Intellectualism in House Life: The Fourth Lie of Harvard?

Halfway through their first year, Harvard students receive a glossy booklet called "Inside the Houses." Here, students read that the houses will be the center of their upper-class existences, a spot where "daily interactions give fullest expression to the life of learning."

But upper-class students tell a different story. Many say their own experiences with house life have been much less intellectually-oriented than this description implies.

"People use the houses as pit stops," says Maya G. Prabhu '94, co-chair of the Undergraduate Council's committee on academics. "They eat here, sleep here, socialize here. Academic life stops when they leave the Yard."

For many students, this division of academic life from house life is not necessarily negative. Robert Bikell '91, a former Eliot House resident, says he thinks of the houses as havens from the often intense and competitive academic concerns of classes.

"The house dining halls are a relief," he says. "Sometimes people just want to hang out with their buds and act like morons for a while."


A Deeper Problem

But many students say the lack of student-faculty interaction in the houses stems from a deeper problem--the image of Harvard professors as unapproachable and intimidating.

"I feel that [faculty] are very busy and that what they have to do is very important," says David B. Berns '94, who says he has never been to a professor's office hours. "These people are so luminary."

Although each house has a senior common room that includes faculty members and community figures, many students say they never interact with senior common room members. One house master says that fewer than a dozen of the professors affiliated with his house show an interest in participating in house activities.

And students add to the problem as well: according to one recent graduate, professors who do show interest often meet with an unenthusiastic response. The student recalls a "septuagenarian crowd" of retired professors who often ate in his house's dining hall.

"Everyone knew these intellectual power houses were there in the corner, but they always ate alone," the student says.

The council's academics committee has recently launched an attempt to increase the likelihood of student-faculty interaction in the houses.

Ideally, the houses should serve as catalysts for student-faculty relationships to develop, Prabhu says.

"Theoretically, chatting with a professor over dinner should be less intimidating than in office hours," she says.

In December, the committee submitted a 14-point discussion paper to the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), an academic advisory board made up of faculty and students. According to the paper, "the current house system...has largely failed in its mission to make the houses the academic and intellectual communities envisioned by President Lowell."