The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹collegiateway.org›

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How to Build a Residential College

3. College Life and the Annual Cycle

Why not live in place where I can have professors as friends? Why not live in a place with a network of support, advice, love, respect, melodrama, and laughter? Why not live in a place where you feel like a part of something bigger, something deeper, something more? Why not get most you can out of college?

—A residential college student

This is the third of six pages of recommendations for the establishment of residential colleges within large universities, and it examines collegiate social life and the annual cycle of events. The other pages discuss: (1) membership and administrative structure, (2) buildings and grounds, (4) pastoral care, and (5) academic life, and a supplementary page presents (6) a brief “generative sequence” for assembling the components. For a summary of all these recommendations please visit the main “How To Build a Residential College” page, and for more general information about residential colleges please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

The five main sections below describe the importance of weaving a social fabric (3.1) that will hold a residential college together as a society; the supporting structures (3.2) that should underlie residential college life; and the weekly events (3.3), monthly events (3.4), and annual events (3.5) that make up that life throughout the year. A residential college is a great household, and its life and annual cycle should provide the domestic stability its members need in order to be able to take on intellectual instability in the university at large. Once all these things are in place, the result is glorious: from arrival day for the new freshmen to the sights and sounds of graduation, and all the joys and sorrows in between, the annual cycle of a residential college is one of the most beautiful things in the world.

3.1.  Weaving a Social Fabric: General Principles

In designing and looking after the social fabric of a residential college your object should be to establish and maintain a dense network of connections among all the college’s members. In pursuing this object the importance of a predictable social rhythm cannot be overemphasized. Students and faculty alike have to spend much of their time concentrating on their studies, their writing, and their class schedules, and they shouldn’t also have to remember the complexities of a college social schedule. The social life of a college should be comfortable and familiar, and, as Woody Allen said about life, 90% of it should involve just showing up. The key to developing a college social life that is rich and meaningful but also simple, is to build it around a regular framework of events that repeat without fail, week after week, month after month, year after year. Having a few regular events is far more important than having a host of special one-time events. Regular events allow people to establish long-term relationships, to build on past experiences, and to see one another on good days and bad. Special one-time events will always occur, but unless there is a strong fabric of regular events already in place they won’t be successful or have an enduring impact. At the end of each academic year draw up for the year to come a calendar of events so everyone will be able to see what lies ahead, and be sure that everyone receives a copy of this calendar when the new year begins. Knowing what to expect in the weeks and months ahead makes people feel comfortable. A wide range of recommendations for particular residential college events appears below.

Underlying the rhythm of life in a residential college throughout the year will also be an assortment of permanent supporting structures. A college facebook (3.2.1) allows the membership to see itself as a whole throughout the year. Ever-running e-mail groups and websites (3.2.2) build college identity, as do a wide range of college insignia (3.2.3). Commonplace books (3.2.5) in every common room accumulate an open-ended diary of college life for all to read. These supporting structures are also discussed in detail below.

One of the most important general principles to follow is that every event and activity in a residential college should be accompanied by food. Food is the currency of all social transactions in a residential college. It should probably be one of the largest items in your college budget. Food makes people happy, it nourishes them, it makes them feel comfortable and at home. Develop some distinctive food items that people will come to associate specifically with your college, whether it be a special kind of punch to drink or a special kind of cookie to eat. In Strong College I kept a dish of red and white peppermints on my desk, and every now and then late at night I would just walk through the college carrying the peppermint dish until it was empty. This never failed to elicit smiles from the students and a feeling that the place was their home. The little peppermints even became a minor symbol of the college, appearing in student-drawn signs and even in needlework. Occasionally in the evening I would pass though the Junior Common Room (2.3.1) with the peppermints while some of my students were sitting and talking with friends from other buildings. The familiar smiles from my students were matched by dumbfounded amazement from the visitors, who had never seen anyone do anything like that in the general-purpose dormitories where they lived.

Another principle that cannot be overemphasized is one that the Big Wide World knows very well, but that academics often forget: advertise, advertise, advertise. For the benefit of student organizers you should make a sheet of recommendations on how to advertise events within your college: announce an event at tea and in the dining hall, send e-mail to everyone, write an invitation in all the commonplace books, put a notice in the college newsletter, tell all the college staff so they will know to pass the word along, involve the student council in spreading the word, print up little invitations and pass them out around the college, put signs all over the college buildings, serve food as an inducement, and so on. For regularly scheduled events an announcement form can be prepared on a computer and then reprinted each week, month, or year with new information added. Learning how to rally support for an activity or a cause is a basic social skill that will be valuable to students throughout their lives, and there is no better place to learn that skill than in a residential college. And the students will also learn that sometimes no matter what they do, a certain proportion of the population will always remain oblivious. One year after the annual Strong College croquet tournament was over I was making small talk with a student in the corridor. The croquet tournament was always one of the big events of the year, announced weeks in advance, advertised and talked about all over the college, and at the event itself there were more than 100 people in attendance, right on the front lawn of the main building. I asked the student if she enjoyed the croquet tournament. “Um, is that next week?” “No, it was yesterday,” I said. “Oh, I guess I didn’t know about it.” Another thing that students come to college to learn is how to pay attention to the world around them.

