Program Spotlight: The Red House Dinner Series
The following post is one of a regular series of spotlights on Red House programs. Established in 2014, the Red House is a research & design unit dedicated to educational innovation, equity, and affordability in higher education. The number one rule governing programs coming out of the space: they must break at least one rule of traditional higher education. In this post, we profile the Red House Dinner Series and its connections to our work at the Red House.
At the end of the night, professors at the Red House Dinner Series have often barely touched their plates. They are busy storytelling, answering questions from students earnestly interested in their life stories, perspectives on the state of their fields and outlooks on the world at large. The conversation around the table is not exclusively academic, but is rooted in both the professor’s intellectual background and students’ intellectual interests, occupying a space somewhere between a lecture in class, a query in office hours, a discussion in a seminar, and a conversation in a living room.
The Red House Dinner Series takes advantage of this grey area, bringing together students and faculty for informal, monthly dinners in the eclectic living room of the Red House. Over dinner, students and faculty can talk about faculty members’ subject expertise, ask questions of each other, and speak candidly to one another about their experiences at Georgetown and in higher education more broadly. Thus, the more immediate aim of the Dinner Series– to cultivate an inclusive, reciprocal conversation among dinner guests– serves its larger goals of fostering interdisciplinarity within the university and breaking down perceived barriers between students and professors, allowing each to get to know the other outside their academic identity or core discipline.
In order to accomplish these goals, the Red House Dinner Series disrupts several “rules” of traditional educational structures: that professor-student interactions are reserved for class time and office hours, that the transfer of knowledge is a unidirectional process and that academic disciplines operate in isolation from each other.
Within the traditional university environment, there is little opportunity for students and professors to interact in a more informal setting outside curricular and co-curricular settings. The Dinner Series attempts to shift this norm. It differs from the prominent engagement spaces of class time and office hours in that, for one, conversation is not expected to be a continuation of course material.
In truth, while students typically ask questions geared towards the professor’s area of expertise, most topics are open for conversation. Professors have imparted advice about working in labs and writing children’s books, detailed their own meandering post-grad paths, and recounted their experiences wrestling with some of life’s most enduring questions about purpose, faith, hope, and uncertainty. “We could really connect with [the professors] and have a deeper understanding of their life story and how they got to where they were,” one student Dinner Series guest commented. “In a formal, professional setting, you can’t really ask those hard questions.”
At the same time, the Red House Dinner Series challenges the norm of professor-student relationships as a unidirectional transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. As one student guest shared, “I like the structure of the Dinner Series– how we had 10-15 minutes to talk with the students and connect on a personal level, which made the question flow and interactions a lot easier.” Gathered around a plate of some of D.C.’s favorite fare at the Red House, students and professors meet each other on more equal footing. A successful Dinner Series involves back-and-forth conversation between not only professor and students, but also students and their peers. Convening around food does more than get students through the door– it also facilitates the feeling of community from which deep and engaging conversations so often flow.
Finally, the importance of these dinners goes beyond facilitating connections within the immediate context of a shared meal. Attending a Red House Dinner Series event gives guests the opportunity to connect with individuals they would otherwise rarely cross paths with in their academic lives. Furthermore, Dinner Series events routinely draw students from all four class years, undergraduate schools, and a diversity of disciplines. The Dinner Series provides a gathering space and an initial point of contact: it provides a subtle avenue for building interdisciplinary, intergenerational relationships at Georgetown.
The Dinner Series disrupts the traditional norms of how, why, and when students, professors and disciplines interact with each other. As a result, the program helps break down barriers and creates a more personal and interdisciplinary environment within the space of the university. While the Red House Dinner Series deals with complex structures within higher education, at its core the program’s success as an innovative practice is rooted in something very simple and human: a shared meal and a story.
Students can join the Red House Student Network listserv here to be the first to receive information about signups and stay up to date about all upcoming Red House events. You can also visit our Facebook page for event updates from the Red House.
If you are a faculty member who would like to share your work or join our conversations around contemporary issues in higher education, please email the Red House at firstname.lastname@example.org.