Not long after we were married, Cynthia and I fell under the spell of a PBS Masterpiece Theater adaptation of R. F. Delderfield’s novel, To Serve Them All My Days, which dealt with a coal miner’s son from Wales who became the headmaster of an elite public school. The series’s representation of living on campus, having prolonged and intensive interactions with students beyond the classroom, and growing old together in a community with a strong tradition captured our imagination. So, when the chance came to apply for a housemaster position at MIT, I jumped at the opportunity. I would be the housemaster at Senior House, the oldest MIT undergraduate dorm, for 14 years. More accurately, I should say that we were housemasters, since in the MIT system, both parts of the couple carry this title. Anyone who knows MIT, and especially anyone who is aware of the dorm’s reputation, is probably chuckling about the comparison: yes, what we got was a very different experience than we might have imagined watching a British school master drama,and yes, we were clever enough to understand that before we even sought the job. But We did, in the end, have the experience of forming an intense bond with a group of students who we had a chance to watch grow into adulthood and take their place in society, and after a bumpy start, we felt they came to value our contributions to their lives. And tradition -- we had plenty of that, too.
Though I have now been away from MIT for nine years, our experiences as housemasters came rushing back last summer, when I received news that the MIT Administration was closing Senior House as an undergraduate dorm and reopening it as graduate housing, a shift which has been explicitly framed as an attempt to shut down what the administration has always perceived as a toxic culture. What made this news hard was the sense that this was no longer our battle to fight, though so many students who were alums of the dorm wrote to us seeking our advice, insight, and in many cases, interventions on the dorm’s behalf. We had been such strong student advocates during our years in the dorm that it felt strange to sit this one out.
The administration’s perceptions of Senior House, its students, and its cultures was strongly shaped by an account Samuel Jay Keyser, a long time administrator, wrote about his years as a Senior House housemaster in the 1980s, a relationship all sides have agreed was a poor match. Here’s part of his negative representation of the dorm: “When I became housemaster, the dormitory was functioning as a storm drain for the other MIT living group. All the difficult students were funneled there. These were the students who were incapable of living harmoniously in the more normal dorms. They were the students who snatched fire extinguishers off the walls and ran down the corridors spraying their housemates’ doors.”
I am not going to try to systematically rebut Keyser’s account: he is describing his own perceptions and experiences. He was a housemaster there at a different time and had a different relationship with the students. But, I do not want his account of mostly negative experiences to stand as the only depiction of what it was like to be a housemaster at this remarkable dorm.
WHAT HOUSEMASTERS DO
Let me begin by saying a word about the Housemaster role, since the MIT housing culture differs from most other campuses. Each MIT dorm has its own culture, its own community, based in part on long-standing traditions, in part on the unique and emerging identities of the current crop of students, and in part based on the living conditions the dorm represents. Dorms may be large and somewhat anonymous, advertising themselves based on their facilities or location, like a hotel. Here, some individual floors or suites -- for example, the Burton Bombers -- develop their own distinctive personalities that are passed across generations. Dorms may be much smaller, more intimate, and stress notions of community and belonging. Students select where they want to live and who they want to live with -- historically, after spending a few days on campus and visiting the various communities. As a consequence, the different dorm communities attract different kinds of personalities. Senior Haus was, along with East Campus, Random, and Bexley at the time, one of the so-called east campus dorms, which were known for having a more flamboyant personality than their west campus counterparts.
Keep in mind -- these students were confronting many of the same issues faced by any student at any other university. Many were living away from home for the first time; they were sometimes anxious about their classes, homesick for their families and friends, uncertain how to cope with roommates or fit in with their peers, hurt by breakups, confused by the expectations of their instructors, and otherwise, dealing with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They wanted to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes, but they also could use older classmates or sometimes adults for guidance now and again.
The Housemasters are faculty who live in the dorms -- that sounds like we sleep in bunk beds. The reality is that we had a large townhouse apartment overlooking the Charles River, designed and furnished for entertaining groups of students, for free rent and a modest stipend. It was a much better apartment than we could have afforded in Cambridge on my Associate Professor pay. Historically, these positions were held by MIT tenured faculty members in an university with a strong tradition of faculty governance, because it was expected that these faculty could speak up as needed to protect these communities and their interests and be strong advocates at all levels of the administration.