The events that take place in a residential college will vary in size, of course, from occasional large functions that involve nearly the entire membership, to small gatherings of two or three. While there is always a temptation to want to have high attendance for all events, it is more important to have a range of events of different sizes that appeal to different audiences, so that even if the participation in any one event is small, the overall level of participation is high. Like a natural habitat, a college should have many different ecological niches into which all sorts of people can fit. And don’t think of events as something “we” the faculty set up for “them” the students. Everything should be a communal effort and an outgrowth of the normal life of the college. Faculty should sponsor things that they themselves would like to participate in, and if they draw two students or twenty those events should be considered successful. Always aim for quality rather than quantity, and the quantity will eventually follow.

With these general principles in mind, let us now look at some specific examples of the supporting structures and the weekly, monthly, and annual events that can fill the life of a residential college.

Apologies to antipodeans: In the discussions that follow I often recommend connecting the annual cycle of a college to the annual cycle of that college’s natural environment. These discussions are written from my perspective as a resident of the north temperate region of the world. If you, dear reader, live in another clime, you will have to adjust these recommendations accordingly. Even if your particular calendar differs from mine, the general principles articulated here will still function for you. The aim should not be to link the life of your college to this particular calendar, but rather to link it to whatever calendar applies in your region of the world. It isn’t a failure not to link to the calendar I describe; it’s a failure not to link to any calendar.

3.2.  Supporting Structures

The life of your college will depend upon a number of permanent supporting structures that are in place throughout the year.

3.2.1. Facebook — On the day new members arrive at the beginning of the year they should be given a printed list of the college’s entire membership, both junior and senior, with names, offices, rooms, and phone numbers. As soon as possible thereafter—probably within two or three weeks—every college should produce an album, commonly called a “facebook,” that includes photos of the college’s members, along with some information about the college’s history, its facilities, traditions, and so on. The importance of a photographic facebook cannot be overestimated. The collection of pictures will allow everyone to see immediately that the college is a society of people (1), and it will be studied avidly throughout the year. Students and faculty alike want to know the names and faces of their neighbors, all of whom are potential friends for the future. (“Who is that really cute guy/girl on the second floor?”) And be sure to include the non-academic staff who work in the college as well—the housekeepers, security guards, dining hall servers, and office staff—since they play an indispensable role in the life of the college (1.2.6).

A college facebook does not need to be an elaborate production: twenty ID-style photos can be fit onto each page, with the names, rooms or offices, phone numbers, and home towns of all the people. A few pages at the front with some historical information about the college, welcome letters from the master and the dean, a first-name and room number index, and a scattering of snapshots of college social events, all stapled together into a booklet—these are the only things that are needed. Every university has a photo ID system for all students, faculty, and staff, and it should be possible simply to obtain copies of these pictures for college use, and so save yourself the trouble of taking new ones. Every member of the college should be given a copy of the facebook, a copy should be placed in each common room in the college, and a few extras should be kept in the college office to be given to visitors and to have available for the first few days of the following year before a new one is issued. One facebook copy should be sent without fail each year to your university archives to be preserved for posterity. If you take in new members during the year, be sure to issue a one-page update to the facebook in January, say, for everyone to tip into their personal copy.

3.2.2. E-mail and the Web — Communication is the life-blood of any society, and electronic means of communication make it especially easy to sustain a continuous conversation among the members of a residential college throughout the year, even the ones who are “livers-out” (such as the faculty). While students are of course free to create any e-mail group they wish themselves, I recommend that you create an official e-mail discussion group that is open voluntarily to all college members. (I would, however, require the fellows to be on this mailing list, at least in “digest” mode. They can certainly afford to receive one message a day and occasionally look in on what is being talked about, even if they don’t actively participate.) Traditional listserv-type software is very effective for this purpose. Getting such a group off the ground takes time, but once it is going it will be impossible to stop. The discussion group should be seen as an important component of the comprehensive educational environment you are trying to create within your college, so at least a few of the faculty should be active participants. Don’t run it like a seminar, though: aim for something more like intelligent dinner conversation. If the faculty and a few experienced students shill lead by example and post substantive comments, display wit, and ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions (“If you were made chancellor of the university, how would you change things?” “Do you think cloning of human beings is a good idea?” “What movies are coming out this month?”), then the rest of the community will catch on and follow their lead and the whole will become self-sustaining. The reason it is vital that there be some active participation by the faculty is that in my experience large student-only groups tend to degenerate, I’m afraid. And groups that permit anonymous posting do so very rapidly, so anonymous posting should not be allowed. You might appoint a pair of students to be keepers of the group, able to handle technical problems (a valuable role to play, and excellent experience for a computer-oriented student). You should also encourage incoming students to become members of the group during the summer before they arrive—by the time they actually get to the college they will already feel like they know many of the members well. The discussion group should continue year round, of course. Students will be delighted to continue talking with their friends even during vacations when they are scattered to the four winds. And members of the college who are away on foreign study trips should also continue to contribute and report on their adventures.

Every residential college should also have its own official website. (See the directory of Residential Colleges Worldwide for many examples.) The website should include practical information for the present, of course, such as contact information, lists of current members, calendars of events, student council officers, and so on. Information for prospective members should also be included, such as application forms, details of the colleges buildings and the student rooms, college regulations, and advice on moving in. Keep the website simple, and don’t worry about building in the latest technological bauble. Content is king.

The college website should be more than bulletin board for the present, however: it should become a complete archive of the history of the college. Have groups of pages arranged by year that include a record of all past college activities. Include old newsletters, photographs of events, membership lists, news reports, and all similar things. When students search the web for their names, the college web pages should be among the first things to show up. And when alumni visit the site they should be able to reminisce among the records of all their collegiate escapades. The Strong College Archives provides many simple examples of the kinds of things to include on a residential college website.

