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Treading the 'Bleeding Edge'

Are the technological capabilities of the cyber-community growing faster than Harvard's Houses?

By Geoffrey A. Fowler and Dawn Lee, Crimson Staff Writers

Leverett "Chief" Howard Georgi '68 is on a crusade.

In this House master's arsenal: an Olympus Camedia C-2020-Z digital camera, a Linux web server and a database of information about each of his Leverittes. Students who bump into Georgi at a monkey-bread open house or the '80s dance often end up in pictures--digital photos posted within 15 minutes after events on the House website, which averages about 250 visitors per day. The some 450 Leverittes also regularly find Georgi popping up in their inboxes. "I know I send too many e-mails," he grins.

On a wired campus, Georgi is battling to make the 70-year-old notion of "House community" digitally savvy. Telephone calls and snail mail no longer suffice to marshal Net generation undergraduates into the community. "I suppose that all of these House things used to be done with posters and sign-up lists in the dining hall, but I can't imagine running the House without e-mail and the House webpage," Georgi muses. "And I'm trying to train the administration that it is useful to send the House [electronic] files instead of piles of papers."

Though all 12 undergraduate Houses are linked by the same basic Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) network infrastructure and support, inhabitants say not all residential communities are virtually equal.

Among the Harvard digerati, Georgi is the cutting edge: he actively seeks to make the newest technology part of the House experience. To Lowell House computer science concentrator Paul A. Gusmorino '02--who bemoans his own House's technological dark age but lists Leverett as one of Harvard's most Net savvy communities--the Internet revolution has already transformed other aspects of student life, even if the residential experience hasn't quite caught up. "Today, student groups define themselves by their e-mail lists," he says.

But to the College administration, the technological cutting edge sometimes masks what is really a

"bleeding edge"--technology that looks exciting but drains budgets. The cost and risk of ultra-new technologies necessitate administrative caution in both academics and residential life, explains Associate Dean of the College Georgene B. Herschbach.

Yet a problem remains: if students plan their day-to-day activities via the Internet, and their House community doesn't communicate with them via such technology, then Houses won't be a large part of their daily lives. So Georgi's crusade begins where physical House interactions end: how to use technology to extend and reinforce the face-to-face ties formed within the brick-and-mortar Houses.

The popularization of Internet technologies over the past four years has permitted each individual House to shape its own solutions--or ignore the question almost entirely. But the increased technological expectations of each incoming class threaten to outpace Harvard-speed.

If that happens, the College's apprehension of treading the "bleeding edge" could degrade Houses into mere living quarters unless they invest in tools to transform themselves into Net-connected communities.

Re-Imagined "Community"

The fall of 1996 brought two revolutions to Harvard's Houses: randomization and the full roll-out of automatic dorm-room computer network connections.

Re-Imagined "Community"

The two moves crossed paths in a way that the House system is still sorting out.

With full randomization, first-years were no longer allowed to select an upper-class residence based on preferences that often included House reputations and interest-clusters. Since Houses couldn't be intentional communities, many students turned their attention to other College-wide affiliations outside of their assigned House: teams, clubs and non-residential friendships.

The simultaneous increase in Internet popularity offered a useful tool for building and maintaining such cross-campus connections: e-mail.

"Undergraduate student organizations of all types are easier to organize, recruit and manage in an era of mailing lists," writes Kevin S. Davis '98, now coordinator of residential computing at FAS Computer Services, in an e-mail message. "I find the students I talk with [today] are more actively engaged in extracurricular activities than ever before."

"Inter- and intra-House communication is made easier by technology, so people stay in touch more--even with people who live in the Quad," adds Herschbach, who is also a former co-master of Currier House. "But I would like to think that the importance of the House community will live on."

Despite differing enthusiasm for the newest technology, digerati and administrators alike agree that technology can only serve to complement--and never replace--the "physical community" interaction of a House tea or dining hall meal.

Randomization and the popularization of e-mail don't inevitably make physical House communities irrelevant. If used within the House, e-mail promises just as easily to strengthen intra-House relationships.

Two years ago, Pforzheimer House initiated an e-mail discussion list--dubbed "PfoHo Open"--to which residents could send a wide range of e-mail inquiries. These mailing lists become a virtual common room, where residents hold near-real time conversations over e-mail. A resident might send out a message asking for last night's "ER" episode, a ride to the airport or lecture notes--and within the hour, there are often dozens of responses.

"PfoHo Open permeates all aspects of House life," e-mails resident Benjamin W. Dreyfus '01. "Even though I do not attend many House events, and indeed do not even spend many waking hours in the house...PfoHo Open follows me around everywhere there is telnet [for checking e-mail]."

In 1999, Adams initiated a similar list--dubbed "Adams Schmooze." Former House Committee Co-Chair Jennifer J. Hoffpauir '00 says that the list helped facilitate the widely celebrated spirit "war" between Adams and Pforzheimer Houses in November.

"Knowledge of the war would not have been as widespread without the Schmooze list," Hoffpauir says. "It helped to bridge the gap between the House committee and the rest of the House."

