Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
Flirting with democracyPolis House educates students on democratic living
photos by Beth Hiner, ’01
I stepped through the propped-open door and onto the bright turquoise-green carpet. Sunlight streamed into the freshly painted room through large glass windows.
Furniture, unscathed and untouched, lay scattered about the room as if someone had haphazardly dropped it off.
A mound of plastic packaging covers and cardboard shipping boxes filled the center of the room, and an antiseptic odor lingered in the air. I was home. I was in the Polis House.
Named after the Greek word polis, which means city-state, the Polis House (formerly the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house) was Wittenberg’s revolutionary experiment for the 1998-99 academic year.
The experiment did not test the effects of sulfuric acid on limestone bedrock or what happens to growing plants subjected to rock music. Instead, it tested democracy.
As I look back at my time there, I find it hard to describe the evolution of this experimental program.
As a student who heard last year’s rumors that the incoming class was going to be a large one, I assumed that this experiment was simply an attempt by the university to provide more housing space. I was wrong.
Debbie Heida, dean of students and vice president for student development, said that Wittenberg had discussed this type of living environment long before the rumor started.
“Two and a half years ago, we discussed starting a pilot project in Ferncliff Hall for this type of residential living,” Heida said.
“We wanted to enhance our notion of progressive responsibility by providing a housing environment where students learn from the beginning about community and responsibility.”
Although Wittenberg students showed little initial interest in having this kind of housing back in 1996, later focus groups indicated that interest had grown.
So when the ATO house became available in 1994, Heida said the university then had the means to conduct this democratic living/learning experiment.
Shortly after I arrived at the end of August 1998, I realized how privileged I was to be a part of such an experiment.
Associate Dean of Students Dawn Henseler said that the Polis House would create an opportunity for students to take a more active role in defining and maintaining their community.
“The balance of authority, personal freedom and individual responsibility shifts will allow residents to gain first-hand experience in living within and contributing to a positive, supportive community,” she said.
“The Polis House in an exciting experiment, perhaps first of many.”
DEALING WITH DOUBT
When the year officially began, I remember being hounded with questions from faculty, staff and students after they realized that I was one of “them” (those who lived in the Polis House).
Are you worried about the program? Are there any conflicts? Do you have any rules at all? Is it chaos? These were just a few of the questions. Looking back, though, I must admit that I, too, had my doubts.
It seemed as if everyone I knew expected or anticipated this experiment to blow up in the university’s face.
I also worried that the transformation of the 69-year-old dilapidated ATO house into a suitable living environment would not be finished before the semester began.
I wondered if my experience in this democratic-living situation would prove too stressful. I was afraid that Wittenberg’s experiment might end-up being labeled: “Polis House: the experiment that failed.”
What I was most afraid of, however, was that my thoughts and views might not be represented in this democratic community. What if my needs and wishes were overruled?
No answers existed to my questions or concerns; this was truly an experiment in nature.
Fortunately, Heida said Wittenberg believed that this experiment would provide “a good experience for the students living in the Polis House this year.”
The Polis House would also serve as a model for making all of the residence halls more focused on developing a community setting and on determining the role that all residents play in that community setting.
In addition, Polis House, according to Heida, would encourage students to become leaders in their respective residential communities. That was the hypothesis anyway.
ADJUSTING TO THE NEW ENVIRONMENT
I was one of eight males, 20 females and one community adviser. We 29 residents — or lab rats — provided the main materials for the Polis House experiment.
For the first few weeks, we lived without telephone service, and closets doors were not installed until mid-October. Getting shower hooks and curtains took some time, too.
It also took time to create the “laws” that would govern us. I remember sitting through meeting after meeting, deliberating and debating all the possible rules.
What was most frustrating to me was that most of us did not know each other well. Contrary to popular belief on campus, the university did not personally select the residents for Polis House.
Henseler said that the Polis House residents went through the residential housing lottery like everyone else.
Unfortunately, the fact that we didn’t know one another prevented some people from talking about important issues during our first meeting.