Over time, more and more student life administrators have ended up in positions of authority within the dorms, blurring the boundaries between faculty and administration. When we started, some key administrators had been MIT students who cared enough about the school to want to remain and make a difference. Increasingly, they were replaced by administrators whose own undergraduate years were spent at other schools and who, having been formally trained at administration, plan to move from one university to the next, working their way up the promotional ladder. Such administrators are often deeply suspicious of the cultural specificity of the MIT dorm system and the top administration resents the fact that many MIT students feel more strongly identified with their dorms than with MIT as a whole. Here, as with many other universities, the numbers of student life administrators have increased over time and with these increases, there has been a tendency to want to exert a greater control over campus life.
At MIT, this has led to a desire to embed administrators in the dorms, a move which Senior House students in particular, resisted, because the dorm valued its self-determination. And we found ourselves also feeling uncomfortable, since these administrators wanted to assume responsibilities that we felt offered students a chance to develop their own leadership skills and accountability for their choices. From our position it also mattered that they were absorbing (usurping?) many of the functions of the housemaster position that allowed us to get to know the students living in the dorm. We believe that relationship was crucial to our ability to do our job as housemasters. We also believe that on those occasions when students had frustrations with "the way things are done" or "the rules" that we, as tenured faculty, were freer to help them think about how to work within the system to achieve their goals than someone whose primary responsibility is serving the needs of the administration. While in an ideal world the goals of the administration and the goals of the students would always be in alignment, in our not always ideal reality, sometimes the scales have to tip one way or the other for those giving advice.
The quality of our encounters with the students kept us in the housemaster position for 14 years. My wife often said that living with these students left her optimistic about the future. But what wore us down were our encounters with generation after generation of new campus life administrators. Each time we would build a relationship, overcome the stigmas, earn mutual respect and trust, they were transfered away and we would have to begin that process from scratch. I have plenty of harsh words here about the administrative perceptions of this dorm: we formed many strong bonds with administrators through the years, but few of them lasted, because of the tendency to transfer to other schools after a few years.
Each housemaster enjoyed some autonomy over how they chose to define and perform their duties. Cynthia and I did not see ourselves as parents (these students had their own families and needed to make their own choices as they found their way to adulthood.) We also were not police (we would not be able to play the other important roles of housemaster if we did not have the trust of the students and becoming law enforcement was the surest way to see doors start to slam in our faces.) We saw ourselves, first and foremost, as community organizers, who worked closely with student leaders, to help shape the culture of the dorm, to help students “pick their battles” and decide what their priorities were, and to help students to work -- through the system -- to achieve their goals. But also we worked to insure that the dorm community lived up to its own ideals, to arbitrate disputes, to guarantee the integrity of its government and elections, to encourage social interactions.
Our reputations as advocates for students led students at other dorms to seek out our advice when dealing with disciplinary issues, especially Cynthia, who has a law degree and ended up advising many students who were facing charges for violating campus rules. And from time to time, as a faculty member, I would sit down for a heart to heart talk with students who were struggling with their classes. We were often asked about students waking us up at all hours with their problems. For the most part, students remained timid about knocking on our doors, but when they did, we knew that they were facing some serious issues. About once a term, we would get pulled out of bed, because they needed us, and on those nights, we earned out keep.
We were supported in these various tasks by graduate resident tutors: students who, like us, lived in the dorms and were on the front lines in dealing with student issues. We were lucky to have, for the most part, a team of tutors who took their roles seriously, got to know the students, and embraced what was most valuable in the dorm’s traditions. Many of them have continued to work tirelessly on behalf of Senior House years after their terms were over. The undergraduates played an active role in selecting these graduate residents, a role they took seriously. They worked together to insure that students with diverse interest had tutors they felt would serve their needs and often they expressed discomfort with candidates they feared would be too timid about stepping in when some student went too far or made choices that were dangerous for themselves and the dorm.
