“Okay, so you should put your name, year, email, and why you want to be in the course on the index card. Oh! And your residential college because I’ve been told you all like to tell people that,” my new professor explained.
She made a strong first impression. Visiting from a university devoid of our tradition of randomly assigning first-year students to live in one of the “microcosms of the Yale community,” she implied what we all know deep down — our residential colleges tell us nothing about us as people. And yet, after every introduction at a club, dinner or party, we immediately follow the lull in the conversation with a simple first question: “What college are you in?”
I’m going to make some assumptions here, and please let me know if I’ve got it wrong. No one reading this is a tulip in JE’s garden, a “P” in Pierson College, or a poop in Saybrook’s washing machine. No? So, where do we expect the conversation to go when we ask what residential college are you in? What do professors gain by learning what our colleges are when choosing whether to admit us into a seminar? Do professors have sympathy for the long trek from Nova Scotia Benjamin Franklin students make each day or the hunger Morse kids have to be hugged by the walls of a room with four right angles?
Asking about residential colleges is a conversational crutch. The inquiry can lead in only three directions. First, it can be a brief non sequitur followed by rapid-fire shallow questions like “what year are you?”, “what is your major?”, and “where are you from?” Together, these are the four dark horsemen of repetitive questions. Every one of us, but particularly first years, have answered them multiple times just this week. And they often aren’t followed up with any display of genuine interest in the answer. If you care about what someone studies, ask them what got them in the field or what their specific sub-area of interest is. But people are more than their academic standing, so you don’t have to ask about it if you don’t care. The person you’re talking to won’t mind a reprieve from answering the same questions over and over again. And you’ll be less forgettable than if you hadn’t started your conversation asking if they love “Fleabag” as much as you do (everyone should watch “Fleabag”).
If you don’t get these dull questions, asking about residential colleges can lead into an interrogation of what it’s like to live in a particular college. We’ve all had the mediocre brick oven pizza in Berkeley, been awoken from naps by Branford’s bells, and seen the IKEA furniture plopped in Pauli Murray. If you’re so interested in what Trumbull looks like, step foot in it. I know it’s hard to remember that it actually exists, but it’s right next to Sterling Library. You’re at a school filled with genius scientists and future diplomats who all are secretly binge-watching “Friends” during its 25th anniversary. Don’t waste your time asking about décor.
If you avoided that dreary conversation but still asked the useless question, there is only one other end in sight: asking if they know the friends you have in that college. The quickest way to bond with someone is over friends in common. And I know it’s tempting to brag that you’ve seen an elusive classmate from Hopper, rave about that one time you heard someone play cello in Davenport or comfort someone doomed to TD by explaining that you have met someone vaguely fun from there (you haven’t). But there are so many more conversationally enriching ways to find out if you have mutual friends. Ask about organizations they’re involved with, stimulating classes they’ve taken, and cultural groups they spend their time with. That way, not only do you get to find out about the people who share both of your lives, but you also get a semblance of information that teaches you what the person in front of you actually cares about. Rather than learn that they were randomly doomed to spend their college career staring at the calcified Kind Bars that form the walls of Ezra Stiles, you can discover where they place themselves on campus among their peers.
We constantly ask about each other’s residential colleges not because we care but because it seems like everyone else does. The question is expected of us, so we relish in fulfilling our duty. It’s the same reason Global Affairs and EP&E get flooded with applications by students who go on to submit applications to intern for McKinsey and Bain “for fun.” We crave a clear path, we like boundaries and guidelines for the future, and we seek order. It’s nice to have a predictable first question to ask, so we can get the ball rolling. Except our conversations would be so much more interesting if we just asked what we actually wanted to know. Your residential college is not an interesting fact about you…
Unless you’re in Silliman. Silliman is the best residential college.
JACOB HUTT is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .