Don’t Diss the West Side

I love how many of the posts celebrate the zaniness, fun, and personal growth that comes from living on the East Side in general, at at East Campus in particular.  But a lot of posts have veered into trashing anybody who lives more than a few feet west of Mass Ave as a stuffed shirt, a trashing all West Side housing as living in a hotel.  They’re missing the whole point.

The glory of the MIT housing system, with students choosing where to live after experiencing what each dorm is like, is that all of the dorms have their own intense cultures.  Within a dorm, each floor (or entry) has its own culture. By picking the home that’s right for you, you add to that culture, and it sustains itself.  The EC culture that my son describes to me has a lot in common with the EC culture of when I was an MIT student (in the late Bronze Age, in case you’re wondering).  Obviously things evolve with each new generation of students — it would be pretty sad if they didn’t —  but the core values have largely stayed the same.

But EC wasn’t the only place where crazy things happened. Until the administration stopped it, the Baker piano drop was always at …wait for it …..Baker!  Baker was also the house with the strongest sense of house solidarity.  I lived in Burton-Conner , which had nine different cultures under one roof, and some of the best hacks around (he says congratulating himself). McGregor, New House, and Next House all had their share of colorful characters and colorful rituals.  (OK, McCormick was pretty staid.)   And that’s not even counting the frats and ILGs, which were 4-year residential back then.  The houses weren’t the same — far from it — but they all offered something far beyond the ordinary.

Mixing things up and having all the dorms be more the same would be a disaster for MIT student life.  Unbelievably bad idea.

So long live the spirit of EC!  May you haunt the rooftops and steam tunnels forever. And long live the spirits of Burton, Baker, and the rest of the dorms, too!

 

Let Upperclassmen Be In the Dorms During Rush

I am a former Senior House resident, from 2007-2011, and I find it baffling that upperclassmen move in day is after REX. It makes no sense. The value (to me) in MIT’s residential system is that you can choose to live with people with whom you share common interests and you can be apart of a longstanding culture or a community instead of a generic freshmen dorm where you would get some random roommate like in most colleges.

REX is a chance to explore different dorms and figure out where you might want to live. Even if you don’t choose a dorm you visited, you might meet cool people there and hang out there sometimes, and it gives you a chance to learn different aspects of MIT that you wouldn’t get from a website or a brochure. It also has free food. What is there not to love?

However, I find it a glaring flaw that the upperclassmen move in after this process. If they aren’t a REX chair or a desk worker or qualify for some other exemption, they are excluded from the process, which makes it harder for the freshmen to get a genuine perspective on what the dorms are like and it makes it harder for the upperclassmen to welcome the freshmen to MIT, and as an upperclassmen, that was one my favorite things about school starting again: making food for people or telling embarrassing stories about our hall mates. I think these things should be encouraged.

When I was a freshman, I did an FPOP and when I came to my dorm for the first time, I found it creepy. There was barely anyone in my suite. I thought I lived in a ghost dorm where people never come out of their rooms only to later find out my temporary suite mates hadn’t been allowed to move in yet, so the rooms were just empty. I enjoyed my FPOP. It was fun, but it would have been nicer to come home to a suite with people in it.

I have no first hand knowledge as to why the upperclassmen move in later, but I have heard (from a friend who debated this with an administrator) that it is because upperclassmen are weird, they will scare the freshmen’s parents, and those parents won’t leave their kids at MIT. I think this is ridiculous. If the MIT administration finds its own student weird and scary, then I wonder why they want to work here. Assuming they don’t and their opinion is merely paternalistic, I think their opinion is unfounded.

Every year, about 1000 freshmen come to MIT. Most of them are weird. It’s one of the reasons why MIT is awesome. I would find it odd that a parent with a weird kid was alarmed or concerned that their child is going to go to school with other weird kids. For many of them, MIT might be the first school where their weirdness is appreciated and parents might feel relieved that their kid finally fits in somewhere.

Furthermore, moving into a (relatively) empty dorm is creepy. When I was a junior, I had one freshman move into my hall and she contemplated moving out of the building because she didn’t think anyone hung out at Senior House because she didn’t see anyone during the day. Many of the upperclassmen who did qualify for early move ins were at work so when she came with her parents, they saw no one. This was not a good welcome, and I know that MIT students can and want to do better. They just need the opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, I found Senior House to be awesome, but it could be more awesome if upperclassmen were allowed to move in earlier.

