Teaching FHRCS is an adventure (or, The FHRCS Experience)

Our final blogging assignment for the semester (kind of by accident, I think–we STAs have the same blogging assignments as our students) is to write about the FHRCS experience. My FHRCS experience was extensive and spanned three fall semesters.

This will be my last post on this blog, probably ever. So long, blogs.lt.edu. It’s been fun.


The FHRCS experience? How can I ever begin to express, in the shabby form of a blog post, what I have thought of the FHRCS experience?

The FHRCS experience was anxiety and failure and frustration. It was a willingness to be flexible and different way of seeing myself and a way to talk about community and something that I only did for the students I taught, which came with many tremendous rewards.

The FHRCS experience was that first day of teaching, in 2011, when I dressed up special for FHRCS and then was mistaken, by one freshman, for another freshman.

The FHRCS experience was when I emailed Dr. Stephens and Michael and stated unequivocally that the student that they felt should fail FHRCS should not fail.

The FHRCS experience was feeling, during all of fall 2012, that I was failing as a FHRCS STA, after I had enough experience that I should be better.

The FHRCS experience is helping student after student with concerns that seem small to me and huge to them.

The FHRCS experience was suggesting that we go to farmers’ market and hearing my students let out gasps of delight.

The FHRCS experience is being able to share with freshman the ideas about community which have been shared with me and (most importantly) feeling like they made an impact.

The FHRCS experience was meeting one of my best friends in the world (and fellow FHRCS STA) in the fall of 2011, when we both decided, by chance, to take our freshmen to the Blacksburg Farmers Market at the same day and time.

The FHRCS experience was trying to show a 2.5 hour movie in the theater and finding that the speakers did not work.

The FHRCS experience was taking 10 students to see a play, which I loved and they hated (sorry, guys. I thought you’d like it better).

The FHRCS experience is trying to explain to folks how to keep a blog, when I myself have never had any idea how to keep a blog.

The FHRCS experience is grading CoSPs and being impressed at the diversity of interests contained in a small group of honors freshmen.

The FHRCS experience obviously isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is doing stuff simply because the higher-ups said that we had to, which can be frustrating and annoying.

The FHRCS experience can be carefully planned activities that fail miserably (because you can’t really know if something will work until you try it).

The FHRCS experience is teaching yourself how to teach. It’s teaching yourself how to have authority and how to deal with a group and how to keep them interested in you and what you have to say.

The FHRCS experience is how very inspired and humbled I was by my freshmen’s final projects on community this year. They are very thoughtful and I’m glad that they are the future of this community.

The FHRCS experience, more than anything, is how the 35 students I have taught in FHRCS have changed me. Teaching is exciting because it is dynamic and it changes you, over and over again.


To Michael, who first told me to teach FHRCS,

To Dr. Stephens, Dr. Ferraro, and Tomalei, who taught it with me,

To Ross (Papa FHRCS), who taught me countless things about leading a group and about community,

To all of the other FHRCS STAs, from whom I have gained ideas and insights over and over,

And, most importantly, to my students, who have taught me, inspired me, (amazingly) listened to me, embarrassed me, and changed my life,

Thank you.

In which Camilla doesn’t really know what she is blogging about (maybe trees…?)

NOTE: This post is a response to the Fowles reading (The Tree), which I really enjoyed. It really is about two things, not one, and doesn’t have a central thesis, but the Fowles reading itself was about many more than two things, so I am just going to roll with it. This isn’t a book report and isn’t really a reading response either (because I am too stubborn to turn my blogging into either of those things, after two years of blogging autonomy). It’s thoughts I had while doing the Fowles reading.


When I meet people, I always notice their hands. Not necessarily immediately, because initially I am very concerned with employing the services of my (scanty) social skills and introducing myself in such a way that I seem like a relatively normal human being. But as I am doing my initial inspection of the person, examining face, clothes, shoes, mannerisms for some hint of a first impression, I always notice their hands the most.

This doesn’t go away when I befriend a person. I always look at hands. I look at bitten fingernails, at crooked fingers, at the fine, bird-like bones in the backs of hands.

When I moved to the HRC and started meeting people, a thing that surprised me was all of the soft, clean, beautiful hands.