Our understanding of the housemaster’s position as that of a community organizer reflected the particular character of this dorm culture. Senior House had very few rules but a very strong social contract: it is a community whose members expected the freedom to be themselves, however strange that might be, but they also learned to respect each other’s boundaries and to take action which strengthened the collective bonds between them. I had a speech I used to give about the difference between “characters,” who had strong and distinctive personalities, and “assholes,” who could not respect the rights of others. And for the most part, I was simply feeding back to Senior House its own creed.
A DIVERSE CULTURE
Senior House had a reputation for anti-authoritarianism and throughout its history, some of the housemasters lasted only a few years because they tended to butt heads with the students and try to break their will or isolated themselves in their quarters. We were among the housemasters who spent the most years there. We liked most of the people who lived there. We became a part of this community, came to understand its unstated norms. I would never have been accepted at MIT given my middling math skills, but if I had been, this is where I would have wanted to live. Senior Haus students were nonconformists, rebels, free thinkers. They did not want anyone else telling them how to live their lives. Some were anarchists, some libertarian, many would have been misfits many other places on campus but they felt a shared outcast status within Senior House culture.
Many have told us through the years that they would have dropped out of MIT if they had not found Senior House. The rent was cheaper than at the nicer and newer dorms, and so it attracted students who came from low income backgrounds, who were often the first in their families to go to college. The dorm had a subcultural vibe -- there were goths and students with brightly dyed hair and mohawks. The subcultural markers shifted through the years, but this was always a place which saw being “weird” as a compliment and not an insult. We enjoyed living with students who thought outside the box but at times, needed to help them do a cost-benefit analysis about punching other people’s buttons.
During Housemaster’s training one year, one speaker shared a video about drug prevention -- actually, a segment from Fox News which treated being Goth or participating in a Rave culture as signaling students with drug issues and which warned us to be “aware” of students who purchased water, tampons, candy, candles, and other fairly normative materials on campuses. When I joked with a group of GRTs about the video’s sensationalistic advice, I felt stung when I received a reprimand in my official file. This said a lot about the different perceptions of the students and the administration. The formal training could be surprisingly tone deaf: one year, a campus psychologist told male tutors that when a female student came to them to report rape or sexual assault, what they really needed at that moment was a great big hug, a singularly bad piece of advice.
In this context, housemasters leaned on each other for informal advice about how to navigate the contradictions in our positions, an exchange that was harder to come by once administrators started taking over housemaster positions and thus monitoring what got said at the housemaster meetings. They felt housemasters should be working for the administration; we saw the two as playing different functions and thus perceived fundamental contradictions between the two roles. The administrators would give us a speech about wearing “two hats” suggesting that what they heard when they were wearing their housemaster “hat” would not be remembered when they got to the office the next day. Yup!
Many GLBT students had reported encountering homophobic incidents in other dorms and in response, Senior House as a whole more proactively embraced sexual diversity, openly inviting students who were GLBTQ to come and live with us. We were asked to write a housemaster’s statement for prospective students and got more than a few complaints from parents when we mentioned the dorm’s openness to all sexual orientations alongside a range of other kinds of cultural differences we embraced.
There was a strong international mix in the dorm, but for historical reasons no one quite recalled any more, it attracted many of the Eastern European students who came to MIT. One area of the dorm was known as Little Bulgaria and it functioned not unlike a lower East Side community of the early 20th century, providing a support system as these students worked through culture shock and found their own footing in America. Many of these students -- who came from countries with historic antagonisms beyond MIT -- knew each other growing up because they had all participated in Eastern European math competitions. The older students acted as translators and guides; we could work with them whenever there were problems of adjustment and they would smooth out any difficulties their residents might be facing.
I had noticed even before we moved to the dorm that a high percentage of my recurring undergraduate students in my film and media studies classes were Senior House residents, and it soon became clear that this community attracted many of the more arts and humanities inclined students who came to MIT. My time as a housemaster definitely made me a better teacher, because I developed a much deeper grasp of undergraduate culture at MIT.