The high rate of correspondence on the lists is a drawback for some. "The level of usage during the [fall] book sale was so high that a lot of people got off of the list," Hoffpauir says, noting that in an average week she receives as many as 40 list-wide messages.

Dreyfus, however, is quick to point out that membership in any community involves disadvantages. He draws parallels to other kinships: "I find my younger brother annoying at times, yet I do not sever ties with him, because he will always be my brother," he says. "PfoHo open is like a member of the family."

But other Houses haven't yet established open e-mail lists--and also haven't developed the reputation for House spirit of the warring Adams and Pforzheimer Houses.

The Ultimate Network

If e-mail is more important than ever to the way students imagine their community of peers, it has also raised the rate of computer use generally--with students increasingly channeling their lives through the ultra-fast campus ethernet network.

The Ultimate Network

According to an FAS Computer Services annual computer use survey, in 1997 only 74 percent of seniors had computers that were connected through their dorm room into the network. This year's survey didn't even bother to ask the question. The assumption was that nearly all of the 98 percent of students who have computers on campus also have them connected.

FAS Computer Services Director Franklin M. Steen and his staff have been instrumental in making this happen.

He started by building from the basics. When he arrived at Harvard from Yale in 1994, Steen quickly implemented a residential computing support system, House computer labs and general e-mail kiosks. "Unlike Yale's College system, Harvard equalizes things among Houses," Steen says. "Every House has a 10-base T network, seven computers in their labs...and up to three user assistants."

This coming fall, Steen is introducing roaming ethernet, switch technology and other network upgrades--all of which promise to make computing faster and more readily available across campus. And changes won't stop there. "It's entirely possible that the incoming class of 2004 will experience a campus that has full wireless connectivity by the time they graduate," predicts Rick Osterberg '96, database applications specialist for FAS Computer Services.

Sitting in his glass-enclosed Science Center office, surrounded by all the newest techno-gadgets, it is clear that Steen, like Georgi, is on the cutting edge.

But without leadership from the Houses to apply the technology, Steen's work can only go so far. He has helped provide Harvard students with access to a "bleeding edge" computer infrastructure that is increasingly out of sync with the not-so-digital management of the Houses.

All of the Houses are equipped with the same technological infrastructure. What makes them different is the way those Houses use their resources to build community.

And the technological capabilities for Net-connected student life have grown faster than the central College administration and Houses have been able--or willing--to deal with.For example, Steen says, upcoming network improvements will largely serve to increase the entertainment potential of each student's desktop computer--thereby circumventing a decade-old argument between students, College administrators and House masters about installing cable access into dorm rooms.

The Tangled Web

But the difficulties of building House life through technology reflect wider challenges faced by the entire modern House system: creating a consistent college experience in a decentralized system.

The Tangled Web

For Eliot House Webmaster and resident tutor Glenn P. Wong, developing the House's website has been a personal initiative, influenced primarily by students.

"For us, it has been a very organic process. Nobody has given us direction from the top-down," Wong says, adding that he hosted the first House website on his personal computer.

A graduate student in physics, coordinator of the House woodshop and member of the intramural crew team, Wong says that being a webmaster isn't really a part of his job as a G entryway tutor. Today, he's trying to "decouple" himself from the responsibility of maintaining the site.

But at a time when Eliot residents are coming to expect more from their House website, Wong laments, resources are scarce. "Perhaps this should be a paid position. It has to be more formalized, either in the House, or the University as a whole," Wong says. "Who pays for this? For maintenance? The House? The College?"

And Wong's problems are not unique to Eliot.

House websites--online today for all 12 Houses--sit on some half-dozen computer servers across campus and vary wildly in their content, vision and importance to the House community.

Some, like Leverett's site, are bustling, dynamic hubs, including facebooks, daily birthday announcements, lost and found postings and House calendars. "I hope that students make it the homepage that they go to when they wake up in the morning," Georgi says.

Others, like Currier House's, haven't updated their website in months--even years.

And some digerati--including Wong--are glad that Houses are given the opportunity to express their personal style on their own websites, without centralized direction.

"We've pretty much invited the House leadership to tell us what they want to do," Steen says.

Listening to Students

As long as people need to sleep and eat, all agree, technology itself doesn't threaten to disintegrate the House system. But if the House system doesn't figure out how to engage technology to make a community, it might be reducing its own relevance as the lynchpin of the College experience.Certain Houses--like Georgi's Leverett or Pforzheimer--may see their communities become tighter, as other, less-technologically inclined Houses fall behind.

Listening to Students

But just as Georgi chases the cutting edge, Herschbach cautions that the College must mind the "bleeding edge."

"We should probably determine a minimal standard for [House technology use], but Leverett House is not that standard," she says.

And she says serving students in the 21st century will likely require a faster rate of change than Houses have so far engaged. "We rely on the students around us to poke us towards what we need to be doing," Herschbach says. "That's what it really means to be on the following edge."

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