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Tea: The Foundation of Residential College Life

[Camellia sinensis] — Is there one secret of success in residential college life? There is indeed: tea.

The new academic year is upon us and there is nothing more important you can do, if you are a residential college officer, than to begin a weekly college tea. Don’t wait until the term is underway; that will be too late. It’s essential to start during the very first week of the year, or even before, during orientation week if possible. Here’s a quick how-to manual.

The first thing to understand, of course, is that tea is not a drink, much less a plant; it is an occasion. The purpose of the occasion is to knit the college together as a body over the long term, and to provide a island of family-like comfort in the sometimes troubled waters of university life. To accomplish this purpose three things are required: (1) tea must take place every week at the same time; (2) it must take place every week in the same location; and (3) it must be almost completely unstructured.

(1) Tea must take place at the same time every week, week after week, all year long without fail. When it falls on the day before Christmas vacation you must hold it as usual; when it falls during exam week you must hold it as usual; when it falls the day before commencement you must hold it as usual. The reason a fixed and immutable time is so important is that you want it to become automatic: no one should have to wonder whether tea is happening this week, or if it’s been moved to a different day, or a different hour. University life is full of a million changing dates and times that overload the brain: classes, labs, office hours, exams, work schedules, seminars, concerts, and on and on. When new students arrive they are often and understandably overwhelmed. Tea should be their anchor: they will always know when it is, and it’s always there when they show up. If you skip a week, and someone comes down looking for tea and finds no one there, you’ve lost that person forever. The weekly rhythm of the college, and the annual rhythm as well, has tea as its pacemaker.

What is the best time for tea? Opinions will differ, but I’d strongly recommend something along the lines of 4:30–5:30 p.m. Why? You want the time for tea to cross two hour-blocks, so that people who are already scheduled from either 4:00–5:00 or 5:00–6:00 will not be completely shut out. And by holding tea at the conventional end of the work day, you can more easily pull in faculty and staff on the way home from their offices; cross-campus spouses can even meet at tea. The 4:30–5:30 period is a convenient time for people looking to plan their evening’s activities, as well, and for people wishing to assemble before going to dinner. A really smart university will reserve tea-time campus wide, so that no other trivialities (like classes or administrative meetings) are scheduled during this important hour.

What’s the best day? Opinions will differ here too, but any weekday from Monday through Thursday can be successful. If I had to pick one, I’d pick Tuesday. But whichever day you choose, you must stick to it, not just from week to week, but from year to year as well. Alumni returning to campus should recognize the familiar time and place of tea well into the future. And don’t forget to advertise each week: if you have tea every Tuesday, say, be sure to post a set of tea announcements around the college every Monday afternoon, and then take them down for reuse every Tuesday evening.

(2) Tea must take place at the same location every week. This location should be the geographic heart and hearth of the college, and will most often be the college’s Junior Common Room. Holding tea in the same location every week is as important as holding it at the same time: this is the only way attendance becomes automatic. It also simplifies set-up and take-down: a cupboard or closet in the JCR can contain all the needed supplies and equipment.

A crowded JCR tea tableWhat is needed? A large serving table (a folding table with a table cloth will work just fine), a few trays for cookies and snacks, a supply of napkins, a board game or two, a vase for flowers, a punch bowl or some equivalent beverage-serving container, and perhaps a pot for hot water. (Whether the drink tea is present or not is irrelevant, though you might want to have a box of tea bags somewhere, just to avoid charges of false advertising.) The most important of these supplies, and the one that will go the fastest, is the supply of cookies. Don’t put them all out at the beginning: hold half of them back so there are a few left for late-comers.

Swordplay in the JCRWhen tea takes place in the same room—let’s say the Junior Common Room—all year and year after year, the room itself becomes a place of living memory. Conversations at tea will note how the leaves are turning in the fall outside the window, and how the bulbs are sprouting in the spring just as they did the year before; people will remember the special cake someone baked last term and how it lit up the room, or the time an opossum appeared at the window, or even when a swordfight erupted in the middle of the afternoon. The regular location will allow you to better adapt the room to your needs as well: do you really need one more lamp, or an extra sofa? Is there one spot that needs an extra curtain to block the afternoon sun? Over time, the occasion and the room will come to fit one another as hand and glove.

(3) Tea must be an unstructured occasion. Let there be no lectures, no presentations, no assignments, and no duties to perform in attending tea. (And since you’re holding it in the Junior Common Room there must certainly be no television present at tea.). Why? Because the purpose of tea is for people to talk with each other. They must be able to come and go as they please, arrive early, arrive late, stay as long as they like, and follow where fancy leads. The moment you impose structures you will lose half your audience, and the wellsprings of spontaneous invention will dry up.

To say that tea should be unstructured, however, does not mean that it should be unworked. In fact, tea will be one of the most important working occasions for all the college’s officers every week. The master and the dean should travel the room from circle to circle, meeting new people, introducing students and faculty to one another, catching up on incomplete stories from the week before, checking to see how people are doing, and planting ideas right and left. “Did you know that Mary over there is also thinking of changing her major? Why don’t you go talk to her.” “Professor X is also a gourmet chef, you know. Why don’t you ask him for advice on your upcoming luau.” “I didn’t know you liked gardening. Say, why don’t you help me trim the rose bushes this weekend.” (A good college officer will always have a dozen ready-made projects in mind waiting for an appropriate volunteer.)

In describing the importance of theacean structurelessness to a colleague once, he evinced befuddlement and said that a campus residential program he worked with had been holding something like tea, but its purpose was to enable students to meet distinguished visitors. My answer: distinguished visitors are all well and good, but what the students need more than anything, over the long term, is an opportunity to meet you and get to know you. (And you need an opportunity to meet them and really get to know them.)

The only regular structure that should be built into tea is a moment or two for announcements and introductions, held perhaps fifteen minutes into the hour. A most important tea accessory will come into play here: the college tea bell. A ring of the bell will bring the room to attention, the master or the dean can welcome everyone, invite any members with guests to introduce their guests to the room, announce next week’s election (or garden party, or volleyball game, or field trip, or space launch), and then set the bell by the serving table and resume working the crowd. The bell should be out and available for the whole hour, so anyone else with a special announcement can shake it into service.

There will be times when attendance is low and there will be times when attendance is high. There will be times when the roof is leaking and times when the cookies run out. But if you keep the rhythm going, before you know it your students will be emailing you right about this time of year to say, as one of mine once did, “I can’t wait for tea to start. I felt like I was in a social desert all summer.”

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016