3.2.3. Arms, Signs, and SymbolsSince the founding of the early collegiate societies in the Middle Ages it has been customary for colleges to bear coats of arms. Your college should too. Heraldry is one of the great artistic traditions of the Western world; take time to learn a bit about it so you can make a good design, and always keep in mind that you are designing something to last for all posterity. Many good references on the heraldic tradition are available, such as The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. By browsing the directory of Residential Colleges Worldwide you will be able to find dozens of examples of collegiate arms, and on some college websites you will find whole pages devoted just to the arms of that college (such as those of Colegio José Gaos at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, Mexico, and Glenn College at Latrobe University in Australia, among others). Along with the arms you will want a college motto, which may be in the traditional Latin or in the vernacular, as you choose.

Make your college arms dignified, perhaps with a simple design that students will be able draw on their own foreheads without too much trouble. If the design is complicated, pull out one of the charges and design a simple badge from it. (“Badge” is a technical term in heraldry referring to just this sort of simple emblem extracted out of a coat of arms and used to signify group membership.) Once you have a coat of arms, you can put it to wonderful use throughout the college. Any print shop can manufacture note cards and stationery featuring the design. Fashionable college members will want neckties, pins, buttons, and scarves. (For examples see the catalogue of the British firm Ryder & Amies, which has been manufacturing ties and other accessories for the Cambridge University colleges for many years.) Every marketing magazine has advertisements for temporary tattoo manufacturers, and you can order hundreds of these very inexpensively. (I always told my students to wear one when they went home so they could frighten their parents; this usually amused them.) Banners featuring your college arms can hang from your dining room ceiling, and sidewalk artists can draw the design at every approach to your grounds on move-in day. My page on the arms of Strong College illustrates just a few of these many uses to which a college coat of arms can be put by clever students and faculty.

Measures of success: The Strong College laundry room was a few steps down the hall from the college office, and it opened out into a small sitting area with large picture windows overlooking the front lawn. The laundry room itself was usually warm, and its steamy air flowed out into the corridor and the seating area, fogging up the large windows. Late one night during one of our first winters, I was about to close up the college office and I stepped out into the hall to check on the laundry room and the JCR before turning out the lights. All was quiet and empty, and everyone had gone upstairs to sleep a few minutes before. But with a wet finger on the foggy window by the laundry room, one of the students had drawn the Strong College coat of arms.

3.2.4. Mascots and Their Familiars — Every residential college should have a mascot. While the coat of arms is the formal symbol of the college (that nevertheless will find informal uses sometimes), the college mascot should be a light-hearted and playful symbol from the beginning. Mascots are typically animals of some kind. Try to choose something more imaginative than lions and tigers and bears if possible—ten million species await you. How about a deep sea tube worm, or a leafhopper, or a star-nosed mole, or a paramecium? You will need to have (or have made by a talented student with needle and thread) a moderate-sized stuffed incarnation of the mascot to which you can attribute human qualities (even if it is a deep sea tube worm). At all times the mascot should be invited to comment, preferably with much sarcasm, on the state of the college and the world. Give the mascot an e-mail address (masteroftheuniverse@thecollege.edu) and a web page, build it a throne, have it lead invasions, feature it on your annual college holiday card, assert that is a high-level master of the martial arts as well as a pool shark, write an epic tale of its mysterious ancestry, place metal helmets on its head to protect it from the alien transmissions that are trying to control its thoughts—you get the idea. The mascot can preside over many college functions, and you should also assemble around the mascot a company of acolytes in the form of other stuffed animals, and bring the entire menagerie to all major college events.

In addition to having a mascot, every college should also adopt a college cat. Even if it is not technically allowed indoors, it will provide much happiness to the members of the college. One of the things that many students especially miss when they are away from home is their family pet, as evidenced by how many of them try to smuggle pets into their rooms. Having a college cat can divert some of that biophilic energy in a positive direction. Provide your college cat with its own outdoor living quarters, and provide endless amusement to the students by naming said living quarters “the cathouse” if they themselves haven’t done so already. (“Have to seen the master?” “Yes, I just saw him a moment ago at the cathouse.”)

3.2.4.1. Adopt a College Cat — College cats have a long and distinguished history at some institutions. A special Collegiate Way page describes their power to cure the sick, lift the economy, and bring about world peace. Don’t underestimate them.

3.2.5. Commonplace Books and Signature Pages — Buy an archival-quality blank book for each common room in the college, to serve as a journal and commonplace book. Draw a title page with the coat of arms of the college, make a note of the date that the book was opened, and inscribe an invitation for anyone to contribute thoughts, complaints, epics, drawings, visions, quotations, exposés, doodles, revelations, and plans for world domination to the book. You will be amazed at the volume of material that the students (and some of the faculty) contribute, and how avidly they will read all the entries. The commonplace books will become favored modes of expression throughout the college. Some of the commonplace books will fill up very quickly (the one in the Strong College JCR only lasted a few weeks once it got going), while others will take longer; years perhaps. When each book is full, announce widely the changing of the volume, and for a day or two have both books present and encourage people sign a farewell to the outgoing book on its last page and a welcome on the first page of the new book that will take its place. Each volume should be carefully preserved in the college office or library for the enlightenment of all posterity. I recommend the following passage, adapted from Thomas Traherne and beautifully set to music by Gerald Finzi, as the epigraph for every college commonplace book:

An empty book is like an Infant’s Soul, in which anything may be written; it is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders, and with those things which shall shew my Love. Things strange, yet common; most high, yet plain: infinitely profitable, but not esteemed; truths you love, but know not.

