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COLUMN

Reflections On Shower Night

Andrew C. Thomas

Through property damage alone, Burton-Conner has maintained its reputation of dominance of freshman shower night. No other dorm seems to get as excited about the event, and so carried away that its residents, myself included, abandon everything in its pursuit. Tuesday night gave proof that this tradition has not evaporated over the years, and I for one am proud that the beginning of an academic year has not dampened the spirits of this building’s residents.

Still, I’m curious about the timing of the event itself. One important question springs to mind: Why does this time-consuming, messy ritual take place immediately before a crucial exam, and not after it?

8.01 is a notorious course at MIT, with a fail rate typically around the 20 percent mark, which is higher than that of any other freshman class. Several options have been proposed for the reduction in this number; the introduction of 8.01L, for example, allowed for underconfident students to follow a slower (and hopefully steadier) pace. This had no noticeable effect on the fail rate. When 8.01L was introduced in 1992, the fail rate was 18%. While there may have been a fluctuation in later years, the fail rate in 1997 was still 18%.

Now, I don’t have the hard data to make judgements on the nature of the fail rate of 8.01. It could be because grades in the class aren’t curved, or it could be because the lectures are huge. It could be that the material is just plain difficult.

But fully three-quarters of undergraduates are not freshmen. (Shocking, isn’t it?) As a more experienced group that has undergone this before, do we not have a responsibility to the youngest class? At the very least I would suggest that we certainly have a lot to gain from their happiness. We are a vastly interdependent group of people, and by helping each other we help not only ourselves but our successors in later years.

So again, the question is posed. What can we do? I am certainly against the banishment of freshman shower night. I believe that at its heart is a wonderful principle of camaraderie and bonding, even if the device is mild, controlled hazing. I also believe that most of the measures taken by the Burton-Conner government are beneficial. I think that the event gives much-needed relief to the entire undergraduate body, at a time when stress is high.

Stress, however, is a very necessary factor in our lives, and we as upperclassmen are presenting a very poor example if at this first major trial, we are encouraging ignorance of the fact that the main reason we are here is to get an education. It seems to me that stress would be better alleviated after the exam has passed. Holding freshman shower night on the night of the 8.01 exam would allow an appropriate level of stress to build before the exam, but would allow the stress to be released when no longer needed. Worrying about an exam after taking it is pointless. Wanting to learn from one’s specific mistakes cannot fully occur until one knows what they are, when the exams are returned days later. One general mistake that students might figure out immediately is that they should have studied for their 8.01 exam.

Failure is good in small doses, though. Is it possible that the high failure rate of 8.01 --and of this exam in particular -- acts as a deliberate warning to not make the same mistakes later on in one’s academic career? It wouldn’t surprise me. Mistakes are powerful teaching tools. I find it much harder to fall asleep if my past mistakes are still talking to me. Still, if there were an insidious plan from high up, I figure it would at least involve some kind of mind-control drug other than television or peer pressure.

Traditions are hard, if not impossible, to change. But in the past few years the change in Burton-Conner’s showering policy has been profound, and the event still continues with the same spirit. There are no Committees on Shower Night, to my knowledge, to recommend a change in the way the procedure as a whole is conducted. But occasionally in this place, changes do happen.