Caring deeply about our new dining hall plates seems petty. They are generic, but they will cut down on both food waste and theft. Still, we cannot warm up to them. We look at the new white china and miss the distinct college identities the old plates carried. But we’re also unsure what those identities mean to us.
Our colleges should be more than just places where we turn in our schedules each semester. We just don’t know exactly what that more is. Colleges are our first support systems and our last stops at Commencement; they are concrete reasons why we are better than Harvard. But they should not be the only part of life at Yale, or even the most important part.
Students have questioned the exact role of colleges since the buildings were built. Archibald Foord ’37, whose graduating class was the first to live with colleges for all four years, praised the new residences in his class book for becoming “much more than a dormitory unit.” But even then, he wrote that some colleges gained reputations for being better than others.
Pictures and stories about college shows, clubs and activities fill class books from the next few decades. Intramural teams with real rosters garnered almost as much attention as varsity sports. But in a survey in the class book, 47 percent of members of the class of 1955 still said they would prefer “a more developed college plan.”
Colleges have some inherent advantages over other other organizations on campus. They are the only groups we fall into randomly. Foord wrote in 1937 that colleges put us all on equal footing. They really are microcosms of the school as a whole.
But there is no prescribed way for a college to make a mark on its students’ lives. From the beginning, masters adopted different strategies. Foord wrote about Berkeley’s “laissez-faire system, under which all spontaneous student activity was supported by the Master.” Davenport hosted weekly beer dinners. Timothy Dwight Master James Grafton Rogers held an annual “‘Plaster Night’ to commemorate the falling of the ceilings when the college first opened and chunks of plaster were distributed at each dinner plate.”
Masters can and should still have enormous sway over college identity. Now that budgets are equalized and jaunts to Italy no longer possible, the personality of each college is left to define it. That begins with the professors who host the Teas.
Veteran masters have done just that in recent memory in Pierson and Branford, among other colleges. But terms are shortening, budgets are shrinking, and masters have less of a chance to sculpt real college spirit. That means that today’s college identities depend on the little things — Stiles’ invasions of other dining halls, Calhoun’s initiation, and the plates.
Some students will gravitate away from their colleges immediately after their arrival on campus. Others will answer those desperate emails from IM captains. All of us are only here for four years. That quick turnover means only institutional memory can preserve the distinct college personalities that make alumni ask us what college we live in.
The plates were institutions that reminded us as freshmen, once the pomp of the first few days had died down, that a college’s embrace is not just a show. Now that they are gone, we need masters and deans to build new quirks elsewhere.