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The Specter of RBA

Christopher D. Smith

I admit it. I do not like the idea of residence-based advising one bit. As a second-term senior, the proposed RBA system reminds me too much of past battles lost to the administration. It also strikes me as fully unnecessary given the very common tendency for upperclassmen to lend helping hands to freshmen in need.

As a freshman in La Maison FranÇaise, I was luckily befriended by three juniors who quickly imparted to me their accrued, Course VI-flavored wisdom. The next year, I reciprocated that good deed to the next crop of LMF froshlings, and onward the cycle continued. In fact, as Darius G. Jazayeri G remarked in a recent letter to the editor [“FSILGs Already Provide Benefits of RBA,” March 16], the FSILG community functions as a quasi-RBA system for hundreds of freshmen each year. It almost seems absurd to try to “program” this annual exchange of goodwill.

The ironic thing about the proposed new residence-based advising system is that it is an old idea. Almost ten years ago, MIT’s last formal attempt at residence-based advising imploded from declining enrollment, disorganization, and lack of diversity. The residence advising system was essentially overtaken by the then-rising popularity of the freshman advising seminar program as first-year students decided that they preferred the intellectual spice of the advising seminar to the bland, aimless taste of residential advising. Unfortunately, the lessons from the last attempt at residential advising do not appear to be motivating administrators.

It’s important to remember that most recent origins for residential advising were rooted in student misbehavior, not constructive experimentation. Three years ago, housing administrators, under the direction of President Vest, revived the idea of residential advising by forcing it on the FSILGs as a part of the post-Krueger crackdown. Last year’s decision to institute pilot RBA programs in McCormick and Random Hall was driven by a desire to prepare for the expected social and academic dislocation that will be the inevitable product of housing all freshmen on campus in the fall of 2002. This is not to say that the administrators charged with implementing the system do not have a genuine desire to see student life improved by the change; better community life remains the far-end goal. The immediate goal, however, is unmistakably to enhance the Institute’s control over undergraduates. The attempt to place a residential coordinator in Senior House, of all places, stands as sturdy proof.

As there is a silver lining to every cloud, so too, is there a diamond in this rough. The RBA system could potentially prove to be a boon to improving academic performance among freshmen. Although MIT prides itself on the firehose-like qualities of the freshman core curriculum, too often this induces a desire among freshmen to merely survive; this survival ethic often becomes the dominant factor in students’ approach to their future encounters with MIT academics. If ever there is to arise a genuine intellectual community among students here, this must change. There must be a shift towards an academics founded on creativity and profound curiosity. The RBA system, if structured properly, may prove instrumental in bringing about this change because it will provide needed support and organization to the group studying which occurs naturally among MIT freshmen. Freshmen group-studying as it occurs now often seems to be little more than answer-sharing sessions. A decent residence adviser could transform these sessions into opportunities for students to embrace their learning material more tightly and in spirit which encourages students to push their intellects to new plateaus.

Still, the RBA system has other potential pitfalls. It does not require a very inventive imagination to foresee the residential advising system devolving into either of two unsavory outcomes. Some residential advisers could end up becoming babysitters, an outcome perhaps secretly desired by some in the administration but ultimately poisonous for community and student life. Other RAs could become one-person social committees, always there to throw an impromptu party or sponsor a day-trip to New Hampshire, but never really on scene to provide real and lasting guidance.

I have to admit that the results from McCormick’s pilot RBA program are encouraging. Having experienced it first-hand, I think it was a real success. Still, not every dorm is McCormick, and I fear that should MIT attempt a broad implementation of residential advising, it will find this out sooner rather than later.