Madness in any direction, at any hour

If you ask any MIT student what they love about MIT, chances are you’re going to get the same answer—“it’s the people”. It’s clichéd, but it’s true; and this is the same answer I have for why I love East Campus.

I wasn’t able to come to my CPW, so moving into my temp room was the first time I stepped foot into EC. The door to my room had no key (I had to ask the housemaster to let me in) and was decorated with poorly peeled off stickers. Next to it was a “borrowed” construction sign; the stick figure construction man on the sign had a penis and puddle of pee drawn in with Sharpie. My mother was dubious. I was delighted. It was the coolest place I’d ever been.

East Campus was just so dynamic. People were making and doing such incredible things, and they were doing them in ways that were unconventional, informal, and often outside the rules merely by virtue of the rules not having been designed to handle them. East Campus is full of hackers and rule-breakers, counter-culture people and people who choose to ignore social conventions.

Before I go any further, let me clear up a misapprehension I may have inadvertently led you to entertain right now: you do not need to break the rules to live in East Campus. Nor, in fact, do you need to be a great mural artist or a brilliant inventor or a talented fire-spinner or any number of other things that are stereotypically associated with EC. Not to live here, and not to become deeply involved with the community. This isn’t the sort of place that tolerates competitiveness in the usual sense. For one thing, outside of the community, there isn’t anything worth being competitive for: would you like this falling-apart room or this other, slightly larger, falling-apart room?

Instead, I discovered very quickly that East Campus, while prone to the pettiness and social stratification that plagues any large group living situation, is very good at making space for all types of people. I’m hesitant to compare it to a family, since that comparison implies affection bred through deep familiarity, which obviously isn’t correct. It’s also not correct to imply that everyone likes everyone else that they know in EC, when they consider them as individual people. But what you do get is a shared sense that together, you are part of something so special, something so much more amazing than anything you can accomplish on your own.

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I don’t even live here.

I am a senior, and I do not live in East Campus.

I do not live in any of the dorms on the east side of campus.

 

So why am I here writing a wall of text in defense of the east side?  What does West Campus care about the east except for how badly we lose at Water War?  I cannot speak for everyone, but I know I am not the only one who feels that the east side is an enormous part of what makes MIT unique – what makes it home.  Ask anyone, MIT affiliate or otherwise, what they think makes the MIT student experience special.  Ask them what they remember most about their time here or out of things they’ve seen from the outside.  A car on the dome, a rollercoaster for orientation, crazy students building their own furniture or robots or whatever else they can think of.  Motorized shopping carts.  Liquid nitrogen ice cream.  A hundred thousand bouncy balls cascading from the sky.  Now ask someone at MIT where they think those things typically come from, and time and time again the answer (correct or not) is East Campus.

It is not that other dorms simply don’t attract this kind of ingenuity and initiative.  Those people exist.  They are my friends and classmates and neighbors.  I’ve seen Next House build an 18-foot trebuchet and deploy it alongside a huge duck from Simmons and wheeled fortifications from Burton-Conner at water war.  It’s not for lack of trying, but the reason that the east stands out is the community.  Of course every dorm, when allowed to develop on its own, has a community, but what exists there is something special.  It is a network spanning back decades and encompassing every course.  Need help?  Doesn’t matter what the problem is, just ask and someone will know someone who knows someone who has an answer.  It’s amazing.  This is why I spend nearly as much time at East Campus as I do in my own dorm: it’s a messy, chaotic incubator for the sort of brilliant insanity that has come to be the Institute’s calling card.  It’s a huge group of disparate people who look out for each other in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  All this, embedded in and growing out of a set of some of the oldest, admittedly jankiest buildings at MIT.

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The difference between MIT and UT-Austin

Once upon a time, I was an undergrad at MIT, living on Burton One and having the time of my life. We did some serious stuff, we did some fun stuff, and we did some seriously fun stuff. (Putting a giant nipple on the Great Dome tops the list). Whether it was jumping out of windows into snowbanks or arguing about the existence of God, life was intense. Others have already explained how most of their learning at MIT happened at odd hours with fellow students from their dorms.  Hallelujah.

