Georgiann Davis

Animal House

UNLV program that embeds a professor in the residence halls aims at boosting student engagement.

One minute, Georgiann Davis, a sociologist who pens scholarly materials about issues of intersex traits and medical diagnoses, appears on Dr. Phil, with a TV viewership in the millions. The next minute, Davis launders her jeans, scooping Tide powder into a washing machine, alongside undergraduates in the residence halls. The reason for this is innovative and enlightening: She lives in the Tonopah Complex.

In the fall, UNLV launched its first professor-in-residence program, making Davis housing and residential life’s inaugural embedded professor. It’s a role she takes seriously, and in some ways she’s replicating a bond she once shared with her own teachers when she attended college in Chicago.

“Some of my best experiences at college involved getting to know my professors on a human level,” Davis said. “That’s what this program affords students here at UNLV.”

Davis missed out on the campus-residence experience during her own undergraduate career. However, her current appointment allows her to make up for lost time — and to learn all of what UNLV offers students and faculty.

“It’s beginning to feel like a much smaller campus to me,” she says. “I don’t know what a small private liberal arts college feels like, but I suspect this comes very close.”

‘A Real Person’

In 2014, Davis, then a newly hired sociology professor, saw a campus notice seeking applicants for the new program. Her first question: “Can I bring my pets?” The application required a personal statement, resume, and a letter from her department chair. She attached a photo of her French bulldog, Penny, cutely attired in a UNLV shirt. On July 1, 2015, Davis moved in along with Penny, cats Yoda and Junie, and a half-dozen chirping society finches. The animals have been a real hit in Tonopah Hall. Students often knock on Davis’ door to ask if they can walk Penny.

Nutrition science major Anna Gingrich is a Tonopah resident as well as a student in Davis’ Sociology of the Body class. She appreciates having one of her professors living in the same complex.

“It's easier for me to see her as a real person instead of this entity that is far above and out of reach,” Gingrich said. “She is incredibly accessible and a fun person to be around. Not to mention her pets are so adorable.”

But Davis isn’t just dwelling in Tonopah to make herself and her animal companions more approachable to students. Equipped with a small budget, she’s responsible for programming a series of residence hall get-togethers designed to be social, thoughtful and, well, nourishing. (“Food helps to bring out the undergrads,” Davis quips. “I know that now.”) These conference room meet-ups range from trivia night over pastries and cups of hot chocolate to the screening of documentaries like the PBS special The House We Live In, the final episode in a series about race. She sometimes enlists other faculty to add their expertise to the conversations. Indeed, encouraging students to think critically is yet another aspect of Davis’ responsibility as a professor-in-residence.Davis holds a conference room meet-up well supplied with food.

“I also visit with residential life coordinators during their staff training days to talk about different ways of addressing the needs of our diverse student population,” Davis said. “I bring my own experience and perspective to the table and give suggestions.”

As at many university campuses, residential life coordinators at UNLV live in apartments within the buildings they supervise. With one apartment in Tonopah North sitting vacant, Orlando White, UNLV’s assistant director of residential education, saw an opportunity to build on programs that bring academics into campus living through the professor-in-residence program. Academic coaching and supplemental instruction programs were already operating in the residence halls.

“I think it’s great for them to see someone — a noted scholar who started in community college and went on to finish her Ph.D. and conduct ground-breaking research in her field — eating chicken tenders at the Dining Commons at 9:30 at night," White said. "When students see Dr. Davis outside of her classroom or her office, it humanizes her and reinforces for them how faculty on our campus are people too, and can serve as allies and resources.”

A Strategy for Top Tier Success

The program is about more than the humanizing power of chicken tenders. After all, national data shows that students who live on campus tend to do better in their classes, a fact not lost on many students. On average, 35 percent of current UNLV residents re-contract to live on campus after fulfilling the first-year live-on-campus requirement for students from outside Clark County. [Tidbit: This is the third straight year that housing and residential life at UNLV has enjoyed maximum occupancy.]

Perhaps more importantly, the program lends itself to UNLV’s Top Tier initiative, which seeks to realize the university’s strategic objective of entering the top 100 American research universities while boosting student success measures, such as graduation rates.

“Many Top Tier universities are more residential rather than commuter,” White noted, “with the upper administration of these institutions supporting residential-education initiatives on campus.”

Students who have informal interactions with faculty outside of class do better in school while persisting toward graduation, according to national research. It’s a concept that’s taught to housing & residential life staff during their training. On campuses that have a significant amount of faculty and staff living on campus — such as Boston College and the University of Houston — these informal interactions between faculty and students happen more frequently, more organically.

“We’re working to instill that environment at UNLV,” says White. “As we cultivate more awareness about all of our academic initiatives (in the residence halls), we’re confident our professor-in-residence program, and our new and upcoming faculty fellow program, will grow, too.”

Davis will lead the faculty fellow program beginning this fall. Students who live on campus nominate a faculty member who has made a positive impact in their lives. Then the faculty member receives an invite to be a faculty fellow for one of the complexes. Faculty fellows will periodically attend staff meetings, floor meetings with residents, and activities hosted by the Residence Hall Association.

The Odd Moments

It’s a great deal for Davis who, like many young faculty members, has student loans to pay off. She receives free rent and Internet, plus a laundry allowance, $300 dining, and 250 meal-swipes in the Commons. (“There’s nothing in my fridge except bottled water,” she confessed.)

There are some odd moments, sure. As someone who writes articles for outlets like Ms. magazine and books such as Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (2015, NYU Press) into the early morning hours, Davis sometimes pads from her apartment at noon with her first cup of coffee of the day.

“I’m not a morning person,” she says, “so it can feel a little weird walking by the staff offices, knowing they’ve been at work for five hours as I get ready to teach my classes.”

With her king-size bed, tidy kitchenette, and Pier 1 paintings on the walls, she has made her apartment comfy and cozy. She does feel a bit torn, though, about having to re-apply for the program this spring, but she’s happy to see the program evolve.

“This is my home,” says Davis. “It’s all I have at the moment. Still, I hope this program is around for a long time, whoever is in residence. It’s a great experience for everyone involved — students and faculty alike.”

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