Head of the House
Tony Brown thrives on research, teaching, service, learning … oh, and mentoring 290 first-year students.
Tony N. Brown’s office is in Garland Hall, exactly where one might expect to find a scholar in the College of Arts and Science. But the associate professor of sociology might not be in, as his teaching, research projects and secondary appointments take him all over campus.
It’s a good thing he has no real commute. All of campus is accessible by foot or bike from his apartment on the second floor of a first-year residence hall.
In fall 2008, Brown and his partner, Chase Lesane-Brown, research assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development, moved into Hank Ingram House with 290 Vanderbilt first-year students and 10 resident advisers. “Hank’s House,” as it is known, is one of 10 residences on The Commons, Vanderbilt’s first-year student living-learning community.
In addition to residential amenities, students experience unique programs designed by their faculty head of house in collaboration with resident advisers. During the 2009-2010 year, Hank’s House hosted more than 40 such programs, some academic, some social, but most a blend of the two. That’s in addition to the Browns’ apartment hours (known as First Fridays), when their apartment door opens to residents seeking a home-cooked meal or impromptu conversations about politics, sports, career paths or whatever.
“When I leave Garland Hall, I often tell people ‘Now I’ve got to go to work,’ ” Brown says. He likens the house programs to a smorgasbord for residents. “The faculty heads have provided this educational and social buffet and you can eat as much as you want, or as little as you want.”
Brown realizes that not all residents will pick up a plate at that buffet. He believes only a third will take advantage of “having a faculty member who lives in the building and has vast knowledge about university life, faculty life, and how to find a path in life.”
The rest are focused on studying or partying. “But I realize that we’ve been spectacularly successful (in integrating with students on The Commons),” he says. “Getting one-third to embrace the life of the mind is amazing.”
Frequent Knocks on the Door
The faculty head of Hank’s House has developed a greater appreciation of students and their life stories, even if it takes a vast amount of commitment. In addition to interacting through programs and dinner in the communal dining room, there are frequent knocks on the apartment door. The Browns live in a spacious apartment with a large TV that often becomes the spot for watching sporting events. The couple’s two pet bunnies—Memphis and Sakkara—are also popular draws. “Having the bunnies is a really good way to get some of the students to come over to the apartment,” Lesane-Brown says. “They’ll come and say, ‘I just want to hang out with the bunnies.’ Sometimes it’s an excuse for them to come over and talk about a real issue.”
Having the Browns at hand eased the transition to university life, says Lauren Koenig, a member of the Class of ’12, which was the first to experience The Commons. “Whenever I stop by, they always want to know what’s going on both inside and outside of my classes,” the junior says. “They’ve also provided some really helpful advice that I’ve taken to heart over the past two years.”
Katharine Donato, chair of the Department of Sociology, believes that The Commons is a powerful classroom. “Tony has an opportunity to have an informal classroom setting, one on one, five on one, at all times of the day and night. It’s enormously helpful to him as a scholar and a teacher and a person,” she says. “There’s only so much learning that happens in the classroom. Outside of the classroom is where Tony and Chase have been able to insert themselves in important ways.”
Their open door also has demystified professors, says Mengting Ren, also a member of the inaugural Commons Class of ’12. “My friends and I were hesitant to go in at first, scared that there would be nothing to talk about in a professor’s apartment. Instead we found ourselves rocking out to Rock Band or Guitar Hero, and staying up until 2 a.m. watching Blu-ray movies back to back,” Ren says.
Balancing the Workload
Brown and Lesane-Brown, who officially became associate faculty head of house in the second year of their Commons immersion, balance the workload by splitting tasks and delegation. There must still be time for research and teaching. Brown conducts research into mental health and racial and ethnic relations, and he is known for excelling with quantitative methods and survey design. His expertise has made him a popular collaborator for any number of research projects, including a major survey study of black-white health disparities in Nashville.
“When I leave Garland Hall, I often tell people ‘Now I’ve got to go to work.’”
In addition, he’s one of four sociology professors who edit sociology’s most prestigious journal, the American Sociological Review, now located at Vanderbilt. That means reading hundreds of manuscripts and shepherding diverse research through the publication channel. Though it ranks as a third full-time job, it is an honor.
“I’m too young to be doing it,” says Brown, who came to Vanderbilt in 2001. “This is something that’s reserved for the big names and eminent scholars in the field. Yet I’m now in a position to observe the production of science from the inside. I’m reading about topics way outside my specialty area. It’s so rich, so exciting, so stimulating to see your discipline from this vantage point and it’s empowering to shape the future research agenda of sociology.”
The journal is yet another avenue in which Brown finds himself learning. “Constant learning: It’s like Popeye and spinach. The more I get, the more connected I feel, the more alive I feel,” he says.
photo credit: John Russell