This is the third installment of our seminar about my plan (pdf) to fix Williams housing.
The Davis Conjecture: The fundamental unit of social life at Williams should be the academic class-year, not the physical house.
Students from the same class who want to live together should be allowed and encouraged to do so. The more that students interact with a wide variety of their fellow Ephs, and the more years that this interaction is allowed to occur, the better off everyone will be.
In other words, the “should” in the Davis Conjecture is making an empirical claim. Define an outcome for Williams housing that you care about, say the number of meal conversations that an average student has with other students who are very different (however defined) from her. Measure that outcome under both the current system and under one in which students are housed by class-year. The Davis Conjecture is that all these outcomes will be better under a class-year system than they would be under any other system (which meets the other necessary assumptions).
Moreover, students recognize this. Organize a campus vote which pits the current Neighborhood System against either my plan or any plan which organizes housing by class-year. The Davis Conjecture — originated by Diana Davis ’07, an Anchors Away organizer — suggests that student, on the whole, prefer class-year based living, at least among all the possible systems that are consistent with out other assumptions.
Note that the Davis Conjecture asserts nothing negative about, say, the interaction between seniors and sophomores. Plenty of such cross-class interaction will continue to occur, especially within the student organizations that transcend academic class: sports teams, singing groups, literary publications, student government and so on. But the reality is that a given Eph will only have the opportunity to make X number of friends, have Y number of meaningful conversations, share Z meals in the dining hall during her four years at Williams.
Consider a sophomore sitting down to lunch in April with a senior that she has never met before, someone from a very different background. Such lunches are, potentially, a big part of the learning that goes on outside the classroom. The problem with this lunch is not so much the event itself, but the fact that this relationship will probably not develop since, in two months, the senior graduates. These two Ephs, from different backgrounds, don’t have enough opportunity to interact. The real problem, then, is with the lunch that did not happen, the lunch between this sophomore and her fellow sophomore from that very different background. If the sophomore had lunch with a senior, she did not have lunch with her classmate, she did not start a relationship which could then develop over the next two years instead of being still-born over the next two months.
One of the goals of Williams housing policy is that these friendships and conversations represent a fair cross-section of Williams students. The more time that a student spends with others in her class, the more likely the most (stereotypically) unlikely of relationships are to develop. Senior/sophomore interaction is not a bad thing in itself. It is a bad thing because it takes the place of greater sophomore/sophomore interaction. There is more than enough diversity within each Williams class to expose every student to the full panoply of backgrounds and outlooks that the College brings together for the benefit of her education. Know your class and you will know Williams.