The dorm was also racially diverse, with many students of color. And there were generally more women living in this coed dorm than men, but the dorm was not gender segregated, not even on the level of the bathrooms, which were knock and enter, like many were used to in their own homes. This last policy shocked some, but in reality, we had few complaints or incidents arising over this policy. Room assignments were gender segregated, though, by the Institute’s policies, which raised an issue when a transgender student moved into the dorm, wanting rooming to be based on her preferred gender. She had a willing female roommate and we helped to negotiate such an arrangement with the administration, possibly MIT’s first.
One of the best things, among many, about MIT dorm culture was that we had students at all levels from frosh to seniors living together. Mature students would often take the more rambunctious younger ones aside and teach them, like an older sibling, that risks have consequences. There were none of the Lord of the Flies pathologies that take root on campuses with freshman-only or male-only dorms. More often than not, when some damage was done in the dorm -- a busted lamp, say, students would step forward and fess up, compensating the dorm for damage done to their shared accommodations.
I keep stressing the diversity of this culture because often when we would argue for the particularity of MIT dorm cultures, administrators from elsewhere would suggest we were defending segregation or homogeneity. We saw a greater threat from the random assignments of students, since we felt it important for students to feel a sense of ownership over their dorm communities, not to mention, for those groups who were most vulnerable, having a critical mass to provide a support network within their living community. There certainly were pockets within the dorm where students with similar tastes and backgrounds might live together -- an area called Doomcom was focused around all forms of games and gaming, for example -- but there would be ethnic and cultural diversity even in those spaces, and at the level of the dorm itself, Senior House was diverse by pretty much any criteria you wanted to apply. If many of my stories here center around its counter-cultural and subcultural aspects, there were also Bible Study groups that met there. When debates about the presence of ROTC on campus heated up as a result of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” we hosted a discussion between GLBTQ and ROTC students, both living in Senior House as they helped each other understand the stakes in this argument.
And it goes without saying that these students were off the charts intelligent, even if, in some cases, they had priorities other than how well they were going to do on this week’s problem sets. Many of them were polymaths -- that is, their interests sent them racing off in all directions. They had to have high math scores to be admitted, but they loved to read books and debate ideas and they valued creativity and the imagination over following the rules. This did not mean they always thought through their actions. One year, around Christmas time, I went walking past the courtyard and saw a group of students warming themselves around an open fire, roasting marshmallows, and singing carols as snowflakes gently fell around them. I was torn between the beauty of the scene and a sense of responsibility to shut down the unauthorized fire. What tipped the scales for me was when I realized where they had built the fire -- a thin layer of ice was on top of a wooden platform which was used as the bandstand at various concerts and dances throughout the year. When I reminded them of this, shock went across their faces and they quickly put out the fire with no pressure from me. Out of sight, out of mind. Most of them were Night Owls -- we found the best time to schedule meetings with students, including large house-wide meetings, was after they got home from classes or labs, which meant they started at 10, 11, or even midnight. We both have memories of occasions sitting up all night with students -- Cynthia playing board games and me taking turns reading A Christmas Carol aloud on one snowy night.
But, they were not the stereotypical students who come to mind when you think of MIT and not the students that the university liked to put forth as their exemplars. These students had often had bruising experiences in high schools, some of them had come from homes where their intelligence was not valued and their differences not embraced, and they were looking for a place where they would be accepted on their own terms. One long night, I sat at the hospital bedside of a student who had had way too much to drink and was feverishly walking through all of the factors that had led him to this situation, including his parent’s opposition to science and the hostility he faced in high school, as a unresolvable equation. Some of my greatest pleasure was watching two such geeks fall in love, the slow unfolding of the arms, the shifting of the legs, as they began to feel more comfortable in their own bodies and more comfortable being intimate with each other. Sometimes, they got lucky. I will never forget a memorable encounter with a frantic frosh, who had set across campus in pajama bottoms and no shirt, and asked me with some despiration where he might find some condoms. And Cynthia stresses that more generally, there was the pleasure of watching these students mature over the years, finding their own voice, identifying their own strengths, taking greater responsibility for their own actions. And sometimes they would come back, spouses and offspring along, to introduce them to this place that had mattered so much in their lives -- not unlike taking your partner home to meet your parents.
END OF PART ONE