I do not have that kind of hands and, until I moved here, neither did the people I love.

There’s dirt under my fingernails and scars on my knuckles and my nail beds are always torn up. My wrists are sometimes written-on and I have calluses on both of my ring fingers, from riding horses. My hands look like they could get a thing done.

When I came here, in 2011, everyone I met had these fine, white hands. No calluses, no dirt so deeply embedded that you could scrub and scrub and it would never come out, no scars. Chewed fingernails, yes, results of anxious honors kids feeling anxious. But no signs of hard, physical work, of being outside, in dirt and nature.

I don’t think that this is bad, really. But we don’t go outside anymore and that, I think, is bad. We go outside only long enough to go inside again, not long enough to get too cold (or too warm), not long enough to get sunburned, to get our faces chapped by the wind. Not long enough to get our hands dirty.

Maybe I’m different than most people in that I have always felt a good deal more human when I am outside, forcing my body to adjust to the environment, rather than the other way round. When I was a child, I spent nearly all of my time outside, because, in large part, of a tree that I really loved.

The chestnut tree stood in the middle of my backyard and my childhood had orbited around it. Every summer it bloomed, long yellow blossoms that made the whole neighborhood smell of chestnut. Every fall, prickly chestnut hulls with round, brown chestnuts fell from it, the latter seeming to me to be some sort of well-protected treasure. I collected the chestnuts, risking stepping on the prickles in my bare feet, and then slit the shells and tried to cook them, roasting them in the oven, boiling them on the stove, putting them in the microwave. I always thought that they were delicious because they came from my tree.

My baby swing hung from the chestnut tree, and long after I outgrew it, I pushed my brother, my dolls, and then my friends’ little sisters and brothers in it swing. When I got a bit older, my best friend and I begged to be allowed to buy some soft, white rope from the hardware store. We fashioned one end into a foot loop and managed to get the far end tied around a branch of the chestnut tree. We felt like champions of knot tying and spent the afternoon pretending to be members of some jungle-dwelling tribe.

When I was about 8, my parents drilled a hole in an old, wooden toilet seat and hung it from one of the highest branches in the chestnut tree. My mom would grab the rope that hung from the bottom of the swing and run with it, pulling me unbelievably high into the sky. For a reason I can’t remember, my younger brother and I called this swing ride a wallapaloosa. I remember one of my friends having a wallapaloosa and shrieking, as she swung, “thisissoscary! I’mhavingsomuchfun! thisisosscary! I’mhavingsomuchfun!” I think that this is how we all felt about wallapaloosas.

I spent many quiet hours sitting on the toilet seat swing too, all alone, pushing myself back and forth with my feet, making up long, rambling stories about horses and orphans and places very far away. Those stories became pieces of me–adventures I could never quite have.

It was possible to climb into the chestnut tree, if you climbed first onto the concrete bench in front of it and then wrapped your toes into the foothold on the trunk that had been made where a branch from the tree had been lost years earlier. You had to grab a protruding branch, just above your head, then, and pull yourself into the comforting seat made by the intersection of branches. I read many books up there and made up many stories. I hid from the world up in those branches.

If you hooked the rope of the toilet seat swing on a branch of the chestnut tree before climbing in, you could jump out of the tree onto the swing. This was a terrifying feat, because it involved about half an arc of the swing clinging to the rope before your bottom landed on the swing, but the adrenaline rush, the height you obtained, and the respect of your peers were entirely worth it. I remember sitting, very frightened and all alone in the chestnut tree, looking down at the swing and wondering whether I could make the jump. I was probably 10, I knew I was neither athletic not graceful, and I wanted nothing more than to have the courage to jump out of a tree.

My yard was the chestnut tree. All yards, all trees, were compared to it in my head, and all fell short. Most Chinese chestnuts, I learned, didn’t ever obtain half the size that mine had. My mother told me that the chestnut tree perhaps should have died in an ice storm when I was a baby. It had lost many of its branches, then, and had been a different looking tree before. It was an anomaly, a rare gift from the world. We, this tree and I, were fortunate to have each other.

No one ever told me that it would be cut down, that fall when I was a sophomore in college. I came home one day in the middle of October and the air was full of sawdust. I felt, absurdly, as if I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.

