Memories of Senior House: Life as MIT Housemasters (Part Two)



The term, “safe space,” has been abused by all sides in recent years, but Senior House was a safe space for these students. This makes it ironic that in closing the dorm community, the administration used “safety” concerns as part of its rationale, because this was a dorm that took care of its members. MIT has a lethal reputation as a “soul crushing” institution.. We were proud that during almost a decade and a half in the dorm, we had only one student death -- not from suicide or from a drug overdose but rather from a motorcycle accident (which did not involve impairment by any of the parties involved). One of the more poignant memories of our time there was the memorial service for this resident of Little Bulgaria and the way students from all parts of the dorm spoke about what his life had meant to them. This was during a period in MIT history where almost every semester saw student deaths from alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, and suicide, all a reflection of the stress level on campus. We were working with many at risk students, but the community as a whole looked after them.


It should not be surprising given what I have said so far that these students confronted stigma -- from their fellow students, from other faculty, and especially from administrators that did not know how to read the subcultural signs and did not really understand how to deal with students so far outside of MIT’s self-perceptions. The dorm had a reputation for being a “wild” and “untamed” place. There was a tragedy in the early 1990s -- prior to our arrival --  which had colored perceptions ever since. Anything and everything that happened in the dorm was read by the MIT administration as conforming rather than challenging those perceptions. A student in a drug incident at another dorm would be read as an individual case; a student caught with drugs at Senior House would be perceived as part of a problematic culture. Every so often students who wanted to be housed in another dorm would be assigned to Senior House and they quickly learned that the best way to get relocate was to come with a complaint that reaffirmed the admin’s negative perceptions, knowledge which was passed down from upperclassmen almost from the time that new students arrived on campus. We were warned about the dorm by countless faculty, most of whom had never set foot there, as soon as it was announced we were accepting our posts as housemaster.  I can imagine how disheartening this would have been for someone who did not have my cultural studies background, which teaches us to be aware of the mechanisms of cultural stigmatization and marginalization.





The administration’s  negative perceptions seemed to coalesce around a particular symbol -- the “Sports Death Banner,” which students proudly hung from the side of the building. The graphic of a red and white skull came from the cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 and was part of what this group of students inherited from those who had lived there before them and had been passed along across multiple generations by this point. (The students celebrated Thompson for his fearlessness as a truth-teller who challenged authority and questioned orthodoxy and they admired his experimentation as a writer who broke the rules.) The deathly imagery spooked admins, who could not understand why students would want to associate themselves with such symbols. (We will ignore the fact that several Ivy League schools have highly prestigious Skull and Bones clubs.)  In reality, the “sport death” motto might be loosely translated as Carpe Diem -- seize the day, live life to the fullest, take risks, move out of your comfort zone, etc. As the slogan says, "only life can kill you."

There was a time when risk-taking would have been associated with experimentation and innovation: indeed, many of the Senior House alums would go on to be innovators of all kinds as both academics and business leaders. And risk-taking is often valued within the start up company ethos where many of these students would work after they graduated. But, university culture is increasingly liability driven and so risks are to be avoided at all costs, and a flag that celebrated “risky” behavior (as the admins saw it) was too apt to come back and bite them in the butt should “something bad happen”. One of the many reasons I left MIT in the end was that the administration at the highest levels had become risk-adverse, no one wanted to fail at anything, and as a results, faculty and students alike were being encouraged to make "safe" choices. So, coming home to the Sports Death banner every day was a breath of fresh air.

Often hurt and frustrated by the negative stereotypes about them, the Senior House residents leaned into those perceptions comically rather than try to negate them. So, because of the perception that these were the “druggie” students, they had a sampler made, “Senior Haus is not a crack house; it’s a crack home.” They distributed  t-shirts made for an imaginary Lamda Sigma Delta (LSD) fraternity, which they wore with pride; they gave each other “purity tests” and loved to brag about whoever had the lowest score (the most transgressions of cultural norms.) These various jokes were often read literally by the tone deaf, who could not imagine why anyone would joke about such serious matters.

Sometimes, even we would forget that the students were not nearly as “far out there” as the identities some projected onto them. When the administration was cracking down on some bondage related stuff at the dorm, I found myself engaged in a spirited, principled defense of the rights of sexual minorities trying to educate the campus police about the rise of S&M practices on college campuses. When I finished, the house president looked at me with honest shock and said, “we never do that. That would be gross.”

