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Who Runs the Wheel?

by Alan Filreis

I like to think that Dennis DeTurck invented the Wheel--or perhaps re-invented it. When several years ago he and his colleagues in Mathematics chose to augment the teaching of calculus through the use of the MAPLE software program, they faced a dilemma that no faculty innovator at Penn will ever have to face again--now that, as of September 1998, our undergraduate residences will be organized as twelve College Houses. The dilemma: where to set up the program?

Dennis created an advising system that brought math help to students in their on-campus homes. A few years earlier, Peshe Kuriloff, Director of Writing Across the University, organized a service by which writing advisors, engaged in a year-long apprenticeship, distributed themselves across the residences at night and began offering walk-in appointments to students seeking help with a writing assignment. A few years ago, some computer-savvy students, working with the Residential Faculty Council and Penn's central computing group (ISC), invented residential computer support; it has revolutionized students' out-of-class access to information technology. A little later, the reference staff of Van Pelt Library, with support from the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience, created library advising for students in residence. This semester the office of Career Planning and Placement and the residential faculty are experimenting, in one college house, with career services advising.

These services of the Wheel Project have already been dramatically successful. To students on the receiving end, and to the members of Penn's academic community who live in our undergraduate residences--26 members of the schools' faculties, and a good many graduate and professional students--such success comes as little surprise. It brings home to our students a few basic aspects of their education. It is efficient every sense; it is academically viable; it extends teaching to times and places where teaching traditionally has not gone; it makes good use of an otherwise already paid-for computer network; it inspires academic leadership among our students.

But these qualities were not self-evident from the start. It is worth going back to Dennis DeTurck's quandary. Once he and his Math department colleagues chose to use a computer program to provide out-of-class help for students of calculus, they had to decide where the 2000 students enrolled in these math classes would get access to the required software and hardware. They also had to think about the direction in which supplemental academic advising would go in the future. Would it be located near where the faculty work and teach?

Consider what the options were, and you will come to share the view that the decision to create a comprehensive system of residential College Houses at Penn is essentially an academic one. Our colleagues in Math could not imagine outfitting David Rittenhouse Labs to serve, into the wee hours, as the place where students would come to use MAPLE and to be advised whenever they ran into problems with course material. It would have been far too costly to keep DRL open, equipped, and secure nights and weekends, which are of course times of the day and week (no way around it) when math students do their class assignments.

To the west, northwest and southwest of DRL have stood Penn's always open, always busy undergraduate residences--staffed, accessible, and secure at all hours, full of study space and computing labs. Committee after committee had issued reports observing that our student residences were academically underutilized. So Professor DeTurck went there. The software was loaded into the desktop computers of all the residential labs; house offices were made available for math advisors working evenings.

Residentially based math support, like the Wheel Project in writing advising, was created from the convergence of two movements:

  • the coming of information technology; and
  • the maturing, finally after twenty-five years of success, of Penn's undergraduate residential communities.

Electronic mail, used for asking and answering eleventh-hour academic questions; the web as a ceaseless, efficient deliverer of course assignments; and software programs like MAPLE-- meant that the faculty could extend instruction outward beyond classroom time and space, and further around the clock than was ever covered by traditional "contact hours." At the same time the concept of "academic programs in residence" was taking hold at Penn. In five "First Year Houses" and six "College Houses," residential faculty, assisted by residence deans or administrative fellows, graduate fellows, undergraduate RAs, and activist student-run "house councils" have been organizing study groups, house concerts, improv performances, reading circles, post-film discussions, faculty teas, art shows, dinnertime seminars, theatre series, literary clubs, webzines, community projects, "language tables," tutorials, and mini-courses.

These two movements meet in the Wheel Project, which sponsors collaborations between schools, departments, and academic centers on the one hand and, on the other, the college houses where many of our students live and work. Trained advisors in core academic areas are "distributed" across the residential system. Students seeking help need only know how to call upon a Wheel advisor, who is usually a neighbor. Some initiatives--spokes of the Wheel, as it were--routinely offer "house calls."

  • Math Advising, already a winner, provided help to some 680 math students in the Spring 1997 semester. But under the aegis of the Wheel Project, the math faculty and student coordinator Laura Kornstein (C '99) moved their advisors into each of the houses. The same project, now fully "distributed," suddenly put up big numbers: in the Fall 1997 term, 1427 students were helped in individual sessions, including 108 who sought assistance electronically (mhelp@math).
  • Working evenings in four residential locations, the Writing Advisors of the SAS Writing Program held 831 individual conferences in a single semester. Electronic Writing Advising (writeme@english), staffed by the same advisors (with back-up support from faculty in the Writing Program), posted an average response time of less than two hours--averaged over all twenty-four hours of all seven days.
  • Through the Residential Computing Support program, computing help for undergraduates has been totally reorganized. Each College House has its own team of Information Technology Advisors (ITAs), directed by a student Computing Manager. Difficult problems are sent by the house-based teams to Computing Support Professionals (CSPs). Most problems-with hardware, software, networking, drives and storage, operating systems, printers, use of course materials by web and e-mail, etc--are solved quickly right there in the residence. First responses from ITAs typically arrive within a few hours. In September 1996, when computing help for students on campus was still centralized, the percentage of all on-campus students who had connected their computers to the network (ResNet) by the first weekend after the classes began was 38%. Through the Wheel Project, by the same point in September 1997, ITAs and their professional back-ups, making house calls from within the house, had helped 55% of the students make the network connection. At a university where faculty now typically expect even new students to receive and send electronic mail and to read syllabi on the web right from the moment the term begins, this kind of service seems less a luxury than a requirement.
  • Library Advising, a smaller and newer project, has proved similarly successful. Trained by Van Pelt's reference staff, Library Advisors in each house last semester assisted students in the use of Franklin, Lexis/Nexis, OVID, Medline, and the like. Those who took advantage of this advising got better, earlier starts on research projects. Questions ranged from that of one student who needed to find a style gallery for bibliographies to another who had been unable to complete homework for a bioengineering class that required using web-based library searches--to another who did not know which information databases to select as he refined a paper topic in South Asian studies. Librarians at Van Pelt were gratified to see 150 students from six College Houses participating in"College House Nights"--students brought to the library itself by their residential Library Advisors.

Who runs the Wheel Project? The answer is simple: faculty in academic departments and units that choose to take advantage of the College House system as the means by which to extend discipline-specific advising. The Math Advising program is directed, for example, by Undergraduate Chair Ted Chinburg of the Math Department. Math hires and trains the advisors, is responsible for needed improvements, and aptly takes credit for the project's pedagogical achievement.

Penn's 21st Century College Houses make it possible for the faculties of the schools to extend the reach of Penn's academic mission. "Student life," a phrase that alas has come to mean, organizationally, everything that the schools don't do, is being redefined by the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience in this very basic way. When all else is said and done, student life is an academic life.


Dr. Filreis is Professor of English, Director of the Writing Program, and Chair of the Residential Faculty Council.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, February 10, 1998, Volume 44, Number 21