I have been asked by students on both sides of the cluster housing debate to relay my memories of housing life in the 80s. Here goes:

Preface

The below are my honest and best recollections. Many facts are probably wrong, but none intentionally. Although I have become somewhat identified with the Anchors Away folks, I consider myself to be mostly, anti-anti-free agency. That is, I think that the benefits of free agency are under-appreciated. I also spent 4 years living in a Harvard undergraduate house (Eliot) while working on my Ph.D. I don’t know of anyone involved in this debate who has spent more time in undergraduate housing than I have. Whether that makes my commentary more or less valuable is a matter of opinion. Be that as it may, here is how I remember things. Others are encouraged to comment. In particular, there are several alums of my era (e.g., Katie Kent ’88, Dave Paulsen ’87, Will Dudley ’89, Jen Krause ’89, Tom Smith ’88, Brooks Foehl ’88, Lew Fisher ’89) on campus. Their memories would just as useful, if not more so.

I think that all of the following observations would apply equally well to any of the Greylock houses, as well as to those in Mission. That is, I can’t think of any reasons why Carter would be different from Gladden or Armstrong during the 1980s. Dodd was different — at least it seemed so from a distance — because integrated dining and a remixing of a larger class in the house each year made it different, I think. There were only 20 juniors in Carter while there were 60(?) in Dodd. I think that mattered. The Berkshire Quad was a special place. It seemed to be the closest knit community on campus. Much of what I have to say would probably not apply to it specifically.

Choosing Houses

I lived in Carter House for three years from 1985 to 1988. During the 80s, the housing system was “affiliation” based. In the spring of freshmen year, you got together with a small (no more than 4) group of fellow first years and submitted a ranking of the 5 housing areas on campus: Greylock, Dodd/Tyler, Row Houses, Mission, and Berkshire Quad. Many people ranked Greylock first (all singles, good location). Many ranked the Row Houses first (location, great rooms senior year). Many ranked Dodd first (large community with indoor dining (unless you got Tyler), good senior picks). Some, but not many, ranked Berkshire Quad first (mostly driven by the unique Odd Quad community). Very few ranked Mission first. (I knew of no one who did.) I think that Greylock was the most popular since I can’t think of anyone who ended up there without putting it first.

The fact that pick size was limitted to 4 was a source of some complaint and dissatisfaction. (At least it was to me, as the 5th man out of a 4 man group.) I don’t recall any campus discussion of it or attempts to change it. I think that the general feeling was one of continued social engineering, as with freshmen entries. The College wanted each house on campus to be a microcosm of the Williams community. Small pick sizes and random assignment facilitated that.

But because people could choose and because the Berkshire Quad was generally not chosen, some self-segregation did occur. I think that students in the Berkshire Quad were less likely to be white, heterosexual or varsity athletes during that era. That was the stereotype at least. I am not sure if it was accurate. There can be no doubt that the Berkshire Quad was different and celebrated that difference from the campus mainstream.

The Housing Office then took all the groups, ran some sort of lottery behind the scenes, gave out spots in each cluster until that cluster was filled, and so on. After you were assigned to a cluster, in my case Greylock, you were then assigned to a house within that cluster, in my case Carter. All this occured behind the scenes. We just got a letter from the housing office saying “Carter House”. I don’t recall exactly how that worked in other clusters. That is, I am not sure if more specific assigments were made elsewhere. I think that it was similar. That is, by picking Dodd/Tyler, you took a risk of getting assigned to Tyler for three years even though you really wanted Dodd.

Once you were assigned to a specific house, arrangements were left to that house. It was all quite decentralized. Each house ran its own room draw, although houses were small enough that the pick order was largely determined by seniority and group size. Coin flips were sometimes required. I think that other clusters had room draws that covered several houses. That is, once you were assigned to Row Houses, you might pick into West sophomore year and the Spencer senior year. In Greylock or Mission, once you were in a house among the 4, you were there for good.

Diversity

The houses were quite diverse. With group sizes limitted to 4 and housing choices limitted to 5 broad groups, there was little opportunity for self-segregation of any type to occur. Some of the housing clusters had reputations, but I am not sure how accurate these were.

