Opinion guest column

A new community, a new experience

For Bexlians, moving to another dorm, like Burton-Conner, may help foster new identities

There has understandably been a great deal of anxiety on campus about how best to relocate the hundred or so displaced Bexley residents who will need to be housed in a different place come fall than everyone had been expecting. We would like to find a solution that is ‘fair,’ but of course there is no obvious fix that is fair to everyone. Relocating a number of students from a place they had settled themselves, into the midst of other people who had also already settled themselves, poses very real challenges.

Putting people together unexpectedly can be the source of great human strife; but it can also be the root of really great things. Part of my scholarly focus is in an area called ‘macro-historical dynamics’ — the study of large social processes that unfold over long periods of time and usually across large areas of space. Investigation into the rise and spread of communicable disease around the globe shows that they have emerged in pockets of human density and follow patterns of human movement. But density and exchange are also responsible for the acceleration of innovation and technical change. In a seminal article published in the QJE (1993) while he was in the Economics Dept. at MIT, Michael Kramer documents the strong association between population growth and the rapidity of technological advance. At the margins more crowded dorms will result in some inconveniences, certainly, but also new social opportunities, with benefits unknown.

Many of us form strong identities to a particular place, or a particular community. But we also move between communities. Indeed, the process of coming to MIT in the first place is surely one such major move. Our experiences here are not diminished by virtue of the fact that we come from somewhere else. Indeed, in many respects they are enhanced by that fact. As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of studying under the great economic historian Carlo Cipolla. He spent every fall teaching at Berkeley and every spring in his native Italy. He favorite way to begin a course was to tell his students that, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This was perhaps one of the most formative ideas for me on my path to becoming a serious historian. I still have the yellow legal pad in which I took lecture notes the first time I TA’ed for him, and sure enough when I went back and looked, there is that phrase in my hasty scrawl with double asterisks punctuating both ends of it. Carlo was a bridge for all of his students, from two continents of course in that roundtrip migration he made every year, but also a bridge across time. He was my conduit into the past.

Now I realize that geographically Bexley is in no way as far from other MIT living spaces as either Italy is from Northern California, or the present is from the Middle Ages. But for the students who are experiencing this migration, the distance in space and cultural setting is real enough. And the opportunities for bridging difference are likewise there. I write this not yet knowing which, or even how many, Bexley residents will move into dorms such as the one I am privileged to serve as a housemaster, Burton-Conner. But I do want to say to you, whoever you are, that you are most welcome in Burton-Conner. Hopefully you will find things to like about us, just the way we already are; and we will find the same about you. But I also hope that this unplanned happenstance helps us both to change in constructive ways, to become something that might not have been possible unless we had come together. I’m looking forward to the adventure into the future ­­­­— also a foreign country where let’s hope we really will do at least a few things differently.

Anne EC McCants is the Housemaster of Burton-Conner.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

It sounds like your heart is in the right place, but this is kind of tin-eared and shows that even members of the MIT community don't truly understand the powerful and wonderful and incredibly unique things that come out of MIT's historic dorm system. At its best, our system throws generations together in a way that creates enduring, but evolving cultural traditions. It facilitates genuine and long lasting connections between students and alumni. It supports students through the hazing that is an MIT education by providing them a true place to call home, and the irreverence of spaces like Bexley generates creative and out-of-the-box thinkers. It is a system that is found at virtually no other school and is truly a reason that some people choose to come to MIT over places like Stanford (which forces cross cultural communication by moving people around every year). I would encourage you to read the letters from Bexleyites in this issue to get a full sense of the power and importance of community here to them.


To abuse your analogy - Bexleyites are not traveling from Italy to Berkeley and back every year for cross cultural experiences - they are being displaced as refugees while Italy sinks into the ocean. This isn't about cross cultural communication - its about the possibility of the obliteration of a culture in its entirety.

You may or may not personally value that culture, but I think it is important to understand that this is how it feels. As a housemaster, if you place importance on the spaces, cultures, art, etc. that MIT students create, then you should find this closure at least a little depressing to watch.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

There are some flavors of diversity - some types of "cross-cultural experience" - that vastly enrich residential life, and there are some types that do not. MIT living groups (including Bexley) already have the beneficial sort of cultural diversity.

Like Bexley my community has students from all over the world, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and from most majors. We learn from each other every day in the way that Professor McCants describes, talking about what expectations our families have for us, foreign policy, and research in different fields.

But in some ways, the people in my entry (and especially my suite) are pretty similar. We agree on what sort of social events are fun and what appropriate noise levels are. It is these similarities that define my entry's "culture" and are why we chose to live here.

What would happen without these similarities, if my entry were combined with a different community? When people differ on whether dance parties are fun or whether 2 am is a good time to talk about math in the hall, they don't learn from each other's cultural differences -- they just don't hang out with each other. This is the case in many of MIT's less tight-knit communities, like the dorm I lived in as a freshman. I wish I knew my freshman neighbors better, but their interests interests (a capella, dance) were too different from mine for me to get to know them well. As a result, I interacted very little with them. I did not get to benefit from the huge swath of cultural experiences that MIT students bring with them until I moved into a dorm where people were, yes, more like me.