Saturday, May 09, 2009

Against college room-sharing

A scandal has erupted because the mother of a Stanford student (herself bearing degrees from Yale and Harvard, no less) wrote an article in the National Review about how her daughter had been placed, against her will, in a coed living situation. Not a suite, but a dorm room, just one room, with boys. Lo and behold, turns out the young woman, a senior, was happy to be in a coed dorm room, was not placed in one at the whim of Stanfordian PC police, and wants nothing more than for her mother to leave well enough alone:

"This conflict has very little to do with Stanford and gender-neutral housing. Is has everything to do with my parents having a hard time adjusting to the fact that I’m out of the house (I’m the oldest), I’m 3,000 miles away, and -especially- that I’m a liberal agnostic while they are conservative Catholics."

This is an expression I never use, but here it seems about right: Oy.

But you know what? While I feel for the Stanford student now forced to take out loans because her mother's stubbornness overrides her desire for her daughter to get a degree that will help her immeasurably later in life, I don't think putting men and women (or girls and boys - what does one call college students?) in the same rooms is the best idea. I also don't think same-sex room-sharing with strangers who just happen to attend the same college is advisable.

The way out of the gender-neutral housing mess, the one thing that would successfully address the fact that for a not insignificant part of the population, sharing a room with someone of the same sex is in fact the more erotic alternative, while also addressing the fact that most people are straight and not blasé enough to share a room with a member of the opposite sex with no weirdness, would be to challenge the notion that college students must share rooms, period.

After all, why, when space is not an issue, is there the expectation that starting college means sharing a room with a complete stranger? (And is it ever really about space? As anyone who's lived in a typical New York apartment knows, a 'bedroom' need only be a bed with walls around it and enough space to climb in.) I want answers.

If I had to guess, schools' prefer shared rooms over, say, suites, for the same reason as our nation's high school students have to play team sports: It Builds Character. Just as a child who grows up with his own room is often assumed spoiled, a college student wishing to live alone his first year of college is presumed to think that he, a child, deserves to be treated like a king. That, or it's assumed he either has strange personal habits or trouble making friends, choosing a single room so as to avoid all human interaction.

It also, I'm guessing, comes back to this idea of selective colleges as Utopian, intentionally-planned Communities, in which every last student is There For a Reason, hand-picked for his special qualities. On the micro level, this means each roommate situation is imagined not only to involve two or more (but not too many more - it's not an orphanage or a military) members of the Select, but also to be its own intentional community, the street-smart kid from the Bronx and the corn-fed Nebraskan, shoved into a tiny space, learning to Expand Their Horizons. Once grown, these two men will help each other get high-powered jobs, and will be grateful to their alma mater for introducing them to their Best Friend for Life.

And sometimes, that's just how it works. But often, the mere fact that Roommate A's college process brought him to the same place as Roommate B, that their grades and SAT scores were comparable, does not mean the two appreciate sleeping and dressing in the same room. There's a reason most room-sharing occurs between people presumed not just to tolerate but, on some level at least, to love each other - siblings, lovers, spouses. Without that bond, room-sharing is often not the most pleasant of experiences.

Often, the pairings, however well thought out, do not go as planned. The gay roommate meant to teach Life Lessons to someone well-meaning but ignorant gets placed with someone who turns out to be an unrepentant homophobe. (This happens.) The Jew meant to enlighten by her very presence a roommate who'd never met one might turn out to be a disappointment when it's revealed that she fails to live up to stereotypes. (Um. Yes, this too.)

Oh, and the forms students fill out specifying their 'lifestyle preferences' - morning person or not, loud music or not, partying or not - are based on the way adults whose lifestyles are relatively stable choose apartment-mates, but are all but pointless for 17-year-olds yet to live on their own. The National Review-writing Stanford mother wrote with obvious pride that her daughter had "said she wanted a room with no smoking and no sex in the room," as though any college student would tell a parent they'd requested otherwise. But parents aside, who wouldn't want a sex-free room, in the sense of one roommate's sex not happening while the other roommate's two feet away? In fact, I'm not sure at all what a sex-free room even means - assuming the roommates have different beds, what would it matter what happened when one of the roommates was out? The 'no sex room' seems like a way students, when requesting housing, can assure their parents they'll be 'good'. And while a senior requesting a non-smoking room seems reasonable, this question is also asked of entering freshmen, for whom it is not. The chances a freshman-year roommate will start smoking - tobacco or otherwise - in the course of his first year not living at home; even those who were at a pack a day at 15 may have filled the forms out with their parents looking over their shoulder, and may not have been honest in their box-checking. The proximity meant to discourage weird habits, unhealthy habits, and freshman-year sexual activity leads only to roommates witnessing whichever proclivities apply, because for each of the roommates, this is their only personal space on campus.

What all of this ends up meaning is that college bureaucracies have to busy themselves with a roommate version of "Can this Marriage Be Saved?," shuffling students mid-semester to fix everything from 'I just don't like him' to the creepy and criminal. With single rooms, in suites or monastic dorm-rooms, the administration would not have to deal with the inevitable flow of students who simply can't live with their assigned Best Friends For Life.