The MIT administration liked to say (and still likes to say) that getting an education at MIT is like getting a drink from a fire hose. Burton One in the late 70s was like that, and it worked because the administration didn’t mind our getting the carpet soaked. Sure, they slapped our wrists from time to time, but mostly they gave us plenty to drink from 9 to 5, and let us keep drinking, in our own way, into the evening and through the night.

They looked the other way when we had our parties, did our hacks, and acted on our curious impulses.  The priorities of the Campus Patrol were always (1) protect us from outsiders, (2) protect us from ourselves, and (3) enforce the rules just enough to keep the Cambridge Police off campus (see (1)).  The cops were often our adversaries, but never our enemies.

These days, I’m a math professor at the University of Texas, watching my students NOT have the time of their lives, and watching the UT administration ignore the most important part of student life. I recently attended a long faculty/student workshop about the advantages of residential education, and for over an hour NOT ONE WORD was said about life in the residences!  Finally I spoke up, and asked why nobody was talking about this, until the students on the panel explained that almost all of the dorms at UT are just long collections of rooms where students sleep and study.  Only at the honors dorm is there any semblance of a social life or a dorm culture, and even there it’s a pale shadow of what dorms are like at MIT.

From my son  (class of ’17) I hear talk that the administration is clamping down on the extremes of dorm culture and trying to create more of a “normal” life in the dorms. If true, that’s monumentally sad.

Bexley :) and beyond

Hey Cynthia (and whoever else reads this)!

I made awesome friendships through the Bexley community. The relative lack of restrictions made it feel like our (the students’) territory, rather than some foreign space (how I feel in the more sanitary west-side dorms). This sense of ownership made it a lot more fun to hang around and get to know people, so a strong community formed.

What I didn’t realize is that these East-side communities would continue to provide support to those who lived there even after we graduated. My friend recently got a full-time engineering/design job through someone she met in Bexley. I lived in pika my senior year; I found absurdly affordable accommodations after moving to San Francisco through a pika alum (believe me, this was a miracle). This summer at Burning Man I met a bunch of 5th East alums who graduated over 10 years ago but still fly from all over the country to hang out with each other a couple times a year.

Obviously, the east-style life makes MIT a lot more bearable (even fun) for the yearly batch of eccentrics MIT will inevitably attract. But if you want to think in terms of students’ long-term wellbeing, know that these communities also provide opportunities, happiness, and meaning long after graduation.

Calloused and Creative

People wear shoes here

in the winter time

on occasion.

 

The denizens of East Campus are as hard as the callouses on the bottoms of their feet and in a good way.

Now, a huge part of the EC mantra is being hardcore, whether it be academically or otherwise. Though I don’t believe this is always the best life style to live by as it tends to be a recipe for biting off more than you can chew by unhinging your jaw, it does fit the MIT experience. Those who decide to attend MIT commit themselves to (usually) 4 years of high expectations from teachers, research advisors, friends, and even oneself; students are also expected to enjoy it, and for the most part we do. At East Campus this fervor tends to bleed into one’s personal interests too. I have friends who lose sleep over personal projects involving ludicrous amounts of LEDs, or go on whimsical mid-semester trips to Utah to hike canyons. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the creativity and drive of the people I live with. However, this fervor and these expectations to be “hardcore” can be a burden.

East Campus is a diverse place. There are people who have been through much more than “three tests on the same day” by freshmen year and others for whom MIT is the hardest thing they’ve ever been through. I’m half way done with MIT (scary thought) and I can say that MIT and everything that comes along with moving away from home have been a very trying but rewarding experience. However, I could not have done it and cannot imagine doing it without my fellow East Campus residents. Though most people at MIT find some sort support group, East Campus, again, is a diverse place. Not only do people come from different backgrounds, they also come with wildly different personalities, and interests. For many, including myself, it is perhaps the first time any one of us feels at home and at ease.  Not only do we have our immediate friends within East Campus, we have an infrastructure of autonomy that supports our wondrous and intense way of life. From GRTs to EC exec, to hallchairs we have people to turn to who can listen to us, vie for our rights to be creative and “hardcore” like MIT wants us to be even if it’s our definition of “hardcore,” and most importantly be there for us when we’re too “hardcore.”

 

People wear shoes here

if they choose to

live here if they choose to