Housing through the eyes of faculty alumni

Tom Smith ’88, professor of chemistry, shares the sentiments of many alumni who compare the College’s current housing system to the one they remember, and find today’s lacking. “The current housing system is missing something with respect to fostering a residential community…It seems to me that with all of these resources at our disposal, we should be able to make housing at Williams something more than just a place to sleep.”

The housing system Smith remembers so fondly is one with no housing lottery and little freedom to pick one’s own house; a system whose very mention today – no matter how hypothetical – provokes strong negative reactions among many Williams students.

Before the current system, even as the house affiliation system was quickly eroding, many students’ first affiliation and identification was with their house. Instead of being football players or Springstreeters or biology majors, people were Spencer, Carter or Dennett residents. Smith and his friends were assigned to Dodd House after freshman year, and since they did not transfer or swap, they lived there for three years. According to Smith, many people felt a strong sense of belonging to this Dodd community, and this was true across campus: “when you would meet a new person at Williams, the first question was often, ’Where do you live?’ as many people identified with their housing groups.”

Jay Thoman, ’82, professor of chemistry, has also noticed that since his time at Williams, house identity has been replaced by other, more disparate identities. “My impression is that present-day students do not as readily identify with their housing units, and that athletic team affiliations are much more important than in my era.”

Joe Cruz ’91, professor of philosophy, shared this sentiment. “There’s no question that you would end up typically feeling a positive sense of affiliation with your house. The house would field intramural teams, would have cookouts and would set up tailgates at games.”

House identification was not equally cohesive for all students, though. Mike Glier ’76, professor of art, recalls, “House identity was not important. It seemed like such a silly way to define oneself. Mostly, I made friends with people who had similar interests, not similar dorm rooms.”

Glier added, “I didn’t expect anything from the College but to give me a place to stay while I studied. I was glad to be given the option to form a suite with friends. I didn’t much care which house I was assigned to, all the options seemed pretty much the same.”

Karen Shepard ’87, professor of English, also recalled house identity as being unimportant. “Because a lot of students went into the housing pick as a suite, the house was less important than the people you were sharing a suite with.”

House identity is a unifying force that has not been reproduced by organizations like clubs and athletics. The issue is not simply one of replacement – it is not that in the ’70s and ’80s Joe would be identified as “Joe from Gladden” whereas today he is known as “Joe the lacrosse player” or “Joe the Springstreeter.” Instead, for many, house identification was more than just a label – it helped create a tangible sense of community among a diverse section of students.

As Dave Paulsen ’87, coach of men’s basketball, explained, “the system was not without flaws, it was not perfect, but it seemed to work rather well in fostering a more inclusive sense of community that transcended school year, gender differences, and curricular and extracurricular interests and aptitudes.”

The house affiliation system worked to break down walls that existed between students with different interests – much like today’s freshman entry system, it allowed those who paths might not otherwise cross to meet and form bonds.

As Katie Kent ’88, professor of English, explained, “the house system facilitated different kinds of friendships than those provided by activities, sports, and classroom interactions. . . It seemed to provide a real sense of community to many students.”

As in the entry system, building this “community” was a conscious process that began as soon as students were assigned to their houses at the end of freshman year. As Paulsen recalls, “When you were assigned to an upperclass house in the spring of your first year, you were invited to their weekly snacks meeting, assigned a “big brother” or “big sister” and invited to all of the house events for the rest of the year. It seemed to me a good way of starting your affiliation with the house.”

Smith agrees that having junior and senior house members – “Dodd veterans” – already in place helped the incoming students to feel comfortable. “Each year a new crop of sophomores would enter the house and, in many cases, it was like they already had a group of big brothers and sisters to guide them through the transition to upperclass life. I don’t want to overstate it, but there was some realization that these were people that we were going to live with for the rest of our days at Williams so there was at least some kind of investment in people getting to know each other.”

Because students remained in the same housing cluster, the system allowed for a house continuity that is lacking today. As Smith recalls, “with overlapping classes, house traditions were developed and relayed to the newer generations.”

Cruz also recalls this sense of continuity in the houses, manifested in house traditions passed on from year to year. “All of these occasions were fluid in the sense that they changed slightly from year to year, but it is equally clear that there was something of a stable tradition generating the enthusiasm and the hard work to make these events go.”

Many alumni believe that social activities, of both the weekend night and the midweek variety, were different in the past due to both the sense of tradition and closer connections with a diverse group of housemates.

Kent compared her past experience and present perceptions: “I think the social life seems less lively and is lacking the kinds of traditions the houses provided, both in terms of parties, but also faculty-student interaction and involvement in all-campus activities. Ironically, I think the house system, unlike the Greek system, facilitated students’ social lives in ways that increased their interactions with students who didn’t necessarily share their sports or cultural interests, rather than decreasing them.”

Since life revolved around the house, and students had other friends and affiliations outside of it, it was important to have neutral social spaces. Connie Sheehy ’75, assistant director of admissions, recalls that a thriving scene at the Log played this role. “On the weekend, if there wasn’t a party or series of them, you knew you’d see lots of people you knew at the Log. People would pack in there – I think the college hasn’t found a good replacement. . .The Log transcended house affiliations.”

Although the house system often helped to transcend class, gender, race and activities, the sense of tradition sometimes combined with the ability to indicate house preferences, trade spots, and transfer (especially in the ’80s and early ’90s) to allow some houses to take on specific identities. Smith, who says he loved the system overall, pointed out that a “major downside of the affiliation system was that, over time, the housing groups developed their own identities. For example, when I was there the Greylock quad became kind of a jock heaven. . . From what I understand, after I was graduated, these identities became self-perpetuating and more sharply divided into cliques.”

The degree to which house affiliation mattered, then, differed from person to person and group to group. Houses may have developed identities, but, often, as Shepard asserts, having a good housing group and getting a good suite became more important than getting into the right house. “Certainly, houses had individual identities, and certainly groups of students had clear desires about which one of those identities they wanted to be associated with, but who you were living with (within suite) seemed more important than where that suite was placed.”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *