Master only four years later. But he made the transition without much difficulty.
For Chalmers has a vision. His ideal is the classic "well-rounded man," and he points to Oxford, his own alma mater, as an institution which has consistently succeeded in producing such graduates. Undergraduate specialization is even greater than at Harvard, and the colleges must play an important role in general education. Chalmers feels that the Harvard Houses should serve a similar function; to this end he has acted to increase intellectual ferment within Winthrop. One feels he would be entirely happy if Winthrop could resemble Balliol or Oriel in the days when Jowett and Whately walked the earth--sanctums where living and learning were inseparable and where student-faculty dialogue constituted the most exciting part of an undergraduate's career.
Chalmers' efforts to create a small community of scholars is apparent in the new House programs that he has introduced and in his own methods of teaching. He initially offered Nat Sci I, for instance, as a regular lecture course with sections, one of which he taught himself; this year, however, he is giving the course to ten Winthrop men as a House seminar. Converting the course into a seminar was not merely a negative reaction to impersonal teaching methods, to the round of lectures, exams, and office hours that characterizes the greater part of Harvard education. Chalmers also sees a positive good in the personal relationships that grow out of small-group teaching and thinks that such relationships should be a natural outgrowth of the Gen Ed program. This belief is implicit in his concept of a gen ed adviser. He believes that an undergraduate needs an adviser not only to plan a departmental curriculum but also to help in matters of general education: "...the kind of advice people want often relates to a career...the small group course is aimed at getting to know people well enough to advise them in this area."
One of Chalmers' most successful efforts to increase contact between students and faculty is the Master's Table, which he introduced last fall. Twelve undergraduates sign up each week for a discussion over dinner with Chalmers and three or four faculty members, topics being suggested in advance by the students. The result is usually, as one Winthrop tutor put it, "a free-for-all between students and faculty with Chalmers playing the role of chief needler." It is for such an intellectual exchange that he feels the Houses exist: "If you put a lot of bright people together in the right atmosphere, they're bound to educate each other...this is one of the primary purposes of the Houses."
Providing the "right atmosphere" is one of the Master's specialties, and his table-talks are obviously one of his favorite teaching methods. When dinner is over, he transplants the whole company across the courtyard to his lodgings, where, aided by beer, the discussion flows on (beer is a tool which Chalmers skillfully employs--if interest wanes he subtly introduces another case. The man seems to have an unflagging enthusiasm for free-ranging discourse with students. Barney Frank, the assistant senior tutor, recounts that "the only time I incurred his displeasure was when I tried to break up one of the sessions at a quarter to eleven."
The Master expects a similar interest in undergraduates from his staff. He noted, for example, that some of the tutors and faculty connected with the House didn't make much effort to meet undergraduates, that the only time they did appear in the dining-hall was for the weekly "long table" lunches when all the staff members sat together. So Chalmers abolished long table, over the objections of some of the less gregarious affiliates. And after his own success in teaching a House seminar, Chalmers has now organized some of the Winthrop tutors to teach a small course on current American social problems. This course will have the advantage of offering a broad, inter-departmental approach to various key issues and will give the tutors a chance to improvise on their own. But even more important for Chalmers' purposes, the course will promote a kind of education based on spontaneous dialogue; it may even create an intellectual excitement that extends beyond the seminar meetings to prevade the very air of Winthrop House. The Master relishes such prospects.
Chalmers is modest about his accomplishments as he nears the end of the first year at his new post: he is not one to hold forth on the implications that his activity in Winthrop House might have for general education at Harvard. But the implications are great; as one Winthrop man put it, "Chalmers has shown us how important the House can be as part of the educational process, rather than just as a place to live. By stressing dialogue among students and between students and faculty, he has created a totally new atmosphere." Yet the newness, paradoxically, is also a return to tradition. For in demonstrating the educational potential of the House system, he has moved toward recapturing the spirit in which the Houses were founded.