Ah, one might say, but to capitulate to that demand with single rooms would spoil the undergrads. To which I will respond: and the fancier-than-possibly-necessary gyms, complete with cable TV and lounges, dining halls with more options than many medium-sized American towns, do not? There are endless ways colleges could encourage students to escape the proverbial suburban coddling that do not involve altogether denying students small rooms in which to sleep and do their homework - and whatever else - in peace.

11 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

Bizarrely, at Stanford there is a space issue. Despite the university having thousands upon thousands upon thousands of unused acres, there's a fascistic land use agreement w/ Santa Clara county regulating how much land can actually be used. Hence, never enough parking, never enough office space, and, probably, conscious scrimping and saving on even the amount of extra space it would require to convert the undergrad dorm rooms into singles.

Phoebe said...

Ask any NYC landlord - a wall can always be put up, cheaply I presume, to subdivide any space large enough to fit two twin beds.

Dana said...

I don't think that would work at UCLA, where they packed undergrads 4-5 to a small room. Bunk beds! The UCs are in general blessed with vast amounts of land, except LA. The solution, of course, is to live off campus--which depending, could be cheaper, if not more burdensome with the commute.

Matt said...

Given that Stanford has started putting Murphy beds in some dorms that were formerly singles, they might even be in sub-NYC levels of space.

I never lived in a dorm in college, though I have on some other occasions. One I stayed in at the University of Utah for a few weeks one summer (another place you'd not think would have space issues) had double rooms were it would have been extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to make them into two singles. They would have been well below size of even the tiniest sleeping areas in a NYC studio. Probably they should have used space differently, and I agree that the justification for it is often silly, but given the space they did use, they could not have plausibly turned them into singles.

Phoebe said...

Since everyone seems to be commenting on the space issue, two questions:

1) Do you really think, in the majority of cases, at elite schools, particularly private ones, room-sharing is primarily about space? At Chicago, I'd say it was not, although there were a good number non-room-sharing options, on-campus and off-. A room I shared with two other girls in a suite-type scenario could have easily been split into a cramped, railroad-style three-bedroom, albeit one with a living room.

2) More to the point: for cases where space is not an issue - and we can all agree such cases do exist - do you think there's any reason to put students together in one bedroom?

By "NYC rooms" I meant, I should note, not NYC studio apartments, which even when small would make more than adequate dorm rooms, and as such are often shared by couples, but the actual, subdivided rooms in apartments marketed as one-bedroom or larger. My own first bedroom in NYC as an adult - in a three-bedroom - fit not much more than a twin bed, and did not have a closet. This is far from an unusual situation - my place did have a living room, but many like it do not.

PG said...

"A room I shared with two other girls in a suite-type scenario could have easily been split into a cramped, railroad-style three-bedroom, albeit one with a living room."

But if it's railroad style, you still have to walk through their rooms while they're smoking or having sex in order to get to yours. I was briefly trapped from being able to return a take-home exam when I was in college because I had the "inner" room that was connected to the bathroom, with no access to the stairway except through another person's room, and that person was having sex with her boyfriend while I was taking my exam. Thankfully, he didn't take long.

With regard to the mother-daughter conflict, I think that was clearly foretold by the NRO piece: "Perhaps, since she was a senior, we would have made an agreement with her concerning acceptable off-campus housing. ... I could talk about mother-guilt, and how I have failed to convey my moral values to my daughter."

Do a lot of HS seniors have their parents hanging over their shoulders while they complete their room request? I had strict and very "involved" parents (my mom actually insisted on picking me up from the senior prom), but they assumed I'd get rooming to suit myself and they didn't really care so long as it was safe and a place I could study. They probably would have disapproved my sharing a room with one boy, especially as a freshman, but I later went on trips where I shared rooms with co-ed groups and this wasn't a big deal to them.

Mrs. Morin just has some serious issues allowing her daughter to control her own life. It's entirely appropriate to cut off financial support to someone who has been less than honest with you, but that person was her daughter, not Stanford.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Railroad would, I think, be a big improvement, because there could at least be door-knocking before whatever interruptions needed to occur. But the point of this post was not, although the thread now seems to be, the nitty-gritty issues of space itself (of course some 'single' rooms are more private than others), but rather whether students should have their own bedrooms with doors, or should be forced to sleep and dress alongside randomly assigned roommates in their first year.

As for parents and room assignments, I do think there's a good chance parents would take an interest, and that questions having anything to do with partying are those most affected. And, back to the question of immigrant cultures, while this is not true in all immigrant cultures (at least from what I know from high school friends), overprotective American-born parents often consider anything other than a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol and tobacco 'partying,' but are in turn less concerned with their kids having a quiet place to study. Not knowing your parents, perhaps that wasn't their situation, but what I'm getting at is merely that there are all kinds of "involved parents," and many would, in fact, involve themselves in this way.