Commonplace books of this kind are without question one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective traditions you can establish in a residential college. Be sure the blank books you buy are sturdy and made of archival paper so they will last (I recommend the hardbound sketchbooks made by Cachet Products), and consider getting a set of colored pencils or permanent pens to accompany the books (Staedtler pigment liners are a good choice) so that when students return for their fiftieth reunions their entries will be as bright as when they were written. Pens and pencils will tend to disappear in completely public areas, but they will usually persist in more secure locations such as your College Office (2.1.6), where you certainly should keep a commonplace book, and your Senior Common Room (2.1.2). Once they get started commonplace books usually run on their own, but the college staff should look after them regularly, picking them up when they are on the floor, conspicuously adding entries so other people will have examples to follow, and “generating a buzz” about the books so they will be well used and well read. Some sample pages from one of the Strong College commonplace books will give you a feeling for what to expect in the commonplace books you set out in your own college.

A bit of history: I established the tradition of commonplace books in Strong College not from the practice of any other residential college I had seen, but rather from a literary club at Harvard called the Signet Society, which kept a commonplace book in its library. Never having been much of a diarist, I named these books “commonplace books” rather than diaries or journals, because when I was inclined to write in them myself I usually wrote a saying or quotation rather than a specimen of original and deathless prose. But my Strong College students soon began filling the commonplace books with paintings and drawings, diary entries, flyting contests, poems (or perhaps I should say verse), and much else. The term commonplace book caught on as a useful collective term, even when particular local instances of the genre acquired more specific names, as did the commonplace book in our Blue Lemur Coffee Bar (“the Lemur Log”) and in our Star Chamber (“the Ship’s Log” or “the Captain’s Log”).

3.2.5.1. Signature Pages — One of the simplest and least expensive ways to sustain college identity and institutional memory is to prepare signature pages for special events.

3.2.6. Sister Colleges — Once your college has come into being, you should consider establishing sister-college relationships with other residential colleges around the world. These relationships can begin modestly, perhaps with nothing more than the exchange of a communally-signed holiday card between the colleges each year. They might expand to supplying each other with foreign coins and stamps for the colleges’ respective collections, and to a regular exchange of college newsletters throughout the year. (Put up a special bulletin board for news from your sister colleges.) A complete sister college relationship might include joint excursions to exotic locations, guest room rights (2.1.7) in the sister college when traveling, or a complete exchange program permitting members of one college to spend a semester or a year at the other college. An officer of the student council (3.3.4)–a Foreign Minister or a Secretary of State–could be appointed to take charge of social interactions between the sister colleges.

3.3.  The Week

3.3.1. Master’s Tea — The anchoring event every week in your college should be the master’s tea, a simple social hour for all the college’s members. It should be the first regular event you establish in a new residential college, and it should take place at the same time every week in the Junior Common Room (2.1.3), week after week, month after month, year after year. I recommend something like Tuesdays from 4:30–5:30 p.m., which will draw both faculty on their way home for the day as well as students with classes that end at 5:00 or begin at 5:00. The master’s tea is all about talking and eating: those are the only two things that need to take place. It is the weekly family get-together, and it will be the place where news is spread, ideas are hatched, and new friends are made. Tea is a convenient place for people to make announcements each week, so you should have a bell that can be rung to attract everyone’s attention when necessary. Each week the master should extend a very short welcome to everyone in attendance, and should ask if there are any visitors to be introduced. Tea is an excellent setting for visitors: students can invite their parents to show them what the college is like, fellows can bring visiting faculty members over for a bite to eat and an opportunity to socialize, hopeful admirers can invite the objects of their admiration and ply them with cookies and punch, and so on. The master, the dean, and the resident tutors (1.2) should work the crowd like good hosts, talking to many different groups and introducing people to one another. The room should be set up with many different furniture circles and other spaces so that small groups can form and dissolve at will (compare Alexander’s Patterns 124 and 185, “activity pockets” and “sitting circles”). Have plenty of food but don’t put all of it out right at the beginning or it may all disappear within minutes, and bring out the college mascot (3.2.4) and all its acolytes so they may be properly worshipped. Display new college acquisitions along a wall during tea (new books, new plants, new toys, new artwork), and have someone occasionally play the piano for background music. As always, advertise, and then report afterwards in the college newsletter so the people who didn’t attend will know what they missed.

Talking and eating: Although the times and manners have changed somewhat, a good sense of what to aim for in establishing a weekly college tea can be gotten from Polly Stone Buck’s recollections of college teas at Branford College of Yale University in the 1940s and 1950s. I doubt many people today would be willing to sacrifice an entire Sunday afternoon, as the Bucks did, but a regular hour during the week can accomplish much the same thing: it can provide students with a safe and comfortable haven and show them that they are part of one large collegiate family.

3.3.2. College Newsletter — A one-page newsletter should go out from the college office each week to all college members as well as to a range of offices in your university. While it will always be necessary to include some administrative announcements in the newsletter, the greater part of it should be made up of announcements about the members of the college. Make the newsletter a gazette of prizes won, mountains climbed, papers written, music played, treasure discovered, and worlds conquered. In every issue you should mention as many people by name as possible, because there is something in human psychology that makes people like to see their names in print. Make the final issue of the year a telegraphic summary of the entire annual course, again mentioning as many names as you can. More than 150 college newsletters that I wrote following these principles can be found in the Strong College Archives and if you are planning a college newsletter I encourage you to browse through one or two years’ worth to get a feeling for the literary (?) tone and for the continuing threads that run from issue to issue throughout the year.

