Sarah J. Heidt '97, associate professor of English, tries to live lightly alongside first-year students as the faculty-in-residence in Norton Hall.
Twenty-one years after the start of my Kenyon career, I am again living in the first-year quad. As I write these words in Norton Hall, on a Tuesday night in deepest February, I’m more than halfway through my year as Kenyon’s third faculty-in-residence. Snow covers campus; the windchills have been ferocious; today the sunlight was so sharp that it almost hurt. We start spring break in just a few days, and tonight Norton is quiet. Footsteps go up or down the hall occasionally. A door closes somewhere in the building. Those of us already home seem to be hunkered down, staying put.
Later, when I get ready for bed, chances are good that I’ll hear at least one of my neighbors doing the same thing: walking around in a room, eventually climbing into a creaking bed. My hall’s community advisor will come home late; she’ll probably sing something lovely as she winds her night down on the other side of the wall we share. In the morning, I’ll know it’s my upstairs neighbor’s wakeup time when his iPhone starts vibrating on his floor, which is also my ceiling.
These kinds of utterly quotidian, profoundly homely details are what come to mind when friends and colleagues ask me what it’s been like to live in Norton, surrounded by people who weren’t even alive when I lived in Gund during my own first year (1993-94, the last year Norton housed women only and was still nicknamed “The Nunnery”). When Kenyon’s faculty-in-residence program was introduced in 2011 to afford students more informal opportunities to engage with faculty, I wondered about the benefits of literally embedding a professor in a residence hall. Didn’t we already interact closely and variously with our students, in and out of the classroom? But the truth is that I have loved this experience. I’ve felt privileged to be in such close proximity to so many people’s daily routines and have tried to live lightly in this space, knowing that my eighteen- and nineteen-year-old neighbors didn’t get to choose to live above or around a professor.
When it was still warm outside, in those long, pale-blue evenings in September before the year’s work really came avalanching in, I loved that a first-year student would sometimes stand against a tree and play his banjo. I loved that, when I looked out the window the first time this happened, I discovered the player was also one of my English 103 students.
I’ve loved that my sheer visibility to the whole first-year quad has made me more likely to get to bed at a decent hour.
I’ve loved my absurdly short commute.
I’ve loved welcoming students in for the quiet hours I’ve held every week. On Wednesdays at 7 p.m., I unlocked both doors to the apartment and hung out signs welcoming all, with the only rules that no one can use electronic devices or talk or make undue noise. When no one had shown up by 7:15 that first Wednesday, I worried that I’d made a horrible mistake in launching a program whose entire purpose was to give anyone who attended the opportunity to spend a few minutes unplugged in quiet company. I sat at the desk in front of my living room window and read as patiently as I could. And then the first person showed up, made a beeline for my bookshelves, hung out for a few minutes, and departed. Then more people started to arrive.
By the end of that first evening, twelve people had come; many of them were still reading, writing, or even sleeping when I called time at 9 p.m. I had a few regulars all year — people who walk in the door at 7:01 most weeks — and an ever-changing group who turns up with books, papers, sometimes even pillows and blankets.
I’ve loved the chance to offer students a standing invitation to a simple experience that I think would have nourished my own bookish, driven, idea-loving, confident, and anxious first-year self.
I’ve loved cultivating a warm and supportive setting, one that feels deeply companionable even though no one’s speaking and that gives us all the space to curate a couple of focused, restful hours a week for ourselves.
I’ve especially loved this year in Norton for giving me the space to do what my neighbors have also been doing: getting my feet on the ground in Gambier and figuring out what I want my life here to be. When I moved hundreds of books and a few pieces of furniture into this apartment in August, I was returning to campus after three years away, a long stretch of time at a tight-knit place, and part of me was apprehensive. Living on this hall, surrounded by beginners, has helped me to be a beginner again myself.