The tree was dying, my parents told me. It had to be cut down, or else it would damage something when it fell. I didn’t cry, because I don’t, but I felt like my guts had been ripped out, like my childhood was gone, reduced to mulch and sawdust.

Community (and other less important things).

“…students educate each other fully as much as they are educated by the faculty. They may absorb information in the classroom, but it is in exchanges with one another that students internalize that information, take the measure of what rings true, relate it to their experience and intuitions, and assess how it has meaning in their lives.”


–A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education by Mark Ryan


Why do we go to college? Why do we live together? Why do we learn together? What is there to gain from attending an institution of higher learning that one cannot gain by simply reading textbooks, alone? By listening to recorded lectures, sitting in your parents’ house?

Yes, the quote above is significant. We learn from each other. I know more about metals, public transportation, computers, nuclear power, sustainable building, video games, chemistry, and creative writing than I ever would if I didn’t live in the HRC. We do study together, either the same topics or different ones. We share our knowledge, our interests, our passions. This is, indeed, important.

What if we remove references to information and to the classroom from the above quote? “…but it is in exchanges with one another that students… take the measure of what rings true, relate it to their experience and intuitions, and assess how it has meaning in their lives.”

What we learn from each other is much greater than academic information. We learn how to be human, how to be friends, how to love. We learn how to live our lives.

I complain about this place–the HRC–quite a bit. We are fragmented, we always have been fragmented, and we always will be fragmented. We will never be cohesive. I am sorry that we will never be cohesive. However, I came here because I was lonely and I wanted to find people to love and I found what I wanted. I have, here, found people with whom I can “take the measure of what rings true, relate it to … (my) experience and intuitions, and assess how it has meaning in … (my life).”

That is why I teach FHRCS, why I have continued to live in a dorm room even though I am almost 23, why I keep on trying to make the HRC a good community. I want others to find what I found here.

What I found is, in part, a result of the residential college model. It’s a result of this idea that you should know and like and learn from the people with whom you live. It’s a result of people being willing to take the risk of befriending me and me being willing to take the risk of befriending them. It’s a result of people wanting to make new friends and create a new start during year one of the HRC, even upperclassmen, even people who had established friendship groups.

During year one of the HRC, I really had hope that we would become a cohesive community, among halls, floors, and friend groups. During year one, people really reached out. Events didn’t seem forced. We did what we did and became the community we became because we were all trying.

I don’t even know what I think of the HRC anymore. We have all of these events and they all feel really forced, all of these senior fellows with whom we only kind of interact. I am not sure that we are really doing what the model says we should be doing, but I don’t know how we could change, how we can fix the mistakes we have made.

There are things that our building lacks that cannot be made up: the halls themselves are insular and isolated, in layout (with regards to the rest of the building), there is no dining room, our kitchen is shared with 800 other people and is the grimiest place on Virginia Tech’s campus, our lounges are cut off from the halls by glass windows and heavy doors. But really what is lacking, I think, is the students themselves. Us. We fall into these friendship groups, these cliques. We are reluctant to let others in, because letting others in is a risk. Others will change what we ourselves have established. They will change us.

Isn’t that the essential joy of friendships, though? Isn’t that why we are here, why we reach out? Others change us. We are barely more than the sum total of the people we have loved.

Please, whoever reads this, take a moment to think about community and about why we are actually here, living in the HRC. Why, as a junior, you chose to stay here. Why, as an upperclassman, you chose to come live here. Why, as a freshman, you chose this dorm over another.

My answer to that question is different than yours, most likely. But mine relates to the quote with which I started this post. We are here to learn from each other. We are here to reach out, to make friends, to be changed, to love each other. We are here to create a community.

The residential college model, spaghetti and marshmallows, friendship, and you: how the Ryan reading may relate to your hall

These questions are meant to get you started thinking about your readings, for 1. our class discussion and 2. your blog posts. You shouldn’t limit your thinking, discussing, or writing to ideas I suggest here; this is simply to help you get started.

Remember the spaghetti activity we did during the first week of class? How does that relate to the Ryan reading? To the residential college model?

How does the HRC’s version of the residential college model align with Ryan’s description in the first chapter? How could the HRC be improved?

