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Laying the Foundations Of Dorm Culture

Guest Column
Jeff Roberts

When I came to MIT I became very interested in the residence system, particularly the dorms. I quickly learned, as did my fellow freshmen, that dorms are not just residences but social groups, and that each one has unique characteristics and traditions. As a thinker, I immediately wanted to know more. Why are dorm communities so strong? From where does each dorm get its characteristics? So when I learned, in 1998, that MIT was planning to open a new dorm in three (now four) years, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to learn about how a new residential community develops from the very beginning. I decided to get involved, and that was the beginning of my long descent into the underworld of MIT residential life politics. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about now.

Ever since I’ve been on the Founders Group I’ve taken every opportunity to talk about the new dorm -- Simmons Hall, as it’s now called -- trying to explain why I’m interested in the project and why others should be, too. In doing this, I’ve found myself battling some strong sentiments. It’s ugly. It’s expensive. It’s symbolic of the administration’s desire to destroy the MIT residence system as we know it. I can blame administrators for these problems, but I can’t avoid them. Even for students who show real interest, convincing them means addressing many concerns. Can I get a single? Will there be kitchens? All these questions are relatively easy to answer, whether or not the answers are pleasing to students.

There are also more interesting questions. What will Simmons Hall be like? What kind of personality will it have? Will it be like Baker? MacGregor? East Campus? For these I have one general answer: It will be like other dorms in the ways all dorms are alike, and it will be unlike other dorms the ways all dorms are different.

We all know that dorms have unique personalities. Moreover, we know that dorm personality is based not just on the personalities of the residents, but on history, traditions, and values. There’s a reason why we can accurately describe dorm communities as having “culture.”

How does dorm culture develop? Architecture is one important factor, and surely the borderline insanity apparent in the design of Simmons Hall will have some influence on its cultural characteristics. Many see choice as being the most important factor in developing dorm culture. This is important for many reasons, the most basic being that when students actively participate in selecting where they live, they are more likely to become active participants in their communities. But in my opinion, even more important than choice is the fact that dorms are multi-year residences. The interaction between older and younger students creates strong social networks and makes it possible for stories to be passed along over time. This continuity through time, which all dorms share, is what creates the capacity for culture to develop. The differences in design, history, and residents of each dorm cause culture to develop differently, and cause different characteristics to emerge.

Since personality and culture develop over time, I can’t say what the personality of Simmons Hall will be. It almost definitely won’t be like anything we have now. But I don’t think that’s important. What’s important is that it has the capacity to develop culture. For this to happen, it must have a mixed, multiple-year community. This is why it’s crucial that Simmons Hall not be an all-freshmen, or even mostly-freshmen, dorm.

Culture is also a blessing and a bane. We want to get students living in Simmons Hall who value culture, but such students tend to value the culture of their current residence and seem less likely to want to be separated from it. We need to find people with a desire not just to contribute to a culture, but to create it.

There are already quite a few people who are moving into Simmons Hall and are trying to get others interested. If you see someone today, or any other day, wearing a Simmons Hall t-shirt (and not looking too busy), stop and chat with them for a minute. Find out why they’re involved, and maybe you’ll get interested yourself.

Jeff Roberts ’02 was a member of the Simmons Hall Founder’s Group.