Professor Tom Smith ’88 claimed that

[A] “major downside of the affiliation system was that, over time, the housing groups developed their own identities. For example, when I was there the Greylock quad became kind of a jock heaven… From what I understand, after I was graduated, these identities became self-perpetuating and more sharply divided into cliques.”

This is simply absurb. No one I know who lived in Greylock from 1985 to 1988 would have described it as “jock heaven.” Carter House was certainly no more than 20% varsity athlete during this time, if that. But I am ready to believe that people in Dodd might have thought of us that way. I often heard it said that Dodd was where all the “preps” lived. I suspect that this stereotype was similarly untrue. Again, with small pick sizes and random allocation, it was almost impossible for any one area to have a collection of students significantly unlike the rest of the campus.

The one exception to this was the Berkshire Quad. It was widely viewed as having less desirable housing. Few students wanted to live in Prospect for three years. Students mainly interested in big, nice old fashioned rooms were more likely to choose the Row House cluster. The fact that a first choice of Berkshire Quad virtually guaranteed housing there facilitated the continued existence of an Odd Quad community. Students who wanted to live there could be sure that, if they picked it first, they would get it.

Within Carter

Carter was somewhat atomized even within itself. There was certainly a “core” part of the house (20%?) — especially the officers, those who regularly came to snacks, those who hung out in the public spaces — who knew most people in the house. As a CC rep and proto-politician/gossip, I was a member of this core. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a portion of the house (10%?), that had little if anything to do with anyone beyond their suitemates and/or close friends. They did not come to snacks. They did not pay dues. They weren’t necessarly bad people (I roomed with some), but they had other interests and priorities.

Most people were in between those two extremes.

Turnover

There was great turnover, year-to-year, in Carter. Baseline, we would expect departing seniors and arriving sophomores to lead to, at least, 1/3 turnover. In fact, turnover was even higher than this, more like 40%-50% because of juniors becoming JAs or going abroard. I don’t remember how many people went abroard, but I remember being impressed with the number, especially common were those taking a semester off. Some rising seniors also departed from the house early, for co-ops or off campusing housing. I think that the housing office still tried to maintain equal ratios among the classes. This seemed to be accomplished mostly by allowing seniors to transfer in, generally as singles. Transfers and exchange students from other schools, many of whom were juniors, were also placed in the house in spaces that opened up. Movements and transfers of entire rooming groups were highly unusual if not unheard of.

Seniors

Most seniors knew fewer than half the sophomores in the house by name. Some seniors were transfers. Others were much more focussed on their senior friends and their activities. They also tended to give a great deal of thought to recruiting and post-Williams plans. There was little overlap between the sorts of classes that sophomores and seniors took. Senior men occasional took an interest in sophomore women, but senior women seemed to have little interest in sophomore men.

There were very few seniors who could be described as unfriendly, but, outside of members of the core group, they had little interest, inclination or opportunity to reach out to sophomores. I think that most seniors (80%+) knew the names of the other seniors in the house.

Those seniors who went into co-ops or lived off campus were still, I guess, affliated with the house. I seem to remember that they were invited to the big parties like home coming. But they had no meaningful connection to the house. Once they moved on, they had little reason to visit or stay in touch.

Juniors

Juniors were both the odd group out in the house and the center of it. They were odd group out because of all the comings-and-goings associated with junior year. JAs left, of course, and these were certainly some of the more social, involved and friendly members of the house. As JAs, they had very little if anything to do with the house, although they stayed in touch with their suitemates and close friends. Many juniors went abroad — perhaps 1/4 of the class, perhaps more. Some were gone for the year; more common was a semester away. This led to both change around in rooming groups as rising sophomores needed to organize suites in their absence. It also led to some mixing in of transfer/exchange students.

Juniors, especially those that stayed in the house all year, were also at the center of the house. They were often the house officers. They knew many of the seniors, especially those that had been in the house the previous year. They were more interested in meeting sophomores since they knew that they had another year to live with most of them.

Sophomores

Most sophomores knew the names of fewer than half the seniors in the house. Those that did were most often part of the core of the house. Sophomores, especially sophomores that came in as a part of 4 person pcik groups (by far the most common configuration),were most comfortable hanging out with the suite and or the other sophomores that they met in the house. Like first year entries, sophomore suites often trooped together to Greylock for dinner. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to meet other people; it was just that each individual wanted to ensure that there was someone to eat with — very few people ate in the dining hall alone during dinner and even fewer would join a table at which they didn’t know anyone — and the easiest way to ensure that was to go over together.