What is the most important aspect of the residential college model? What aspects of the model are emphasized at the HRC? Are these the same or different?

Ryan talks about community a lot, both in the first chapter and in the final assigned chapter. Do you think that community is an important part of the model? What does community mean to you? What is the difference between community and the sort of relationships the model espouses? What is the difference between community and friendship? Do such differences even exist?

At some universities, all students are placed into a residential college when they enroll as students. Would this system work better than VT’s current system? Should students be given the option to reside in a “normal dorm”? Are we really any different than a “normal dorm”? Are we perceived as being any different than a “normal dorm”?

What do you think about the educational models discussed in the second chapter? They seem very different than our own. Do you think that they are better or worse? Traditionally, there was a big difference between the words “college” and “university.” Do you think that there is still a difference? What distinction do you see between these words?

“…students educate each other fully as much as they are educated by the faculty….” (Ryan, p. 55). Do you think that this is true in general? At the HRC? In other communities at VT (Hypatia, Galileo, RLC, RC at WAJ)?¬† At Yale?

What is the community like on YOUR hall? Is your hall anything like the residential college model?

A major comment that I’ve heard regarding the Ryan reading is that it is elitist and that it encourages us to be something that we are not and never will be. What do you think about that idea? Do you think that it is productive to compare Yale’s residential college model to ours? Did you like the reading?

Do you think that the Heinrichs reading ties into the Ryan reading at all? Can you relate any ideas from the Heinrichs reading to the model? To things we have done in FHRCS? To your relations with others?

Why do you think the Heinrichs book was assigned for this class? What about Ryan’s work?

If you still need inspiration: https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/hrc is full of blogs by upperclassmen about the Ryan reading.

4.5 (or, am I the oldest person in the world?)

Here I am, blogging without rules again. Am I the only person left?

I am leading FHRCS this semester and we FHRCS STAs alone among HRCuleans do not have assignments for our blogs. Of course, we must do the reading in order to discuss it with our FHRCSs, but we don’t have any assignments, truly, as far as I can tell. We have simply been told to “set a good example” for our FHRCSs. What better example to set than autonomy?

If my FHRCS students finish FHRCS with the feeling that they can do nearly whatever they want, if they do it well and carefully, I will be happy. The world is not about doing what you are told. Neither should education be, really, but in the end it is, which produces robots instead of active learners.

But enough of my ridiculously high educational ideals.

My FHRCS is really cool this year. All of my FHRCSs have been cool, but I am especially excited about this one, for several reasons.

1. This is my very last semester at Virginia Tech and my third time teaching FHRCS and I am not afraid anymore. I am not afraid of people disliking me and I am trying to impress no one. I am just me, doing my best, and that feels much nicer.

2. My FHRCulty, Tomalei Vess, is totally awesome and is a good match (as far as I can tell) for my style and for my group of freshmen.

3. Finally (after two years) I really feel like I know what I’m doing, teaching FHRCS. I feel like I have it down, like I know what is the right thing to do, like I can actually do this.

4. Freshmen are really great, in general. They are teetering on the near edge of their college educations, about to leap in. (Some, the bold ones, have already leapt.) They have so much wonderful college ahead of them. I really like to think of myself finishing college–what a long, weird journey it has been–and these kids just starting their own long, weird journeys. I want to help them get started.

I am becoming terribly nostalgic, in my old age, and one of the things I am most nostalgic about is community (Ross should be proud of me). One of my chief goals in teaching FHRCS (aside from encouraging autonomy) is to get my students to think about community in an interesting and constructive way. I want them to think about how they fit into this community, how this community fits them, why they want to create community around themselves during college.

I am going to graduate from college in three months with Honors degrees in Biology and Animal Science. However, more important to me is that I am graduating from college with some of the best friends I have ever had. I kept the people I loved best from high school and I found more people I love, here. People who helped me figure out who I really am, who caught me when I fell, who know everything about me and love me anyway. Isn’t that what life is really about?

College is weird, man. Looking back upon my college experience, I am grateful for three things:

1. I retained my sense of self and my desire to be an autodidact, despite the education system telling me to color only inside the lines.