For them, the pleasure was playing with transgressive images and such images helped them to identify others who shared their tolerance for people of diverse tastes and interests. This is after all the classic function of subcultural signs -- they keep away those who would not understand the community’s core values and attract those who share them. In fandom, we call it “shocking the mundanes.” Sometimes, these shock tactics went too far and frightened some students temporarily assigned to the dorm, a matter we took very seriously.

But underneath those signs, there was a culture which placed a very strong value on tradition and which had built a solid alumni network. We were introducing this concept to a group of new residents once and someone wondered into the lobby who came from the MIT Class of 1942 and wanted to return to visit the dorm which had meant so much to him in his college years. The Steer Roast (about which more shortly) was said to be the largest MIT alumni event each year, and there were always several residents  (and sometimes a former housemaster) there each year who had been coming back for Roast since the 1960s when it was first held. The police expressed concern about a van parked outside the dorm during Roast, since they saw a steady stream of students coming in and out all day. When we dropped by unannounced, we found some alum inside with big scapbooks, sharing “back in the day” stories with students who wanted to know more about the dorm’s history. Our alums functioned as mentors for the residents and sometimes as pipelines into jobs when they graduated. They also were strong advocates whenever the dorm hit a periodic cycle of active conflict with the administration, who had threatened to close the dorm several times before they finally did. Thousands of them signed petitions when the dorm was under threat this time and when Steer Roast was shut down last year, they organized the event off campus largely thanks to the alumni pooling resources to insure that this tradition would not be stopped.  

    Let me speak to the dorm’s reputation for drug use. We certainly encountered some signs of pot being smoked during our years of wandering the halls at odd hours; we certainly heard of some rumors of current students using harder substances and some larger-than-life tales about conspicuous consumption in years past, but rarely did we get any information one could act upon. My own sense is that drugs are used in every dorm on every American college campus and the use here was not higher than average. That’s not a comfort to those who imagine a drug-free culture, but it is the reality with which we had to work.  

The largest and most intense drug-related problems we confronted were caused by prescription drugs, especially shifting doses and combinations of antidepressants. The good news is that such drugs enable some students to complete their educations who would never be able to do otherwise, but the bad news is that the ways they are used can produce unpredictable effects. The second largest number of incidents came from non-residents who came to the dorm to do things at parties they would not have done in their own homes. This is where the dorm’s bad reputation fed upon itself, with non-residents acting the way they imagined Senior house residents acting and oir dorm left cleaning up the mess. But, without being complacent, the number of drug-related incidents involving Senior House residents tended to be low -- especially when read against the sometimes hysterical accounts that circulated elsewhere on campus.

The dorm was across the street from the MIT Medical Center. Students were encouraged to seek help for anyone who seemed to be at risk. The dorm culture was more open than many so people knew who to look out for and were there to insure that they did not hurt themselves with self-destructive behavior. There were always a few students who wanted to push things beyond the community’s limits, a few each year that we knew needed close attention, and there were certain times of the year, either when students were away from home for the first time or stress level was particularly high, that we knew to keep a closer watch than usual.

 There were some great campus police and members of night watch who embraced a value of community policing and saw the importance of building solid relations with the students, and we worked closely with them. One of the most beloved figures in the history of the dorm was Big Jimmy, a member of Night Watch, who got to know and often mentored the students on his watch, and after he passed, the students had a portrait of Big Jimmy painted which they could bring out for student events as a reminder of his legacy. But there was also  a shift during our time there from community-based policing towards a urban or paramilitary police force mentality stressing the dangers of living on the MIT campus.



Senior House culture all came together around Steer Roast, a weekend long BBQ party held each spring shortly before the final study and exam periods. All segments of the dorm collaborated to produce this event which was deeply couched in tradition and rituals. First there was a gathering of the tribes, with students dressed in all kinds of attire, from cosplay to formal dress. One guy came every year wearing stilts, another girl dressed in a bikini made from duct tape, some looked straight out of a 1960s protest and others for some future alien society. Each of these outfits were personally meaningful and many of them were affectionately recognized from years past. Alumni from multiple decades showed up and  in many cases brought back their children who they hoped would become the next generation of dorm residents. (One of our house presidents was the son of two former senior House residents and purposely chose to live in his father's old dorm room.)