Meals

And sophomores weren’t the only ones to eat with their suite. Indeed, one of my strongest memories was of the eating segregation that occured in the dining hall, especially around dinner time. A majority of the house had dinner with the same set of people more than 80% of the time. I would say that fewer than 1/4 of the seniors shared a meal with more than 1/2 the sophomores in the house over the course of their year together. The same was true in reverse. Again, it wasn’t that anyone disliked anyone else. You just walked over with who you knew and sat with who you knew. On average, I would say that seniors in Carter shared more meals with seniors in other Greylock houses than they did with sophomores in Carter. (The same was not true in reverse since many/most sophomores did not know the other sophomores in Greylock.)

Other clusters

The campus as a whole was quite atomized. There were scores of people in my class who lived in Mission or Dodd that I never laid eyes on between freshmen year and graduation day. To the extent that you knew classmates in other clusters, it was because of outside activities. I knew the people who played squash, who were on College Council, who took philosophy courses and were involved in political debate.

Things might have been different in other areas, especially Dodd and the Berkshire Quad. The same Record interview claims that, during the 80’s,

Instead of being football players or Springstreeters or biology majors, people were Spencer, Carter or Dennett residents. [Professor Tom] Smith and his friends were assigned to Dodd House after freshman year, and since they did not transfer or swap, they lived there for three years.

There were football players, Springstreeters and biology majors in Carter. I don’t know of any who were Carter House residents first. I don’t know of anyone for whom this is true in Greylock or in Mission. But it might very well have been true for Tom and his friends in Dodd. Dodd was different, or at least in could have been. I wouldn’t know. To the extent that it was, I suspect that the reason was the larger number of students from each class there, but that would be a guess.

To the extent that you knew anyone in the other clusters it was because of some sort of cross cutting cleavage. They were in your freshmen entry or played on your sport team or were in one of your classes.

Within Greylock

The Greylock Quad as a whole was quite atomized. As a sophomore in Carter, you knew very few seniors or even juniors in other houses in the Quad, unless you had some connection to them outside of housing. As a senior, the same was true in reverse.

People in each house tended to stick together. Carter House Ephs ate meals with other Carter House people. Of course you saw, day in and day out, the same faces from the other houses, often for three years. But the typical student only had cross house interactions if there was already a reason — some other connection or activity — for knowing those other students.

In Greylock, I would guess that more than 90% of the dinners were eaten by people at tables made up of only members of their house.

House Government

House government and social life was run by a handful of people. We had a a president, two vice presidents, a treasurer, maybe a social chair. They were popularly elected, either for a semester or for the whole year. Elections were usually not hard fought and there was a sense of rising through the ranks. I think that many presidents were vice presidents first. Basic consideration was that house residents wanted a nice, responsible person who would ensure that the parties, especially the bigs ones like Homecoming and Winter Carnival, came off well, that good snacks were purchased and so on.

House officers served mostly to get things done. They collected dues, bought snacks, organized parties, picked dates for cookouts, found a car for tailgates and so on. They got to make the key decisions, but they were also the ones who did most of the work. Clean up crew after parties was largely a house officer affair.

House Events

The central house social function was snacks. These were held Sunday evenings. I think that about half the house attended regularly, often making a special trip back from the library for the purpose. Another 1/4 attended on occasion. 1/4 of the house rarely attended, either because they had other obligations or they didn’t like it. Snacks were funded with house dues. A small but non zero (10%?) portion of the house refused to contribute dues, either because they didn’t like house events or because they preferred to spend their money elsewhere. Those folks never came to snacks.

Throwing and attending parties was the major social function of the house. Parties were thrown on the major week-ends (Homecoming, Winter Carnival) as well as other occasions. We generally threw the parties in conjunction with one of the row houses. So, Winter Carnival would be with Spencer and Bryant (or whatever). House presidents were in charge of organizing all of this, but it seemed to work. Carter would chip in money and provide labor for set up and clean up.