2. I found community and, once I found it, I hung on to it like all hell.

3. I took advantage of (some of) the thousands of resources available to me as a college student. Never again will I have this many interesting, well-educated people at my fingertips, wanting to teach me, and I (at least sort of) took advantage of that. You should too.

Everything else, really, is secondary.


PS. In answer to the question in my title: No, Ken is. I am the second-oldest.

Conflicts that I don’t have to worry about yet

I went to a workshop, recently, about preparing graduate fellowship applications. It was a great workshop. One of the panelists at the workshop said that she was a mom and a VT professor and would be willing to talk about how she survived that, if anyone was interested.

I was interested. Man, was I interested. I want to get a PhD and I want to have babies.

However, I wasn’t brave enough to raise my hand and ask her about her experiences. I was afraid that people would think less of me for having goals other than my career goals (having a family is as important to me as having a career). I was worried that the faculty at the workshop would think I was unmotivated or unfocused, that the graduate students would think that I was not in their league.

WHY? Why ON EARTH would I feel that way?

What kind of world do we live in?

How have I been socialized to believe that people will think less of me for wanting to be a parent?

I was raised by a stay-at-home mom (and a very involved, but working dad). I am incredibly grateful that I was. Nearly all of my childhood friends were also raised by highly invested, stay-at-home parents (mostly moms). I wasn’t part of the career-woman culture. Somehow, though, it has sucked me in. You can’t want two things, it says. You will never succeed in your career if you want to be a momma. Do not even consider anything besides your career.

I try. I try so hard to think about both, to imagine my children making trouble in my lab (drinking hot cocoa made on a bunsen burner, perhaps, as Margaret does in A Wrinkle in Time…), to imagine doing literature reviews from home, to think about how, of course, I’ll have a partner and we will raise children together.

But I still don’t want to talk about being a mother in the context of my career. Why not? Social stigma, I think. We women got our freedom from lives as housewives in the 1960s, only to become trapped by careers and prestige. We aren’t supposed to break free of our new chains to return to our old ones.

Can we do both? Are we allowed to? Can we want to?

On being taken seriously. (If you act like a grown-up, you deserve to be treated like a grown-up)

When I was a child, if I was serious, I was always taken seriously.

Not until I got to college was I told: no, you aren’t old enough to understand this. No, you aren’t educated enough to be involved with this. No, your opinions are not worthwhile. You are an undergraduate. We are so much wiser than you are, than you’ll ever be. Go finish a couple of degrees, then you can be taken seriously.

It was an odd, backwards sort of progression, because once upon a time, my opinions were respected as legitimate opinions, as worthwhile as anybody else’s, and then, when they got older and more well informed, they became worthless.

However, this sense I had that I am a worthwhile person who deserves to be taken seriously has persisted and has served me well. When people don’t take me seriously, when they don’t treat me like I know what I’m doing, when they believe that I am irresponsible I just think, “I have to do my best, so they change their opinion. They need to realize that they are wrong.”

I’m not saying that people need to think I’m awesome, I’m just saying that everybody deserves to be taken seriously, or have an explanation provided if they aren’t taken seriously.

And I guess that I’m glad I was taken seriously as a child so I know that it is a thing to strive for, a thing that is possible.

But, man, sometimes it is really frustrating. I just want to be listened to. That is all.

I miss being a homeschooler

Yesterday evening, my mom used the word autodidact. I’m not going to define it, because few good pieces of writing ever define words and because if you don’t know how to look up words you don’t even deserve to be here.

I miss the word autodidact. It’s a great word. I love the way it sounds and I love the meaning it has in my life.

I have always tried to be an autodidact.

Well, actually, that is completely untrue. I didn’t used to have to try.

I think  that everyone is an autodidact when left to their own devices. The world is full of cool stuff to learn and it is honestly not that hard to learn it. Why, then, are we loaded into into classrooms? Why are we delivered small pieces of knowledge, packaged neatly, tied up with string?

Do we simply believe that we cannot be autodidacts?

I taught myself to read and write and spell*. I taught myself math through pre-calculus and biology and history. I read physiology text books and adult non-fiction when I was 13. I loved to learn and learning was never work. I never did homework and I never took exams and I spent hours reading novels, sitting in trees. My childhood was idyllic.