Develop in your newsletter some distinctive features that people will become accustomed to seeing, features that may involve hidden details. In the Strong College newsletter I had two such distinctive features: a regular poem-of-the-week and a set of official disclaimers in fine print at the end. The poem-of-the-week added some informal academic content to the newsletter, and it allowed me to connect the newsletter to the events of the world, whether happenings in the college, happenings in nature, or happenings on the world stage from the anniversary of the Challenger disaster to the death of Princess Diana. Things like this contribute to the creation of a rich and all-encompassing educational environment that integrates classroom learning with life. Not only did students often tell me how much they enjoyed the poems, but I often got messages from people in assorted university offices saying how much they enjoyed them also. (They were a pleasant contrast, I suspect, to the usual memoranda about purchasing regulations that passed across their desks.) The fine-print disclaimers at the end of each newsletter began as a series of genuine product disclaimers strung together for humorous effect, but they soon came to include odd remarks from members of the college that became even odder when taken out of context. Students knew that whenever they saw me suddenly take out my pen and write something down that someone in the room had just given birth to a disclaimer, and people would carefully scan the fine print each week to see if anything they had said was included.

A disclaimer sample from the Strong College newsletter: “OFFICIAL DISCLAIMERS: Nothing here is official. Please don’t sue us. No fungi, no future. I feel an interpretive lobster dance coming on. Crash outcomes may vary. There are people praying in my card parlor. I thrive on menial labor. Eeeew, she wrote ‘gurge.’ When you live in the water it’s hard to keep your hair neat. If this works out, you may be able to live in a glass ball on Mars. It’s a good thing he has an exoskeleton. Promptly refrigerate unused portion. Color swirls are a natural occurrence. Don’t wake me up for the end of the world unless it has very good special effects. Stuffed with polyester fiber. If you experience eye watering, headaches, or dizziness, increase fresh air or wear respiratory protection. It’s hard being secret agents. Everything’s better with a halo. The better our fantasies are, the better our realities can become. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning. If we succeed there will be many songs sung in our honor. A decent boldness ever meets with friends. Think continually of those who were truly great. Risk—risk is our business; that’s what this starship is all about; that’s why we’re aboard her. Without struggle, there is no progress. Per aspera ad astra!”

3.3.3. Senior Common Room LunchThe senior members of the college (1.2) should be brought together as a group once a week for lunch in the college dining room. Some will never appear, of course, but others will look forward to it as a chance to get out of their departments and socialize with colleagues from other fields. The resident tutors should be part of this lunch group, and every week you should extend a special invitation by name to a few undergraduates to join the group as well, so that over the course of a year the whole senior class, say, has been invited. Having this lunch in the main dining hall in view of the general student population will be very beneficial: it will allow the students to see the senior members in another context and will allow them to engage in multifarious speculations on what secret topics they may be talking about. If the senior members occasionally point to a table of students and then look at each other and nod knowingly that will heighten the mystery.

3.3.4. College CouncilEvery residential college should have a student council of some kind, and the council should meet every week to plan activities and events. The council need not be a formal student government, though it can be. If you wish to be formal you can write a complete constitution, or if you wish to be informal the college can create a simple page of council procedures. The council can be very effective if it acts simply as a social service organization for the college, sponsoring many college events throughout the year, welcoming new members, hosting college parties, and so on. The council should do much of its work through committees, the most important of which will be the welcoming committee that introduces new members to the life of the college. Elections for council officers (3.5.7) should be held each spring.

One of the most successful things that a residential college council can sponsor is a weekly coffee bar, held perhaps in the council room or at some other dimly-lit location in the college, and also a weekly movie night. Like all special features of the college, the coffee bar and the movie night should be given distinctive names (the Strong College coffee bar was called the Blue Lemur, and the weekly movie night became the Lemurodeon), and they should allow many interested students to participate in their operation. A dimly-lit room with free late-night coffee and free movies—for many people, college life doesn’t get any better than that. As with the weekly tea (3.3.1), the coffee bar can occasionally be elaborated into a special event, as it was when my students set up a formal “gangster poker night,” complete with gangster molls, bubble gum cigars, and cards up many sleeves.

Public service activities of some kind should be a part of every residential college, and they can be effectively sponsored by a public service committee of the student council (the Save the World Committee). Environmental projects, tutoring of local children, help for needy families—all these things and more can find support in a collegiate society. As part of their public service work, or as a separate enterprise, college members can also establish a manufactory of some kind to produce wooden toys, woven belts, beaded necklaces, or some other kind of cherished item for college members or those in need.

3.3.5. TV Groups — One weekly schedule that pervades the modern world is the weekly television schedule. Many college members will be fans of particular television shows (and radio shows perhaps), and you should take advantage of this by encouraging communal viewing in the college common rooms. (But not in the JCR, which should remain television-free [2.1.3].) Rather than leaving people to watch in isolation in their rooms, encourage them to come out and share the experience. The college office or the student council should provide food for such activities upon request. The communal television groups can sometimes even feed off of one another and generate a new level of interaction. In Strong College one year there were two competing groups, one watching the weekly “professional” wrestling shows, and the other watching Star Trek (clearly the superior choice). These two groups turned the commonplace book in the television room into a battleground, with long elaborate challenges to one another and the issuing of “terms of surrender.” This delighted everyone and led to an exploration of “flyting” as a centuries-old literary genre, one that they were participating in without knowing it.

