Simmons Heads of House reflect on time ‘in the sponge’

Heads John and Ellen Essigmann, as well as Associate Head Steven Hall, to depart from Simmons

Simmons Heads of House John Essigmann PhD ’76 and Ellen Essigmann PhD ’80, and Associate Head of House Steven Hall ScD ’85 will leave Simmons Hall at the end of the academic year. Hall will become the Head of House at the New Vassar dorm to be opened Fall 2020. 

The Tech sat down with the Essigmanns and Hall to discuss the end of their time “in the sponge,” as residents affectionately call Simmons.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The Tech: What is the beginning of your Simmons story?

John Essigmann: It's kind of a funny story. Ellen and I were the heads of house in New House for seven years. We were thinking about moving on, and as we watched this building go up, we had no idea that we would be living here. Because the construction was way over budget, there was some stress within MIT Administration about the new dorm, so they wanted experienced heads of house to come in who knew about student programming.

In our first year, Simmons wasn’t completed. We had no MPR [multi-purpose room]. The reception hall served as the place where we had house government meetings. The dining hall wasn’t open, so they brought in food from Next House and set it up in the glass arcade. On nice days, we’d have dinner on the terrace. You’d say it was like we were all going camping and everybody had a job in helping make this campsite operational.

When we were asked to move over here, we thought it would just be for a couple of years but, you know, Simmons is really a wonderful place.  

TT: Why did you decide to stay at Simmons? 

J. Essigmann: There are a couple of reasons. One, Ellen and I have always liked doing challenging projects together. 

The second reason is something a little bit more philosophical, something that Larry Bacow and Bob Silby [former MIT faculty] called the educational triad. It is this idea that when you’re a professor at MIT, you have three responsibilities. One is the classroom, one is research, and one is your community. And if all of those things come together very well, then it is wonderful. And I believe the blueprint for Simmons was the educational triad. 

In the original plan for Simmons, there was the idea of residential scholars, older adults who represent the academic mission, in conjunction with community. And I think it worked very well so that’s why we stayed and why we tried to keep it going. 

TT: Steve, what is your story to Simmons?

Steve Hall: It must have been 2007 when an email went out to the faculty looking for new Heads of House. I actually interviewed at East Campus, but did not get selected so I was encouraged to apply to Simmons. I was selected and it has been great since then. 

TT: You’ve been here for 17 years. How would you describe the culture of Simmons when it started and how has it evolved? 

J. Essigmann: Personally, I think it has something to do with the architecture which allows this fluid movement of students through the building that prevents Balkanization. Before, we were in New House, which is at the other end of the dipole. It is a highly Balkanized community, which is wonderful. But here, the whole floor functions as a whole.

And it became a place where you could do experiments with the space. The lounge system is an experiment created by the founder’s group. The form and the function of the architecture kind of go together. We have physical lounges that you could occupy as a social lounge and make your own. Over the years, there have probably been about three dozen formal lounges. Simmons was an incubator and students were driving the cultural process. 

Only a small number of dorm events were our ideas. Most have been student-driven. Some students even invented a silly game called Scootah Hockey. 

Ellen Essigmann: We’ve seen both the structure of small separate communities, like at New House, and also larger communities at Simmons. It works so well over at New House. We’ve also seen how wonderful it is at Simmons where people don’t stay on one floor. They may move around year to year, but the architecture doesn’t stop them from returning to previous areas of the building. For example, many students might go back to the study break that their freshman GRA is hosting. This leads to a wonderful mix of people because you may have your home section or lounge, but also plenty of flexibility to move and meet new people.  

And this created a community that just grew organically, very grassroots. Looking back, there has just always been a critical mass of students who were really enthusiastic about doing things and creating things at Simmons. 

TT: What were some of those pivot moments that you thought changed the culture of Simmons?

Hall: A real dining program has made a big difference. Dining used to be à la carte and there were only five meals per week. For instance, you could go down to dining on a weeknight and there might be 20 people. It really was a subcritical mass of people to build a community. 

J. Essigmann: Yeah, mandatory dining really had a great effect. It builds a community, especially for first-years, who are all taking the same GIRs. Students now have the opportunity to study together, dine together, and socialize together, which really created a gluing experience.

TT: Steve, as you become the Head of House for the New Vassar dorm, have you thought about how you want to create those social gluing structures?

Hall: Yeah, there is a founder’s group and we are certainly thinking about those structures. The group has thought hard about values, and both students and staff want it to be a fun, welcoming, and inclusive place. I certainly hope that a lot of values from Simmons will end up in the new dorm. 

TT: What does the future hold for each of you?

J. Essigmann: The short answer is that we will move out in July. The long answer is that after we leave, we both have a lot of things that we want to write down, not just about our professional lives, but also what we’ve learned about the formulas for success in student programming here. Like in science, we do an experiment, we tabulate the data, and we write a paper. 

TT: When you write those things down, what are some of the top things that come to mind? 

J. Essigmann: We do host ten study breaks per semester, one for each GRA.  I think that, from my perspective, study breaks create a time when students can be guaranteed they are going to see us. So it's not just about food; it's about face time with each other.

Another thing we do is host special events, like a Valentine’s Day dinner, Thanksgiving dinner, and the Senior Send Off, which have become wonderful community building events that students really look forward to. 

E. Essigmann: I think the Simmons Hall government is really quite unique on campus because it is New England town hall meeting-style rather than a representative style. It allows everyone to participate, which contributes to that grassroots style of organization. Not to say these are things that we invented because we didn't, but they are an important part of what makes Simmons work.

TT: How many study break smoothies have you made?

J. Essigmann: I think that’s why they invented logarithms. 

Both John Essigmann and Steven Hall will remain in their faculty positions after their transition out of Simmons.