By Adam Gerchick '13
You and a handful of your classmates are dining privately off campus with a distinguished Amherst professor. What do you discuss?
Finding your way around campus. “When I was first here, I would ask older faculty, ‘I’m going to this dorm; where is it?’” Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson tells her dining companions, commiserating with their occasional struggles to navigate campus. “They would say, ‘Oh, that’s the Sigma Chi house!’ or ‘the SAE house!’”—fraternity chapters that no longer existed.
“So not helpful,” she concludes.
With that, an hour and a half of freewheeling conversation begins in earnest.
Sanderson and four of her students are dining together at Amherst’s Fresh Side restaurant, a meal paid for by Amherst’s Take Your Professor Out (TYPO) program. Intended to strengthen academic relationships and facilitate open discussion between instructors and their students, TYPO funds groups of students who wish to host one of their professors for a modest meal off-campus. (The college has just announced a new, similar program, TYSO, that allows students to take out staff members.)
Founded in 2002, the program is one of Amherst’s most popular community-building efforts. For Sanderson and her student hosts, Class of 2014 members Lauren Belak, Allison Merz, Anna Pietrantonio and Keegan Watters, TYPO provides an opportunity to discuss classes, college news and personal interests at a restaurant on Oct. 15.
After ordering a dinner of tea rolls and Pad Thai, Sanderson and her students, who are all enrolled in her “Health Psychology” course, turn their conversation to the heavier topics within the class, including suicide. With advance notice and an opt-out policy, Sanderson has recently shown her students portions of a documentary that featured footage of a suicide attempt, as part of a broader discussion on injury and injury prevention.
Now she solicits advice from her dining companions on the wisdom of her decision. “Do you think there was worth in seeing that,” she asks, “or did the [emotional] costs outweigh the benefits?” The students offer their perspectives on the screening. Sanderson says she will consider each.
Though TYPO casts the instructor as the guest of honor, professors are often as inquiring of their hosts as those students are of them. Sanderson spends much of the evening probing her companions for their perspectives on, among other things, the college’s efforts to foster a community of sexual respect. “So you went?” Sanderson asks in reference to a recent campus forum. “How many people went? Were people [there] all of one view? Did people think differently?”
The variation between lighthearted and serious conversation is one of the hallmarks of TYPO, which encourages such open-ended discussion. The college does not ask participants to consider particular discussion topics or to report back on the event.
TYPO is administered by the offices of the Dean of New Students and the Dean of Students. Both offer funding to groups of three to seven students who are currently enrolled in a course with the professor they wish to invite. The offices pay up to $14, including tip, per diner, through charge orders that the students provide to their servers at the ends of their meals.
At Fresh Side, Sanderson asks her four companions what motivated them to choose Amherst. At least two had barely heard of the college when they started their searches. The students all say that they wanted a school that combined academic rigor with a respected athletic program—three of the four are on Amherst’s swim team—and a campus small enough to support a true academic community.
It may not be strictly academic, but dinners like this help Amherst to fulfill that vision.