3.3.6. Small Clubs — Small informal clubs that meet weekly (or monthly; see below) can proliferate through your college according to the interests of the times. A weekly chess club can meet in the late-night coffee bar. A jazz group can provide quiet background music for dinner one night each week. A fellow of the college can host a weekly literary hour in the Senior Common Room to read favorite literary works aloud. A corner of the Junior Common Room can become a weekly card parlor. Language tables can meet once a week over lunch or dinner to speak French, or Arabic, or Klingon. As with many other college activities, the success of these groups will depend in large part on advertising and the availability of food (3.1), so be sure prospective sponsors work hard to get the word out and receive a small cookie allowance.

3.4.  The Month

Monthly events in your college should be those that require a small amount of effort on the part of someone to organize, but that other people can simply show up to and enjoy. Like many of the weekly events, the monthly events can in effect become informal college clubs or societies, with the organizing person the de facto club president. A student or fellow who enjoys history can take a drive each month to a nearby historic site and invite all interested parties to come along, effectively creating a college history club (the Time Travel Society). A college astronomy club (the Fly Me to the Moon Society) can sponsor a monthly star party for college members, with food and telescopic observation. If you are in a rural area you might take a monthly trip to the city sponsored by a college shopping club (er, make that the Society for Regional Economic Support). A college natural history club (the Society to Seek Out New Life Forms) can take a monthly walk through a nearby wildlife sanctuary. An art and architecture club (the World Beautification Society headed by a Minister of World Beautification) might visit a local museum or construction site each month. A theater club (the All the World’s a Stage Society headed by a Principal Dramaturge) might put on a five-minute skit at the weekly tea each month. A college druid society (that’s a good enough name as it is) might hold secret rituals every month under the full moon. When starting a new college, the heads of the house should select and sponsor one such monthly event to set a pattern, and then allow others to grow along with the college community.

In your college dining hall you should also consider having a monthly formal dinner at which the tables are nicely set, the members come well-dressed, and perhaps a brief (two-minute) speech is given, conspicuously timed with an egg timer. College musicians can provide background accompaniment in exchange for extra servings of all the leftovers.

3.5.  The Year

The fabric of weekly and monthly events that make up the greater part of a residential college’s life should be ornamented each year with a few large jewels. Establish in your college a small number of dramatic annual events that will involve a considerable proportion of the college’s membership, and that require a reasonable amount of planning. Some of these may be national holidays, religious holidays, natural events, or historical anniversaries that are traditional and genuinely important in your society or region. Others may be unique and distinctive to your particular college (and perhaps even odd). Some of these annual events should take place outdoors, and some indoors. Outdoor events can include a boat race, a croquet tournament, an open reading of the 1812 Overture, a hymn sung to the rising sun on the first day of spring, or a reenactment of the Battle of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day. Indoor events in your college can include special dinners, holiday teas, and similar things. Specific examples are described below, and for a wealth of other possibilities search through any popular book of days or similar historical chronology. The personalities and interests of the members of each college will establish these traditions early, and they will continue for years.

One of the reasons it is so important to have college members who have been in residence for several years is that they can tie the new members into the past as well as the future of the college. The juniors and seniors will tell the freshmen about the annual cycles of years past, and enable them to look forward to the events to come. The new members will not be adrift, but instead will right away become part of a strong current that will carry their lives forward and show them many opportunities that will be open to them.

Zen view: In their influential book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, the architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues recommend that in order to preserve the power of an especially dramatic view the view should be visible only occasionally in certain small places within a building—through a narrow window or from a stair landing, for example. In this way the view stays alive in the imagination for years and never becomes taken for granted (Pattern 134). I suggest that this same effect can be cultivated in a social context as well. Particular rooms and other locations that are only open on special occasions, through a narrow temporal window, preserve their specialness. Every year in Strong College I hosted a nighttime reading of Dylan Thomas’ famous story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” This was held in the Senior Common Room (2.1.2), the college’s faculty room, which most students didn’t have access to and many had never seen. It wasn’t an especially elegant place, but each year for the reading it was set up nicely and lit only by the lights of a small Christmas tree. The effect was powerful and it made a memorable impression on everyone in attendance. In keeping with this principle, don’t make every space in your college and every college possession available to everyone at all times. Quite the contrary: have some special places and special things that are only seen once a year.

3.5.1. Welcome Week — The student council should have an active welcoming committee that introduces all new members to the life and traditions of the college at the beginning of every year. Each member of the welcoming committee should be assigned a small group of new students (fledglings), and should take those fledglings on tours of the college buildings and introduce them to as many people as possible. The most important thing in the first few days of the year is to make sure everyone has been able to make friends with at least a few other people. Within a day or two of the new students’ arrival you should have a grand welcoming event for everyone, such as an evening cookout, with lots of food and time for socializing. Have the welcomers bring their fledglings as a group so the anxiety of entering this new social situation will be eased.

Bajans: The term “fledglings” for newly-arrived students was my Strong College translation of a common medieval term for new students, bajans, which comes from the French bec jaune or “yellow-beak.” The term immediately caught on and I commend its adoption to you as a way of continuing a simple yet distinctive centuries-old tradition.