Was it really? Shouldn’t every childhood be filled with self-directed learning, rather than school work that feels like drudgery? Shouldn’t all children spend hours in trees?

I cannot speak for anyone else, because I have not had the experiences that they have had. I don’t know what public school is like and I do not know if I would have excelled if I had attended it (my obstinate independence would perhaps have prevented my success, but my sense of order would have encouraged it).

The title of this blog post is actually a misnomer, because once you are a homeschooler you are always a homeschooler. You can never leave it behind. It’s like being an American or a Hokie or a daughter. You don’t just shake it off.

What I miss is homeschooling. I miss a world in which I got to learn abut whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted. A world with no borders between times I learn and times I don’t learn.

What I have left from my days of homeschooling is this sense that learning goes on forever, that the world stretches out in front of me with nothing but new and exciting information.

And what I really want is to provide my own kids (whenever and however they come along) with that sense, whether or not they go to public school.



*OK, the spelling may be a bit iffy. But who needs to know how to spell, in this day and age of Microsoft word spell check?

A wayward homeschooler rambles about the concept of merit

The first time I ever got a grade was when I was 15. It was in the middle of September 2006. The grade was on a chemistry exam which I took home and worked on my kitchen table and then turned in. I think that the grade was an A-, but I remember looking at the written comments on the exam much more than I looked at the letter. The letter meant nothing, then.

It still means nothing now, doesn’t it?

I was raised without any concept of grades, of competition, of a meritocracy. I believed, until I started college, that academic success had only to do with doing my own best.

This trap of the meritocracy is so easy to fall into, particularly for those with high levels of merit. What I mean is that if I were getting Cs in most of my classes, it would be easier to say that those grades don’t matter. I get mostly As, and saying that my As don’t matter is somehow feels like demeaning my accomplishment.

It isn’t, though. The real accomplishment lies in the learning. It lies in attempting something really difficult.

And it’s so hard, SO HARD to remember that you still have merit, no matter what grades you get, that if you are happy and you love your life and you are working hard and doing your best, it doesn’t matter what others are doing. It only matters what you are doing yourself.

And it doesn’t matter how others evaluate you, it matters only how you evaluate yourself. There is no magic achievement line you are trying to reach, no minimum goal you must obtain.

You just go and do your thing.


(edit: I wrote this before I found out that there will be no candlelight vigil this year. I stand by what I wrote here, but I want it to be known that I think not holding a vigil is a terrible idea. Some people need to be given time in the day to be sad and to remember those who are gone. Some people need to be quiet and thoughtful in their sadness. That is why we had a vigil and why I intend to go to the drillfield and watch a candle burn by myself on the evening of April 16 this year.)



I don’t get remembrance.

I get grief. Nobody can say I don’t get grief. I get sadness and I get remembering those who have died. I get Never Forget and neVer forgeT and even those weird black ribbons.

Remembrance is supposed to be the act of remembering something or someone, particularly after death.

I do not get the Run for Remembrance or the Drill Field Picnic for Remembrance. How is running a 5K or eating food a way to remember people who lost their lives? It’s like Memorial day, which is supposed to be about remembering dead soldiers but is actually about wearing white shoes or something.

Not that that is bad, necessarily. In fact, I think that it is probably good. My experience of the April 16 tragedy was very, very different than many people’s. Many current Hokies probably find runs and picnics to be very valuable ways to connect with their community and maybe even to connect with a tragedy that they didn’t experience, but still feel acutely.

Maybe we (in general, as a society) don’t actually want to remember deaths or think about deaths. Maybe most people don’t get loss. Maybe loving our communities is the best way we can remember.

I feel so sad and I feel so alone when I feel sad and I feel so completely unjustified in my sadness because I didn’t actually lose anyone. I do not deserve this sadness. This is somebody else’s sadness.

And yet, it is still my sadness, in a way.

It is my sadness because I felt it. I felt it in all of the places I love best. I still feel it, when I walk between Patton and Norris. When I wonder where in West AJ that girl died, whether I have been there, on that hall. I feel it in places and at times that I can’t put into words because it would hurt too much. Because sometimes saying something makes it too true.

Remember, Hokies.
Love everyone more.
That is all that you can do.