At some point, breaking through the chatter of old friends comes a recording of the gravel voice of William Burroughs delivering his Thanksgiving address,  followed by Wagner's “Flight of the Valkyries.” By this point all eyes are on the roof of the building, because the pit lighting ceremony has begun. As the music hit its crescendo, a toilet paper roll was lit and slid down a wire running from the roof of the building to the pit. As it hit the the lighter fluid saturated coals, there was a loud whoosh and flames leapt high. But immediately a brigade of students holding extinguishers dampened the fire, bringing it back under control again. I sometimes think of those students as reflecting the logics of self-governance within the dorm: a self-policing mechanism which understands the need for release but also the importance of keeping things within limits.



Large slabs of meat were roasted overnight as the “master baster” and his crew sat up to oversee all phases of the preparation. The pit lighting was followed by mud wrestling. When the administration threatened to shut down mud wrestling one year, my wife and I proclaimed that it was safe and family-friendly and that we did it ourselves. Not to be a liar, that year and most years thereafter  we opened the mud wrestling as the housemaster couple. Cynthia almost always won, given my poor eyesight and general lack of coordination. But hundreds of students cheered and laughed as we wallowed in the mud together. From that point forward, students identified with us and were apt to be more responsive when we needed to shut something down, because we were literally not sticks in the mud.

Keyser added a passage to more recent editions of his book, acknowledging our different style of leadership: “The most recent housemasters -- they have since left MIT for the other coast -- appear on the Web in Steer Roast photographs, mud-wrestling in the courtyard while the house looks on approvingly. Perhaps that’s what it takes to be a successful housemaster at Senior House. You have to get down and dirty with the students -- literally.” No, you do not need to get “dirty” -- literally or figuratively -- whatever that is meant to imply. You do need to recognize and support what is valuable within cultural traditions and test your preconceptions and you do need to earn respect rather than demand it.  Over time, our participation became so iconic that the Chronicle of Higher Education called me “the mud-wrestling media maven from MIT.”  Of course, I was raised by a mother who dressed like a clown for charity performances and watched church youth ministers participate in greased watermelon competitions. Sometimes the best way to earn respect is to not take yourself too seriously.



Other wrestling teams would follow, some settling old grudges,  others just horsing around. Some clothing might be shed along the way with the wrestling an excuse for certain exhibitionist tendencies. But even when the wrestling was coed, it wasn't especially eroticized. We just had a bunch of kick ass women who could hold their own in the boys club culture that MIT often was.

Nevertheless Steer Roast was a festival about bodies and appetites. For most of the year, many MIT students think of themselves almost entirely in terms of their minds, denying physical limitations on their capacities in a performance of geek masculinity. This was as true for the girls as for the boys – – since the girls wanted very much to be seen as one of the guys and the guys being geeks rarely fit anyone's model of hegemonic masculinity. But for this one weekend, just before they buckle down for the final haul of the semester, they felt sexy – – they had bodies. They might be dancing to the music of any number of alternative rock bands performed at Steer Roast through the years.  Shortly before we arrived, Nirvana played Steer Roast. Student might have gone to the porn room, where old porn videos were shown with the sound off, replaced by the soundtrack to old Disney movies. (Pick your favorite Disney song and it gains a whole new meaning in this context! Just a Spoonful of Sugar….) Talk about deconstruction. They might watch the strippers, sometimes male, sometimes female, and often a mix, played for an audience of men and women, straight and queer, which gave the experience a very different air from a stag club, with everyone celebrating everyone else's sexual desires. One year when we came back to the event, no longer housemasters, we were sitting up late in one of the graduate tutors apartments, and they had hired of dominatrix to tie students into harnesses and hoist them to the ceiling. But many of the students were more interested in grilling the dominatrix about knot theory and she was totally geeking out along with them. Individual rooms might have their own art exhibitions or performances throughout the night, given the dorm’s reputation for its contributions to the arts and creative expression.