As for the Stanford girl and her tuition, the issue of what it means that college students, who are old enough to have sex with adults of any age, to drink and smoke legally, are expected to be financially supported by their parents is another, also-interesting question, one I didn't bring up in the post because it hasn't got much to do with single rooms. But there is something odd - not necessarily bad, but odd - about the 'not under my roof' expectation ending once the 'roof' is of a dorm, but a dorm room often being paid for in part or in whole by the same parents who once made the rules.

PG said...

As for parents and room assignments, I do think there's a good chance parents would take an interest, and that questions having anything to do with partying are those most affected. And, back to the question of immigrant cultures, while this is not true in all immigrant cultures (at least from what I know from high school friends), overprotective American-born parents often consider anything other than a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol and tobacco 'partying,' but are in turn less concerned with their kids having a quiet place to study. Not knowing your parents, perhaps that wasn't their situation, but what I'm getting at is merely that there are all kinds of "involved parents," and many would, in fact, involve themselves in this way.I suppose it depends on the kind of kid you have and how much you trust her. I don't smoke and wasn't much of a partier, so this wasn't a source of anxiety for my parents. But even with my more social sisters, they weren't pushing about it. I guess it really comes down to whether you think you raised your kid to do what's right on the basic stuff (like not doing drugs), or if you need the college to enforce this on your kid in your stead. As Mrs. Morin made clear, she doesn't trust her daughter and doesn't think she successfully transmitted her own moral values to her; what I find insane is expecting Stanford to do that now.

"But there is something odd - not necessarily bad, but odd - about the 'not under my roof' expectation ending once the 'roof' is of a dorm, but a dorm room often being paid for in part or in whole by the same parents who once made the rules."

I think it's quite reasonable for parents to demand that their children abide by whatever expectation the parent sets in exchange for receiving financial support after the age of majority. Parents don't owe their children anything more after that -- but on the other hand, the child thus treated is quite reasonable in being on chilly terms with such parents when there had been an implicit promise of financial support for college and such support is well within the parents' means.

Phoebe said...

PG,

In terms of differences re: immigrant families, I meant not differences towards drug abuse, but towards alcohol and tobacco use, in any amount. Some kids grow up thinking that the worst possible thing they could do is get an A-, others that the worst they could do is come home smelling of beer and cigarettes. In my experience, the former are kids from immigrant homes, and the latter are not.

"I think it's quite reasonable for parents to demand that their children abide by whatever expectation the parent sets in exchange for receiving financial support after the age of majority."

It should be, but the fact remains that parents are expected to pay for college if they can, or as much as they can, and that college is considered in our society not some kind of finishing school but a necessity for a top career, the (assumption being the) better the college, the better the job afterward. Plus, there's a good amount of behavior that parents wouldn't want under their own roof but would be OK with if it's at a distance and they don't have to think about it, or that would seem wrong to parents when done by an 18-year-old high school senior (technically not a minor) but trivial when the 'kid' is 20, 22... The 'these are our rules' approach doesn't allow for the same gradual shift in what's allowed that happens when a kid is in high school and still living at home.

PG said...

Phoebe,

I think drinking-in-any-amount tends to be disapproved based on religion, and parents who aren't of a faith that disfavors alcohol won't care about the alcohol itself so much as its consequences. My parents were more anxious about the effects of drinking (susceptibility to assault; drunk driving or getting into a car with a drunk driver; hangovers and missing class; etc.), and the only one of our family friends who felt shamed by their kid's underage drinking was where he was caught at a party and arrested. There was a freakishly high proportion of physicians in this community, so I don't know anyone who picked up a tobacco habit. Even the kid who joined the varsity baseball team would chew gum and spit plain spit when the other guys had chew and spat tobacco spit.

I suppose there's some behaviors of this sort that are acceptable so long as they're done at a distance (keep the smell out tobacco out of the house; the hangover nausea in someone else's bathroom), but if they are based on moral objections or concern about serious consequences rather than distaste for mess, I don't see reason for a change simply because the dependent minor lives elsewhere most of the year. My parents would have been little more OK with my having pre-marital sex at 18 or 21; it was the pre-marital sex they found objectionable, not running across used condoms in the trash. Mrs. Morin seems to find having her daughter live in the same room as Boys to be inherently immoral and/or likely to bring about terrible consequences, and having her do it a thousand miles away doesn't make it less so.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Maybe your immigrants and my immigrants had different takes on the matter?

"but if they are based on moral objections or concern about serious consequences rather than distaste for mess, I don't see reason for a change simply because the dependent minor lives elsewhere most of the year."

If the concerns are moral and serious, would they necessarily cease once offspring become self-supporting financially? The means of expressing disapproval would change, but I think people who care what their parents think tend to care somewhat independently of whether their parents are or are not still paying the bills, and the threat of being cut off isn't the main motivation. The great family dramas over intermarriage, when they occur, tend to occur once children are long since financially independent.

My point re: 18 not being 21 was that the 'it's your life, you do what you think best' may never apply to certain things, but does have to apply - gradually, in steps - to some, or else no children would ever become independent without running away from home.

Anyway, I think the question of what college students owe their parents is an interesting one, but might merit another post.