The House threw smaller parties, on occasion, but these were not common. These were generally just a keg or two, along with music and dancing in the common room. All House events were designed to appeal to a majority of House residents, as seemed reasonable at the time. Since this was true for all Houses, most campus parties had a similar feel.

Cookouts were a regular feature of house life during nice weather. We probably had 2 or 3 per semester. These were attended, not so much for the food, but for the casual atmosphere. Some of my fondness house memories are of tossing around a Nerf football at cookouts. Tailgates were also part of home football games, although not a big house focus per se. That is, students wandered all over the tailgate area, drinking and talking. You might stop by the house car to grab something, but students mingled freely everywhere.

Cookouts and tailgates were often done in conjunction with other houses, more for logistical convenience than anything else. House officers arranged this and went with whichever house they knew/liked/trusted the house officers of.

Suites sometimes threw parties, but these were often not-intended for the larger house, although no one would stop you at the door. The key party suites were the basement on the north side of the house (generally considered prime senior housing) and the first floor room to the south side.

Intramurals

There were some house intramurals, but they were a very small part of house life. The main intramural leagues were soccer (which I played) and basketball. They were not house based. I was especially fond of soccer. The league organizers did a nice job of ensuring that the teams were fair and mixing up people from all over campus. I never played basketball, but seem to recall that people made their own teams.

In terms of intra-house intramurals, I remember that there was basketball, which some of my roomates decided they were going to win one year because, dammit, they were the best non-varsity players on campus. The house played broomball during Winter Study, which a core handful took pretty seriously. (I regret not trying that at least once.) I don’t recall any other house intramurals. In sum, house intramurals were a very small part of house life. No more than 20%, if that, of the residents ever suited up on behalf of Carter House.

Faculty Interaction

There was very little faculty interaction that was house-based. I don’t think that there was a faculty member associated with the house when I was a sophomore. Junior year, my roommates discovered the position and got one of their favorite faculty members to become the house associate. She attended the faculty dinners and was fun to chat with, but that was about it.

Once a semester there was a special house dinner — I forget the term — at which we could invite a faculty member, have simple cocktails at the house beforehand, and then eat a sit down meal in the back big room of the dining hall. These were nice events and I invited a faculty member on at least a couple of occasions. But, even if you didn’t invite someone, others did. You could also go to lunch with faculty members. I did this on several occasions, but it had nothing to do with Carter or even Greylock.

There was no other house-based connection to the faculty. Faculty members did not care/know where you lived.

Other House Activities

As best I can recall, there were none. The House took no trips together. The House did not play Trivia together. Almost no one cared about snow sculptures, although I remember my roommate and a couple of others working on ours senior year. I think that the house might have bought t-shirts one year or maybe caps.

At least 1 or 2 years, the house organized a house photo. My genius roommates were smart enough to realize that we wanted generations of students to remember us, so we dressed accordingly. At the same time, the house was too disorganized/apthetic to show up for the yearbook photo at least one year during my time.

Campus Parties

Parties were generally open to all students, although I think that big events, like Winter Carnival, might have been restricted to the students from the associated houses. There were a handful of traditional campus parties, parties that seemed to descend from time immemorial. One was the Black and White at Dodd (serving Black and White Russions), another was the 100 day party for seniors. There might have been a few others (Trick or Drink on Halloween?), but these were not the standard fair.

Conclusion

Did anyone really read this far? I hope not. Again, I have tried to portray life in Carter and Greylock and Williams from 1985 to 1988 accurately, without regard to my opinion about anchor housing. Those who lived in places like Dodd or the Berkshire Quad might have had different experiences, but I find it hard to believe that they were that different. But I doubt that anyone who lived in Greylock or Mission would disagree with the description above.

The main reason that I am against any movement away from free agency — whether that be anchor housing or a return to the affliation system — is that the Carter House and Greylock Quad that I knew in the 80s was a fairly atomized society. It wasn’t a bad society and, like the vast majority of my classmates, I look back on those years fondly. But it was far from a perfect society and the worst aspect of it — the low number of people that you got to know over several years — seems to have been largely ameliorated under free agency.

It is better for the typical Williams student to meet one less member of a class 2 years away from her and one more member of her own class. Free agency makes that happen.

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