Through the years, the event became increasingly regulated and more burden was put on the house masters to ensure safety and compliance. When we were first hired as house masters, we were told that we would be given a hotel off campus for the weekend if we didn't wish to attend the festivities, suggesting that earlier house masters had literally checked out during the party. We felt a part of the dorm culture and actively looked forward to the event and we've been back since leaving MIT, in effect becoming a returning alumni at this homecoming gathering. But through the years, more campus police, more administrators were assigned to monitor the party, and more rules were placed around its activities. Every year there was a fight just to be able to come up with mechanisms for lighting the fire -- with one year, my wife negotiating with all parties involved up to the very last second as the eager throngs filled the courtyard. The admins constantly threatened to cancel the party altogether. And by the end, the party organizers passed down huge binders of information about how to comply with each and every one of the university policies.

 Early on, the students ran a casino in the basement but when the City of Cambridge discovered this was taking place, they insisted on compliance with anti-gambling rules. This gave me a chance to stand in the middle of a casino, chips still in my pocket, and announce that I was shocked, shocked to discover that there was gambling at Senior House, a scene straight out of Casablanca. You have no idea how sad I was to shut down this activity.

The Porn Room was the next activity to come under fire and we had to research both Cambridge law and University policy, trying to separate out moral “offenses” from legal violations. We followed university guidelines by blocking off the windows and putting up warnings at the entrance of the pornroom so that no one would be caught unaware by sexually explicit material. We established a tradition of permission slips for the strip show  where students acknowledged that they were about to enter a space where there were erotic performances. The administration became concerned about the strippers so we reviewed Cambridge law and agreed to abide by it. An anxious Dean of Students told me to “keep your eyes on the strippers at all times", a request I was happy to oblige. Many years the art show proved offensive to some guests and we ended up interceding on behalf of free expression. Pushed to regulate the event more and more, student officers responded by calling themselves fascists and wearing red and black armbands to signify their authority to create to police the area. And the last I heard, there were complaints about the red and black arm bands that set the Fascists off from the other residents.

Working with the Fascists, we would help sweep the dorm when it became time to shut things down and make sure no new noises erupted that might disturb our neighbors, including the President and his/her family who lived next door. One year, we had shut everything down for the night, changed into our pajamas, and were going to sleep when we heard loud noises from the courtyard -- drumming, whoops. We threw on our clothes and raced out to see what the racket was all about, and we found ourselves watching a troop of students in the dorm engaged in an after-hours performance of Polynesian dancing. The next day, students arose early to prepare the feast -- making vast supplies of favorite BBQ foods and lining up around the block to buy tickets for this grand family picnic. That evening would usually be quieter -- an after party for the dorm’s residents and closest friends.


I tended to think of Steer Roast as the “fire” element in a year long series of rituals which almost seemed classically structured around the four elements. (A fair number of former residents are “burners” who regularly attend the Burning Man event here in California, which has a similar spirit and iconography). A few weeks later, on the last day of classes, there would be a water-themed event. A few students would be on the roof with jugs of colored water, and students would shout the names of the classes which had given them the most problems that year. (Some years, I was tempted to shout out the names of my own classes, the ones where I had felt most frustrated with the students.) The course numbers (this being MIT) were written in sharpie on the jugs and then, at 5 pm, when the final classes were over across campus, they would be hurled to the ground below. The climax would come as a full waterbed was heaved over the balcony and would send a huge wave cascading onto the students below.

The following year, during the orientation for new residents, thousands of bouncy balls would be dropped to earth from that same roof, as strobe lights flashed, a strangely hypnotic experience. We would collect balls from odd nooks and corners throughout the rest of the year and Cynthia had vases full of them decorating the apartment.  And throughout the year, students would soar in the air, doing tricks on a tire swing tied to the branch of a large tree in the courtyard. These are just a few of the traditions that gave structure and continuity to the dorm culture, building strong ties amongst generations of residents.

For our part, we added a few of our own. During the final days of the fall term, Cynthia and I would create a home cooked feast for 140 or so students, preparing food  all day, and watching the food disappear in seemingly one big gulp, as hungry undergraduates sucked in whatever was put in front of them. We also cooked the turkey and some fixings on Thanksgiving, while others brought their favorite dishes to the basement for a community celebration. The students who were around for Thanksgiving tended to be those who had nowhere else to go, including many of our international students who could not fly home for a few days with their families. For many of them, this was their first experience of an American tradition. One year, I was bringing dishes down to the basement and roped two students who were hanging around to start sorting things onto tables -- the veggies over here, deserts over there. When I returned with another load, a young woman was standing with a pumpkin pie in one hand and a marshmallow covered dish of sweet potatoes in another, reminding me how culturally specific such classification systems could be.