Al Vos, Faculty Master
Al Vos, Associate Professor, Department of English, General Literature and Rhetoric
Education: PhD, English, University of Chicago, 1971
Areas of interest: Renaissance literature and culture, Shakespeare, student-centered pedagogies, learning communities
How long have you been at Binghamton?
I’ve been at Binghamton University since fall 1970. During that time I’ve held several key roles, including undergraduate director of the English Department; chair of the Binghamton University Faculty Senate; chair of the Faculty Senate’s Education Policy and Priorities Committee; Senator and member of the Executive Committee of the SUNY Faculty Senate; and campus scholarship coordinator.
When did you become a Faculty Master?
I became Faculty Master of Hinman College in fall 1998.
How do you describe the Faculty Master’s role?
I’m a bridge-builder: we Faculty Masters connect the lecture hall to the residence hall. I also call myself a talent scout, but my most provocative description of my role is that I’m a nurturer. I nurture students’ talents and abilities. In the fall I always teach new freshmen in Hinman, so I see them arrive green, uncertain and anxious, and help them develop into confident and active citizens of Hinman and the Binghamton community. I have worked with my department to make sure that every fall all my courses are just for new residents of Hinman. I’m lucky… most everyone takes Writing 111, so it works out.
Is your relationship with your students inside the classroom different from your relationship with them within Hinman?
I have a holistic way of thinking about my role at Binghamton; I’m always “Al” to students wherever I’m at. This does require judgment and balance on my part, because as their professor and their Faculty Master I have to be able to give them an accurate assessment of the quality of their work, but at the same time be nurturing and supportive to them as young people.
Has being a Faculty Master changed you?
I discovered a world that had been sort of closed to me. Obviously I had always known that students have lives outside the classroom, but what does that really mean? As Faculty Master I’m much closer to the answer than I was before. I eat with students in the dining hall, and I see them in all kinds of non-academic contexts…it has been a really enriching experience for me.
Do you think it changed you as a professor as well?
All along I’ve defined myself as a student-centered teacher, but being a Master has helped me redefine what it means to be student-centered. I’m much more aware now of the diverse and complex pressures on students’ lives. I’ve become more aware that interactions with students are complex and require sensitivity, judgment, and knowing students as individuals. I used to think that being a professor was all about how much you know and how you communicate that knowledge, but I’ve changed. I don’t teach only with my head, I teach with my heart.
There’s no job description for a Faculty Master, so when you came to this position more than 10 years ago, how did you go about defining the role?
You’re right, I wasn’t told “Do this, this, this, and this, and then you’re doing your job.” Being a Faculty Master is much less a job than it is a way of being. It’s about learning how to be a supportive presence, and I come to that pretty naturally. No one had to say to me, “You should be a supportive presence.” That’s who I am. That’s who I want to be.
Working with Residential Life for the past decade, have you learned anything that has surprised you?
From the faculty point of view, Res Life is a different world. Faculty are amazingly independent, self-directed, autonomous…but the world of Res Life is structured, hierarchical, rule-governed. So I definitely feel like I have lived in and understand two different cultures. We Faculty Masters straddle both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. And while the staff in Res Life get a glimpse of academic culture through us, unfortunately most of the faculty never get a glimpse of Res Life culture.
So what about the Faculty Master role do you think would surprise your faculty colleagues the most?
Of course, it’s the difference in the culture, but my colleagues would also have a hard time understanding why I don’t ever want to miss Hinman College Council Meetings even though they take place in a hall lounge on Tuesdays at 9:30 in the evening. And here’s a crazy tidbit that would surprise my colleagues: for our annual spring games, Hinman Hysteria, residents have to make a banner to go with that year’s theme. Every year, every banner, every Hysteria…there’s always some representation of me on all the banners!
Aside from starring on all these banners, has being a Faculty Master given you experiences you wouldn’t have had if you’d stayed solely in the classroom?
Absolutely! The great thing about being Master is that I can live in both worlds. Officially, Faculty Masters are half-time faculty members within our department and half-time Masters in our residential community. We really do remain active in both places. This afternoon, for example, I’m an examiner in a dissertation defense, but I’ve also got a meeting to discuss candidates to fill the Faculty Master position at Mountainview.
Speaking of the Faculty Master role, would you recommend being a Faculty Master to a colleague?
It’s the right job for some faculty and it’s not the right job for others. It’s a very special job and you need to think about if you’re right for this kind of work.
You’ve been a Faculty Master for 13 years, would you say there are long-term benefits to being a Master?
For me personally, it’s been an extremely enriching experience. In fact, when students aren’t here, I have an empty feeling. Something’s missing.
Do you have any future plans for Hinman you’re willing to share?
Hinman has always had an emphasis on leadership and community service, and I’ve worked on making that explicit and intentional. This fall (2011), we’re launching a new program called Hinman ALIVE. ALIVE stands for “Achieving Leadership In Volunteer Experiences.” It’s a living-learning program that weaves leadership and service into the Hinman experience through three components: academic courses with a community-service focus (I teach two of those courses), RA programs involving community service, and programs developed by the Hinman College Council’s Vice Presidents for Leadership and Service that stimulate volunteer activities on and off campus.
Do you have a favorite Hinman tradition?
I have three, but here I’ll just talk about the annual Student-Faculty Connect Dinner. Students host their professors and do all the cooking. The event has become huge! We started out in the Hinman Commons, but we outgrew that and now the only space big enough is the Hinman library. We fill it…we literally have a couple of hundred people having a potluck dinner together. And even though it’s students and faculty together, they’re not sitting there talking about Plato; they’re sharing at a very different level. The dinner brings students and faculty together, creating a relationship, building community.
You hear the word “community” a lot in conjunction with Hinman. Can you explain that?
Hinman has an amazing sense of community…it always has and still does. There’s the Hinman community, which I sometimes call the Hinman family. Secondly, there’s a Hinman spirit, and if you talk to students they will tell you it’s real. You can’t define it, but you can feel it. And thirdly, there’s Hinman pride, in the best sense of that word. As Faculty Master, my job is to help renew and perpetuate those three trademarks of the Hinman community.