For a week or two at the beginning of the year, new students will tend to do everything they are told to do, and so this is the time that you must get them in the habit of attending whatever weekly events (3.3) will be in place throughout the year. The first grand opening tea should take place a few days after their arrival, and it should be conspicuously announced that the same event will happen every week at the same time and in the same place all year long. The student council meetings should begin immediately at the beginning of the year and the new students should be actively recruited to serve on committees. Start up your TV-watching groups, your coffee bar, your movie night, and all your other regular weekly events right away during welcome week so that the new members will form habits that will stay with them as long as they are in the college.

Consider holding an annual planting ritual during welcome week, perhaps at the initial cookout. Buy a large quantity of daffodil or crocus bulbs and have all the new students plant them around the college grounds (2.2). The students will get dirty and have fun, and within a few weeks will forget all about it. Then in the spring when the flowers emerge they will react with powerful attachment.

3.5.2. Seniority’s PrivilegesMany universities establish all sorts of special opportunities for first-year students in order to induce them to stay in school and not drop out or transfer to another institution. This has always mystified me. If you want a person to continue to participate in something over the long term, do you give away the greatest benefits at the beginning? Of course not: you provide some benefits at the beginning, and demonstrate that even more benefits and privileges will accrue over time as a result of long-term membership. You should act on this principle each year in your college by having an annual dinner early in the first term in honor of the senior undergraduates. Hold the dinner in a specially-prepared section of the dining hall for all to see, or have a public reception at the weekly tea in advance of going to eat at a private location. At the dinner present the seniors with a special pin or other symbol of their status, something that they can wear throughout their final year of study.

3.5.3. President’s Dinner — At some point during the first term of each year you should have a college dinner at which the guest of honor is the chancellor or president of your university. If there is a system of residential colleges at your institution this should become a regular feature of the president’s calendar: dinner once a year at each of the residential colleges. The students should have an opportunity to meet the president at a reception before or after dinner, and the president should be invited to give a short speech on a topic of current interest to the campus.

3.5.4. Holiday SeasonThe end of the calendar year in nearly all societies is a time filled with religious and secular holidays of all kinds, and you should incorporate as many of these traditions as you can into the life of your college. You don’t need to create new events so much as elaborate the existing events. The ordinary weekly tea should become glorified into a grand holiday tea (but still at the same time and place). The usual weekly council meeting can become an end-of-term dinner party. Decorate a tree if that is your custom, and present gifts from the college to people who have been especially helpful over the year (student volunteers, office staff, maintenance workers, and so on). Have student musicians perform. Sing songs around your JCR piano, and compose a song or two (or a verse of two) special to the college to add to a college songbook. Take lots of pictures always.

Your college mascot (3.2.4) should always feature prominently in your seasonal celebrations. Be sure the mascot has a Christmas stocking, for example, attached to the office door along with a wish-list that includes diamonds, emeralds, and exotic sports cars. Accessorize the mascot with reindeer antlers, a glowing red nose, or whatever else suits your local fancy. Feature the mascot and all the mascot’s familiars on the college’s own holiday cards, available to all through the college office. Conceal the mascot’s visage somewhere in your seasonal signature page for people to discover.

The courage of your educational convictions: In Strong College every year we had two principal holiday events: a tree-decorating tea one week and then a grand holiday tea the next. At the tree-decorating tea a few freshmen would be coerced into extracting our large artificial tree from an upstairs closet (the tree was quite a good one, and had been donated by a student), and then ornaments would be passed around to everyone in attendance so all could participate in the decorating. By the end of the hour the tree looked lovely, and it remained on display for all to see throughout the holiday season, not coming down until the first tea of the new year. Some people never attended the tree-decorating tea, of course, either from lack of time or from grinch-like tendencies. I would, therefore, on the evening after the tree-decorating tea, commonly sit in the Junior Common Room with a box full of extra ornaments, and whenever someone walked past the room I would bark, “Come over here. Put an ornament on the tree.” The student thus barked at usually responded with a scowl of annoyance, and then came over and hung an ornament, and then departed wearing a big smile.

3.5.5. Doldrums — In my experience (speaking as a native of the north temperate region) there is a deep and predictable lull in college life every year in February, sometimes beginning in January and sometimes extending into March. The causes are varied: the freshmen who were excited by all the opportunities that college life afforded them in their first term are now discovering (or rather their first-term grades told them) that they have to spend more time studying and less time socializing. The first round of romantic associations that blossomed in the fall are now beginning to wither. And perhaps most importantly, the days are short, the nights are long, the trees are bare, and the skies are often cold and gray. (In my years in Strong College, “February” became an adjective that was occasionally used at other times of year as well, as in “I’m having a very February day today.”) The February effect has the same consequences every year: attendance at college functions declines and enthusiasm for college activities wanes. I report these things so you will be aware of the pattern and will not over-react to it. If you have established a new college and you see the exuberance of the first semester begin to die in February, do not be alarmed: it will happen exactly the same way every year. As the spring arrives things will begin to pick up again, and one way to help this along is with the gardening work you should have begun in the fall. It may seem trite, but a bed of bright daffodils really does make people smile. Get the members of the college working outside on the grounds and enjoying the warming air and their spirits will improve. Have some traditional event each year marking the arrival of the spring that will put the winter behind you.

