French House, New House, All the Houses
nostalgic about an unlived past
“Only five minutes of French at dinner? Not even French for the whole dinner?” A French House alum asked me in disbelief. As the French House historian, I got some quiet reactions from other interviewees when they asked me whether the current French House still spoke French, but this alum’s reaction was the strongest. I didn’t know how to respond except with a sheepish grin. I felt like I had said the most disappointing thing to a former ministre de l’éducation who once held French marathons and made French required on Wednesdays. Compared to French House in the old days, the current French House is as French as “oui oui baguette”.
It took me a few seconds for me to recollect myself before I responded with a rather unsatisfactory answer about the current state of French House. “Well, you see, French House doesn’t really speak French anymore as we are more centered on cooking rather than French language and culture. French is not required to live here anymore. The five minutes of French didn’t go well since some ended up eating in awkward silence.” I wish I had a better answer. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t know why French no longer had a big presence in La Maison Française (LMF). I hated my response because it sounded like I had resigned myself to the fact that French House wasn’t that French anymore and that it was fine for things to stay the same way.
Over the course of the semester, I interviewed many French House alums across the decades from the 70s to the 00s.Doing so has made me develop some nostalgia for MIT’s past. It’s a strange feeling to have considering that I never had those memories. Although I harbored these feelings when I watched clips from MIT: Regressions depicting vibrant undergraduate communities, this yearning became stronger as I got more involved in my French House history project.
Before appointing myself as a historian and starting this project, I never thought too much about how much French House dorm culture changed. I knew that the community had a much greater focus on French language and culture before, but that was a thing of the past. Although I cameto French House expecting to learn some basic French as a budding Francophile, I was delighted to be in a community with a strong tradition of cooking that remains consistent since its founding: dinners six days a week, a cook team that starts at four o’clock, a loud call of “à table!” at 6:15 p.m., and a hearty home-cooked meal. Not only do I love the cooking and baking culture at French House, but I also love the people here. Despite having different personalities and backgrounds, the residents know one another well, making this place feel like home.
Each of the French House alums I interviewed had distinct experiences. Nonetheless, one thing that they all had in common was fond memories of French House being a close and tight-knit community. A community where people still keep in touch decades after graduation and where some even met their current spouse. I was happy to hear pleasant memories about French House from alums, but what left a greater impression on me was learning about how much French House has changed over time.
Despite these changes, I enjoy living in the current French House. After interviewing alums, however, I now feel like I am missing out on something, whether it is dinner conversations in French or pranks on German House. Even small things, such as the times when we sang La Marseillaise while waving the French flag and the humorous French skits in the i3 videos, feel sentimental. It is cynical of me to say that the future French House cannot go back to its old days when speaking French was the norm, but the situation feels quite difficult to reverse. It’s not that there aren’t people that don’t know how to speak French; half of the current residents took French in high school or take it in college. Rather, we do not cultivate the expectation to speak French, which is an important distinction to make.
One may argue that culture is not lost but rather changes over time. For French House, some changes include weekly Cartesian plots of residents and watching bad, yet entertaining, TV shows on weeknights. Yet the change from French house speaking French to its current state feels like a loss that can’t be ignored — we aren’t that different from German house now. While I don’t find this transition ideal, I am glad that French House’s recruitment has become more inclusive for incoming residents like me who didn’t take French in high school. Nowadays, there’s a greater emphasis on one’s interest in cooking and/or baking. Despite this shift in recruitment, shouldn’t there at least be activities and traditions that encourage enthusiasm and interest in French language and culture, like French movie nights?
The more I write, the more frustrated I am about not knowing why I am frustrated about this whole thing. Why can’t I simply be content with how French House is the way it is? Does it really matter that French House isn’t what it was originally? I love the community and won’t forget countless memories I had here, from conversations with friends until sunrise to singing karaoke with others after Dîner de Nöel. I cherish the meals I had here and the birthday surprises.
Usually, writing these articles provide clarity and help me articulate my thoughts, but this time I don’t have a coherent answer. Perhaps there are times like these when I don’t know. All I can say is that my sadness comes from the fact that things have been lost over time and have not come back.
It’s not just French House that lost some aspects of its culture over time. It’s also the other houses in New House, the floors of Burton Conner, and other dorm communities impacted by renovations or the pandemic. East Campus will also lose its culture because of renovations. East Side culture has declined ever since the demolition of Bexley and the closing of Senior House.
As the years pass by, the memories of dorms will become fainter, to the point that they will sound like fictional tales and fewer people will pass down these stories year to year. Traditions like Steer Roast already feel so foreign. Even the existence of murals in New House not too long ago feels like an entirely different era. In short, MIT's dorm culture is more vanilla than before. This sense of loss is a collective feeling that I have heard of and read about in various places like the MIT Admissions blogs, the French House kitchen, ESP meetings, and so much more.
From old pictures to rabbit holes on The Tech, this project made me realize that MIT dorm life has changed a lot. While I enjoyed obtaining random nuggets of information from these interviews, part of me feels sad that so much has been lost, whether it be old traditions or beautiful murals. The renovations made the dorm nicer and cleaner, but the white walls make the place feel sterile and lifeless. At the start of the school year, I thought of what colorful drawings and murals could go on the white walls to make the living space more unique and cozy. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I attended MIT twenty years ago. I probably would struggle to recognize the current French House, which no longer has French-themed murals like the green Metro sign and the delightful old fridge painted as Le Petit Larousse.
While that moment of the interview was awkward, the rest of the interview went fine as I asked the four alums to share interesting stories of French House, whether it was funny Secret Santa gifts at Dîner de Nöel to French House pranks on German House. As the interview came to an end, however, the alums started discussing their concerns about how much MIT has changed ever since they left in regard to MIT administration and dorm culture.
“Someone told me that MIT is becoming like Stanford, and they didn’t mean it as a compliment,” an alum remarked with a troubled look. The conflict between MIT administration and undergraduates has been a recurring topic of discussion that I was aware of, but these words painted the issue in a different light.
If MIT is becoming like Stanford, then what does that entail for the future of the undergraduate living experience at MIT? Will MIT end up following other colleges like Stanford by adopting a residential college system such that students are assigned to a random dorm instead of choosing their own living groups? Will the concept of four-year residential halls at MIT become erased in place of freshman-only and upperclassmen dorms? No one can predict what will happen in the next ten or twenty years.
My questions may sound overly pessimistic, but it is evident that MIT is gradually adopting policies that follow the direction of other colleges, such as preventing New Vassar to be a swing dorm for BC residents or implementing stricter policies on murals. It is hard to predict what MIT dorm life will look like in the next ten or twenty years, and I have no good answer for what MIT will become, whether it follows other universities or keeps the current dormitory structure or something in the middle. All I can do is hope that current MIT students who deeply care about their dorm communities will pass down this passion to future class years and that future students will continue to fight for the preservation of MIT’s unique undergrad living experience. The future rests on us.