Friday, October 01, 2010

Still against college room-sharing

I've said it before and I'll say it again: college room-sharing is among the Worst Ideas Ever.

This view owes something to personal experience: I won the lottery and ended up with not one but two racist roommates, neither of whom, let's be clear, made an exception for The Jews. This was a pain in the neck at the time, and probably explains why I have a poster of Theodor Herzl on my wall today, why I thought to study Jews and not just French as planned, and why I ended up in grad school for what I did... in other words, a mixed bag. I made the experience work for me, and if my charming nature didn't turn either of them around regarding non-Nordics more generally, it may have Built Character as far as I was concerned. It was, at least, a Learning Experience.

It doesn't always work out so neutrally. There are obviously other important angles to the extremely upsetting Rutgers suicide - the challenges of growing up gay in a homophobic society, cyberbullying being no less real than the schoolyard variety - and I would in no way equate my own unpleasant experiences with the tragic ones of Tyler Clementi. But the room-sharing one might explain why the Rutgers freshman felt so trapped. Colleges make such a fuss about "safe spaces" and centers for different minorities and so forth, but the best safe space would be a bedroom not inhabited by someone who doesn't consider you fully human. The only way to guarantee this is to at least give students the option of living in their own rooms.

The argument for roomsharing, when subdivision would be physically possible, is that college is about meeting different kinds of people for the first time. Exposure to those unlike yourself, outside your comfort zone, will make you grow into a more open-minded person. And this much is true, to a point. The issue I have with this is that no one should be forced to share a bedroom with someone who doesn't respect the rights of their "kind." Throw together a black student and a white racist, a gay guy and a homophobe, a Jew and an anti-Semite, and everyone wins? True of a classroom or sports team, or - why not - a dorm room with separate bedrooms, but dangerous when it comes to shared one-room living spaces. The possibility that a bigot will see the light and realize that They aren't so bad after all has to be weighed against the fact that the They will have to go to sleep every night in the same room as someone who may not come around to Them after all. Even having a roommate who's not necessarily racist so much as insensitive can be frightening if you're a member of a group the roommate is insensitive towards, and you have to live and sleep in the same room as that individual.

Seriously, colleges. If you want to build the characters of your students, have them work in the dining halls and as janitors and landscapers alongside classmates of different backgrounds and viewpoints and whatnot, and with the money saved, get enough space to give students the option of a moment's peace.

11 comments:

PG said...

I would be surprised if Rutgers and most other major universities refused to move students to a different room if they complained of their roommates being bigoted toward them because of a recognized classification (e.g. race, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability). Certainly my undergrad alma mater, not particularly notable for its sensitivity (didn't admit blacks until under court order; didn't admit women until the 1970s; had "not gay" as an informal part of the school song), told us that they had a zero-tolerance policy for that sort of thing and that it was a justification for changing rooms.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Having the theoretical option to leave is certainly better than not, but it's still asking a lot of an already troubled 18-year-old. To change rooms, he'd have had to explain to a school administrator that he was having sex with a man in his dorm room. I could see a kid in that situation imagining that an administrator would find him at fault. And this wouldn't be so far off - I've witnessed blame-the-victim scenarios, where a girl getting harassed by a guy is faulted for having had sex (or being imagined to have had sex) in the first place. Lots of gay high school seniors aren't out enough to even indicate that on some form that might keep them from getting placed with a homophobic (or "traditional values" or however that might be indicated) roommate - it would be much easier, and safer, to give the option of single rooms.

PG said...

I wouldn't think saying, "I had sex with another man in my dorm room" would be necessary; just "my roommate harasses me and makes bigoted comments" ought to suffice to get a switch. At least at my college, just having intractable differences that the hall RA admitted to being unable to solve was enough to get a re-assignment.

I've witnessed blame-the-victim scenarios, where a girl getting harassed by a guy is faulted for having had sex (or being imagined to have had sex) in the first place.

Yes, getting the college to *penalize* another student for any behavior is generally more difficult, because the school doesn't want to get sued by that other student. But a room-switch has nothing inherently punitive to it.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Do you really think it's that unlikely the RA (or higher-up - can RA's can OK room changes?) would ask what the harassment entailed? I don't, but even if I'm wrong on that point, it seems like something an 18-year-old in that situation would fear. Even if all that needed to be explained was what kind of bigotry it was, that could be rough on a kid who wasn't out. Since we're talking about a white male, he'd pretty much have to have said it was because he was gay.