3.5.6. Spring Events — In spring you want to get people outside as much as possible, and you should establish one or two large spring events that take place outdoors. Have a contest to spot the first dandelion of the year, or the first returning swallow or other migratory creature in your vicinity. Recreate Stonehenge on your grounds and mark the vernal equinox precisely with outdoor sculptures and architecture. Imitate one of the most famous collegiate traditions in the world, the sunrise hymn sung each year on the first of May from the tower of Magdalen College at Oxford, dramatised in the film Shadowlands. If you are fortunate enough to have a body of water near your college you should certainly consider holding a regatta. Don’t have enough room? Nonsense! The dramatic and highly competitive Buffalo Creek Regatta at Strong College took place in the raging (three-inch deep) waters of Buffalo Creek with boats no more than eight inches long.

A successful indoor spring event can be a college art show. Over the course of the year many students will have completed art projects either for classes or on their own, and an open art show in the Junior Common Room can allow them all to display their talents. Invite the senior members and their children to participate as well, and award prizes voted on by the audience for works in a variety of categories from sculpture to drawing to painting to photography. Encourage as many people to participate as possible, even those who don’t think of themselves as artists. Ask the top prize winner to contribute a work to the college’s permanent collection to be displayed in the guest room (2.1.7) or Senior Common Room.

You should also consider sponsoring an annual literary contest in the spring, one that is open to undergraduates in the college or perhaps to the university as a whole. This might be a contest for the best essay on a particular theme, the best poem, the best one-act play, or the best personal memoir. The prize itself can be a cash award, or perhaps an expensive book. Be sure that the winning entries are preserved in the college archives every year and are widely circulated around the university.

3.5.7. Council Elections — The college’s student council should hold elections each spring for the coming year’s offices. There can be a number of elected offices, or you can just as successfully have only a single elected office (the president), and have the president appoint all the other officers with the understanding, and perhaps the procedural mandate, that offices will be proliferated until every interested student has one. The object should be to provide a role and a title for any member of the college who wishes to become actively involved. The dean can establish a few campaigning rules (no loudspeaker announcements in the middle of the night, no papering of corridor walls with campaign posters), the prospective candidates can be asked to submit a ballot petition signed by a certain number of college members (thirty, say) to demonstrate that they have gone to the effort of making themselves known to the community, the final contestants can be given an allotment of time to speak at tea or dinner, and then the election can take place.

3.5.8. Closing the Year — The final weeks of the year should be a time for weaving together the past and the future. The welcoming committee should be excited to be in touch with their fledglings during the coming summer and ready to welcome them when the new year begins. The student council election should be concluded, and at the final college tea of the year or at a dinner-time ceremony the outgoing president should pass the council gavel to the incoming president to the sound of applause all around. At this same tea or dinner you may wish to have a ceremony at which the master awards an annual prize for service to the college, along with any other annual college prizes you may develop. The student council might want to present an award to the faculty member who made the greatest contribution to their work, or to the student who went above and beyond the call of duty in supporting the college community.

The graduating class should draw up a letter addressed to the incoming freshman class that will take their place, a letter that in a sense turns the college over to their care, telling them what to look out for and reminding them that others have been in the places that they are now. Hand-deliver a copy of the letter to each of the new students soon after they arrive at the beginning of the new year.

At one of the final functions of the year, either tea or dinner, be sure to sing. Have a serenade to the graduating seniors, a hymn to the fellows, an ode upon the college cat, or a rap about the council president. You can be sentimental and traditional (“Farewell! be thy destinies onward and bright!”), satirical (“Soon we’ll be out, amid the cold world’s strife / Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life”), or a combination of both; but be sure to be something. Many traditional farewell songs such as “Auld Lang Syne” readily lend themselves to having new verses added, and your existing university song probably does too. Have each graduating class compose a special verse in honor of itself at the end of the year, and accumulate all these verses year after year into a college songbook.

And be sure to make the final college newsletter of each year a spectacular review of the year just past, naming as many people and events as possible, so the lamp of memory will ever burn bright.

3.5.9. Commencement — It is at graduation-time that some of the real benefits of a complete system of residential colleges, rather than just one or two, become evident. Many people have an idyllic picture of college graduation, in which each student proudly walks across a stage to smile and be handed a diploma as friends and family applaud and snap pictures. In small liberal arts colleges this still happens, but in universities of 10,000 students that hold their graduations in massive sports arenas it has long since been abandoned. Some institutions have tried to supplement these massive, impersonal commencements with departmental ceremonies, but these are often odd and irregular affairs with a psychology department taking up a large auditorium for 500 students and guests, while a philosophy department counts itself lucky to have ten graduates. Residential colleges can correct these problems and return depth and closeness to the commencement ceremony.

The ancient distinction between a university and a college is that a university is a degree-granting body, whereas a college is a society one belongs to while studying for a university degree. Universities that have systems of residential colleges can build on this distinction in their commencement ceremonies. Begin the commencement day with the members of each college—junior and senior alike—gathering for breakfast in the college dining room. (A nice touch is to have the fellows wait on the students on this occasion.) The college members then walk in procession through the streets to the large university ceremony at which the degrees are conferred. The parties then return to their collegiate homes and there participate in a college ceremony at which their diplomas are presented individually by the college master. This double ceremony, both parts of which are conducted on the same day, one right after the other, connects students both to the entire university and also to their collegiate home. It allows the students to participate not only in the grandness of the university as a whole, but also in the intimacy of the college family that knows them one by one. And the small college ceremony permits the weaving together of all the classes as well: its musicians and ushers and set-up and clean-up crews should all be younger members of the college who will learn the patterns that lie ahead for them.

When the college as a body sends its graduates out into the world, the commencement day becomes a commencement in the original sense, a beginning. In that small setting it can be filled with what Hannah Arendt called “the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new.”


© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014