From the beginning, it also became apparent that certain residents had strong opinions, which tended to clash with other residents’ opinions. Despite the initial problems, we did finally manage to establish a set of rules.
Basically, we were to “respect others in the community.” I thought this was the best rule because living in the Polis House meant working and respecting each other constantly.
I didn’t know that this rule would later become more difficult to follow.
LEARNING ABOUT EACH OTHER
During one fall evening in the Polis House, I remember walking down my fluorescent-lighted hallway toward the living area when the sound of loud voices caught my attention.
I turned the corner slowly and found residents in coats, residents in pajamas and residents in robes all crowding near the staircase. Their eyes seemed intently focused on the three people arguing.
Soon everyone seemed to have an opinion — even those who had never spoken at a meeting before — and a battle ensued. To me this was democracy in action.
Residents were just confronting each other with their problems. All of the residents’ built-up tension, insecurity and frustration boiled over that evening.
It came as no surprise to me that the “problematic residents” caught in the middle of the battle were among some of the more vocal members I recalled from our first community meeting.
“The few problematic residents and their situations interrupted the progress for the house in general,” said Brittnee Finnearty, ’99, community adviser.
Yet, while they disrupted the house, I think they also improved it to some degree. The battle made us stronger as a community because it forced us to work through our problems.
We learned to deal with our problems in a community setting, and I’ve learned more about myself and about others in the process. I have learned that these problems sometimes stem from personality conflicts.
For example, some residents living here felt the need to make their various personal problems public problems.
For instance, roommates who didn’t get along brought their personal problems into the house when they didn’t put their dishes back in their room. Instead, they placed them in the bathroom.
Other Polis House residents agreed with me. Junior Mary Bogue witnessed her share of personality conflicts, which she has learned, “are normal in such living quarters.”Other problems also crept into our community.
Junior Jessie Barnes said that she noticed a “disregard of individual privacy” with some residents, and sophomore Carl Miller learned that “dissent will occur in the most minute of communities.”
It also surprised some residents that other residents still complained despite living in a beautiful house with only 29 people.
Heida said that indeed the “residents had reached the point where they had a few community conflicts to work through.” But such conflicts, I think, forced all of us to take responsibility and ask some tough questions.
Is my problem a community one or a personal one? Do I respect a friendship or do I respect the community? What is my responsibility in this situation? How can I make it better?
PASSING THE TEST
Looking back and seeing how things have evolved, I think that the Polis House was a successful experiment in democracy.
Some may think that it was a success because of all the community-oriented things we did: eating meals together, decorating for the holidays or just hanging out talking, playing a board game or watching television.
Others may conclude that it was a failure because of the problems we experienced. I believe that the Polis House succeeded on both accounts.
These pros and cons taught residents such as myself about living in a community, and they allowed us to grow as adults — the positives and negatives are part of real life.
Sophomore resident Erin Coy, for instance, learned that “it is better to confront someone directly if you have a problem than to talk to someone about it.”
Sophomore Marianna Bracht also said she “learned to enforce the golden rule.” Yet, these answers were still simply opinions.
I thought that as an experiment, we needed to test it. Did the students who lived in the Polis House have a good experience? I surveyed all residents, myself included, and all said they enjoyed living in the Polis House.
Does the university have a good model for beginning to make all our residence halls more clearly focused on developing community? Heida thinks so.
“It’s a strong statement to students about the importance of their participation in setting community standards and in holding each other accountable to those standards.”
Finally, has this model encouraged students to take on more leadership in their residential communities?
Randomly selected students living in other residence halls on campus (as well as residents from other schools such as Kenyon College, Miami University and Otterbein College) said that they wished they had an opportunity for a democratic-living learning environment.
A few of those residents also asked: “So after these learning and living experiences, what does the Polis House look like now?”
I look down at the turquoise-green carpet. Sunlight beaming through the windows hits several residents playing cards. People fill the furniture. Some read books, and others work on art projects.
A mound of trash sits next to the door waiting to be taken out. The smell of microwave-heated pizza- flavored Hot Pockets lingers in the air. I am in the Polis House. I am home.
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112