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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 2000–2021