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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Feed Them and They Will Come

[Formal dinner at the high table, Hatfield College, Durham University]

Not just Cambridge: Formal dinner at Hatfield College, Durham, as seen by RJO from the high table.

— Food is the currency of all social transactions in a residential college. That’s a central Collegiate Way principle, and truer words were never spoken. A visiting American student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, has posted to his blog this week a lovely “Ode to formal hall” that illustrates this principle perfectly.

Formal hall in the Cambridge University colleges is a weekly, or monthly, or term-ly sit-down dinner in the college dining hall, for which people dress up.

Every college does it a little differently, and the character of formal hall is a little window into the soul of a college. Some colleges hold formal hall quite often, others quite rarely; some require academic gowns, others do not; some seat the fellows (i.e. teaching faculty) of the college at an elevated “high table,” others are more egalitarian; some have their own port and a cheese course after dinner, others don’t; some have multiple elaborate graces in Latin, others have a pithy two-word blessing. Most colleges have pre-dinner drinks and post-dinner parties in other spaces on the college grounds.

Does your residential college have a formal dinner of this kind? It should. And don’t tell me you can’t do it or it’s too expensive or no one will show up. I just don’t believe it. If one of the most distinguished scholars of the past half-century is able to host formal dinners for his undergraduates in smoggy impersonal Los Angeles, you can too: “‘Most of the time students just eat in the cafeteria, which is an eat-and-run experience,’ [USC college master Stephen] Toulmin said. ‘But at least once a week we like to get a fair number of students sitting down and having some kind of conversation with each other.’”

The ode-authoring student quoted above is not the only American visitor who has sung the praises of formal residential college dinners—the antithesis of the food-court-style McDonaldized experience one finds on all too many U.S. campuses. It is fitting, though, that he’s a student at Emmanuel, which is the parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent of most residential colleges in the United States.

In addition to his “Ode to formal hall,” this same student also posted a few weeks ago an account of his introduction to the formal hall experience, “4 glasses of wine + orientation.” Read them both and ask yourself and your colleagues how you can replicate, for your students, the experience Cambridge is giving to this American visitor.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016