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Currents: at home in page

Faculty-in-Residence Rebekah Tolley Looks Back on a Year in Page Hall

by Amber Cronin '11

Rebekah Tolley, director of the Marian Graves Mugar Art Gallery and assistant professor of Fine and Performing Arts, just completed her third year teaching at Colby-Sawyer – in a first-floor apartment in Page Hall. She is originally from Montreal, Canada and holds an M.F.A. from Temple University. Previously, she was a visiting lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What led you to live on campus in Page Hall this year?

Over the past couple years, in becoming accustomed to my job here and working in the gallery late at night, I pretty much lived here anyway. My apartment down the street was very small and my office here at school was a larger work space, plus I have more people and students to interact with here at school. It's not like I have family nearby to go home to, so for me being a resident faculty made a lot of sense. You can't beat the commute, and it's been a very enriching experience overall. I'm so glad I've had the opportunity. I've learned much more about myself and the students, and I've been able to achieve a healthier balance between my lifestyle and work, which might be the opposite of what one would expect. Before, I just wouldn't go home because I would hate to forget to do something I needed to do - you really have to keep on top of the gallery, you can't just adjust the syllabus if you forget something. Living on campus, I swim at Hogan, attend more events and have a richer lifestyle.

It really promotes the ideal of Colby-Sawyer's motto learning among friends.” Having a faculty member share the student experience by living in residence brings faculty closer to the level of the student. It is reassuring to have this faculty presence, one that is not necessarily by nature authoritative but more one of living alongside one another.

How has living on campus affected your work here?

One of the greatest advantages to living on campus is how it has enabled better management of the gallery. I work with up to 20 work-study students and every aspect of gallery work is run by students, from the hanging to the catering of the receptions. I have likened it to having a classroom of students that is always changing, and that show up as they are available at scattered times. This is the first time that I have been able to involve a significant number of non-art students in the gallery, some of whom have become primary members of the team.

The biggest development has been to allow the gallery to be more “student-run.” Instead of being in the gallery over-seeing every aspect, I have developed a “task board” and am able to leave the area to eat and then come back and find work completed properly. In the past I would be around as each student dropped in to work and came to check in with me to ask what needed to be done. This would not allow me to leave the area. Now if I am not around, students can simply call me in Page with questions and I can be over there in less than a minute, if necessary. This new way of working allows the students to take more ownership in the gallery instead of relying on me, which is something I have always aimed to achieve. Needless to say, I am much better rested during the demanding hanging schedule than I have been in the past years. And when I do stay up all hours to complete work, it is a great relief not to have very far to walk to reach my bed!

How has living with students changed your perspective on students? Has living with them given you any more insight when teaching or otherwise interacting with students?

Definitely! I thought I was a young, cool teacher who about students' lives but it didn't take me long to realize how out of touch I was. Sometimes I hear and see more than I want to know! But living here has definitely given me a greater understanding of what the students' lives are like, and that helps me connect with them better as a teacher.

What has been the reaction to you living in the residence hall?

At first I was concerned that I was invading their space, but what I didn't realize was that I was also opening mine to them. There is a mutual respect that comes with sharing one's living space; I felt welcomed and even appreciated. I think students appreciate that a faculty member is willing to live in the same environment as them.

At the end of the year you hosted a Tea &Dumpling party - did you plan many events like that?

That was great fun, especially because it gave me an opportunity to converse with students I didn't know very well , and I was able to share a little about my experiences in China through pictures, music and, of course, food. I learned my first semester that if you plan an event and want people to attend, it must involve food! Any opportunity for non-cafeteria food is fun for students.

I was supposed to plan one event per semester in the residence hall that incorporated some aspect of residential education in my field. Last semester I planned an Art 21 screening, but I had difficulty with it and most of the students attending were my own that I had required to attend. It was fun, though, to work with them outside the classroom. I was amazed at how much more willing they are to share and be themselves on their own turf.

I learned that it's difficult to plan and host an event by yourself, so this semester I recruited some student and faculty help for my dumpling party and it was a lot of fun. I think it was a great success! I also took a group of students to an opening and we went out for Indian afterwards, which was a first for some of them, it was a lot of fun.

In addition to the events I planned I was an orientation leader for the first time this year, which helped me to meet some freshmen - and promote my printmaking class! I also became involved with community council, which I plan to continue in the future. I definitely became more interested in student life on campus from living here.

How involved were you with the students in the dorm?

I think it's the little things, like seeing them all gathered out front to watch the lunar eclipse and being invited to join them, or being invited to see their rooms or having them come meet my giant cat, Pichu. I particularly like living in Page Hall, there is a pretty nice energy here. The place just emanates fun when they blast music out the windows. How could such a fun energy not make you happy to live there? I do not serve in an authoritative role in the hall, but I am here if students need me. I think it's very nice that I am just here, living alongside them.

In general, what was it like living in a dorm again like?

For me it was the first time! I never had the opportunity to live in a dorm before so it's pretty neat to have the residential campus life experience now! My friends and I joke about it. I find it's like living in a big family house where you hear all the creaking of the floors around you and lots of activity at all hours. I grew up in a large house so I find that atmosphere comforting. The noise doesn't bother me very much. And, I value and appreciate the “family camaraderie” aspect that comes with sharing one's living space. When my cat escaped while I was out for a bike ride, my hall-mates managed to catch him and put him back in my room, so I was very grateful!

Would you consider doing it again?

People have asked why I don't plan to stay longer, but this really is intended as a one-year program to give different people the opportunity. In some ways I feel like I'm only just getting to know people now, at the end of the year, and that I'd be better at it the next time around, but on the other hand I'm not sure how long someone wants to live in a dorm! It does get a little noisy, and you do lose your privacy.