Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

June 9, 2011

Faculty volunteers sought to “adopt” a Pitt dorm floor

brackenridgeThe Office of Residence Life is recruiting for its faculty associates program.

A joint venture of the offices of Student Life and Residence Life and the first-year student experience program, the faculty associates program provides opportunities for first-year students to interact with faculty members outside of the classroom, said Jamis O’Brien at this week’s Faculty Assembly meeting.

(See View From Outside the Classroom column, April 30, 2009, University Times.)

The goals of the program are to “demystify the ivory tower” for potentially intimidated freshmen, and to increase student retention and satisfaction, said O’Brien, assistant director of Residence Life.

“Interaction with a professional in the field who has a PhD for first-year students can be quite daunting,” especially in the classroom setting, he said. “One of our goals is to provide a venue to promote interaction outside the classroom, in order to open up the lines of communication and to make faculty be more approachable.”

A secondary goal of the program is to provide mentoring opportunities for faculty in informal settings. Faculty volunteers are paired with a resident assistant and assigned to interact with students living on the RA’s dorm floor.

“An RA is one of our upper-level student leaders who live and work on a floor. They’re employed by Residence Life and trained to provide activities and events for the first-year students,” O’Brien explained.

Some examples of the kinds of out-of-classroom events include coffeehouse visits, movie nights followed by discussions, museum trips, sporting events, ethnic festivals and kayaking, hiking or rock climbing outings.

Some funding is provided by Student Affairs to subsidize the outings, O’Brien noted.

He said about 98 percent of the Pittsburgh campus’s roughly 3,700 incoming freshmen live in the residence halls, giving Pitt approximately 90 floors housing first-year students.

“What we’d like to do is provide the faculty associates experience for all our first-year residents,” O’Brien said at the June 7 Assembly meeting, adding that in the last academic year 65 faculty, the highest number in the program’s five years, participated.

“The program is quite flexible, and the RAs do most of the logistics,” O’Brien noted.

Faculty commit to a minimum of five hours a term, with no maximum. They agree to meet with residents at least three times per term, and early in the term are asked to lead a brief orientation session on navigating academics at Pitt.

One outcome of the program has been improved student communication skills, O’Brien maintained.

“One thing holds true in all the interactions: Students don’t communicate in the same ways they used to, and not all communication is terribly appropriate, especially as they move on to the professional level. Using text-speak in emails, for example, is not appropriate in the professional ranks,” he said. Informal interaction with faculty tends to drive that point home in a non-threatening way, O’Brien said.

Following O’Brien’s report, Assembly members suggested that the faculty associates name may not convey properly the program’s focus, slowing recruitment efforts. Members also suggested developing a stronger advertising campaign to recruit faculty, including a greater web presence that includes testimonials from faculty participants.

Assembly member Susan Shaiman, who has participated in the program for several years, endorsed it enthusiastically at the June 7 meeting. “I find it really rewarding dealing with first-year students, and the RA does most of the work,” Shaiman said, adding that for her the program was mostly fun.

“We’ve had an ice cream social, watched Steelers games and had a Labor Day picnic,” she said.

For more information on the faculty associates program, contact O’Brien at or 8-1195.

In other Assembly business:

• Nicholas Bircher, chair of the Senate bylaws and procedures committee, reported that his committee is reviewing the policy for forming search committees for senior-level positions.

Following the recent search for a new provost, the committee discovered that the policy, which dates to the early 1990s, potentially needs revising. Among the murky issues, Bircher said, is which administrators qualify as “senior” under the policy and whether the process of choosing staff and student search committee members should be by selection or election.

“As it stands now, the policy says there should be some kind of election but it’s not clear whether the election is by the Student Government Board, for instance, or a vote by all students,” Bircher said.

The bylaws and procedures committee will work with the Office of the Secretary, the Chancellor’s office and the General Counsel to iron out those details over the summer, Bircher said.

• University Senate President Michael Pinsky delayed his expected report on task force recommendations for Pitt open-access policies. (See April 29, 2010, University Times.)

The task force had planned “to suggest that all subsequent peer-reviewed publications that we have be made available through the University of Pittsburgh in one form or other to the world,” Pinsky said.

“I can’t discuss it today, because Provost [Patricia] Beeson requested that I meet with her and [library system director] Rush Miller, and that we establish what the issues are and create a second committee that will over the summer discuss this in greater detail.”

Pinsky said he expects to report on the issues early in the fall.

• Assembly member Jeen-Shang Lin of the School of Engineering asked that Assembly evaluate the consistency of schools’ use of student teaching evaluation forms provided by the Office of Management and Evaluation of Teaching.

Assembly members pointed to a number of related issues, such as:

—Whether including the student evaluations in teaching portfolios should be at the option of the faculty member or a requirement;

—To what extent the evaluations reflect actual teaching effectiveness as opposed to an instructor’s popularity;

—Whether the questions on the form should be reviewed and updated;

—How to factor into consideration the relative difficulty of the course and whether the instructor is a “tough grader” — factors that can influence students’ evaluations negatively, and

—What weight, if any, to give students’ disparaging comments on a teacher’s appearance or classroom behavior.

Assembly member Linda Frank advocated developing a parallel peer evaluation system, so that educators’ teaching effectiveness will be evaluated by other educators in addition to students.

Pinsky agreed that the issues were worth considering and said he will pass them on to the Senate educational policies committee and the Provost’s office for input.

—Peter Hart

Leave a Reply