Re: blaming the victim, I don't necessarily mean anything "punitive," just any situation in which one party needs the ear of a sympathetic administrator. If the person in charge of room changes felt strongly that 18-year-old guys (or just 18-year-olds, period) shouldn't be bringing strange men back to their dorm rooms for casual sex, or with homosexuality, period, then the discussion could get derailed and become about judging the student with the complaint, rather than helping him resolve his dispute with his roommate by allowing him to change rooms.

Again, it's not that I don't think the mechanisms exist for students to change rooms in college. (I moved in with a friend in the same dorm once one of my Nordic-superiority roommates got to be more than I felt like dealing with.) It's that I think it's important to look beyond the theoretical possibility of doing so, and at all the motivating factors, to understand why bypassing the need to change roommates (i.e. providing single rooms for students interest in having them, even freshman year) would be immensely useful for certain kids. I'm not seeing the disadvantage to that, other than that some schools just don't have the space.

Phoebe said...

* or had a problem with homosexuality

PG said...

There's lack of space, as well as the probable classist sorting because presumably single rooms would be more expensive than shared rooms. If the rooms were equally priced, then I don't know who in her right mind wouldn't ask for a single. I certainly would have asked for one (college was the first time in my remembered experience that I had to share a room -- when I was 4 my parents bought a house big enough). Yet my random-roommate experiences have all been pretty good. If everyone wants a single, then either they have to have so much space they can accommodate that, or some people will lose that lottery and have to live in doubles -- possibly with bigots, resulting in the same problem as before.

So I'm inclined to be OK with colleges that are already requiring students to live on campus first year -- as all but the most crowded (like UTexas) seem to do -- having those students default into shared rooms and requiring the students to have a reason for changing.

And though I don't blame the victim, because I think his privacy should not have been violated regardless of his own acts, I do think it's really unwise for someone who is closeted to be having sex in a dorm room shared with a homophobe. Technology now allows for the homophobe to film the act remotely and spread it to thousands of people, but in My Day, that same homophobe would have been going around campus telling everyone about his roommate having sex with another man. If you want to engage in behavior of which your roommate disapproves and that you don't want made known to others, your dorm room is not a smart place for that activity. This is true whether you're a hetero girl who wants to masturbate but is rooming with Christine O'Donnell, or a gay guy rooming with a homophobe. I don't think this is a situation totally exclusive to college; the same issue exists in the military, etc. At least at most American colleges as opposed to the military, telling someone you're being harassed by a homophobic roommate might get you help instead of getting kicked out.)

Phoebe said...

PG,

I think we've reached the we-just-disagree point on this one, but I'll give it one last shot...

I'm not really convinced that anything "classist" would ensue, even if single rooms do cost a bit more than doubles. (My fuzzy memory of this was that the difference wasn't as great as between, say, a one- and two-bedroom apartment, partly, I suspect, because shared-room dorms often had shared bathrooms which were cleaned and stocked by the university.) Given all the other wealth-highlighting factors at college - the cost of college itself and how students and families pay for it, the cost of joining frats and sororities (and, if the latter, of the clothes and shoes, hair and makeup), study abroad, cultural capital manifesting itself in subtle ways, etc. - I truly can't imagine the dorm with single rooms would be filled with kids of a different social class. At any rate, when I lived in both kinds of dorms, there was no such distinction. If anything, the very fact of living in a dorm was often evidence of being on financial aid, because some forms of aid paid for on-campus housing only. The only really wealthy kids I remember from college had their own (rented, probably, but not shared) apartments in Hyde Park. But if this is the obstacle, create dorms with some singles and some doubles, with dining halls and other social activity for all. Problem solved.

As for everyone requesting singles, I kind of doubt this as well. There's a real mythology of the College Roommate Experience, as a rite of passage but also as, this might be your best friend for life. (I suppose I had the opposite experience as you - I remember thinking it would be fun to have a roommate, then being unpleasantly surprised that this new "friend" a few feet away had nasty views about every minority group she could think of.) There's also a stigmatization of kids-who-live-in-singles. At Chicago, at least, the dorms with singles were known as where the oddballs lived, the assumption being no one would want to live alone except to hide bizarre habits. And some of the kids in these dorms were plenty odd. If anything, a concern might be that not-yet-out gay kids would fear being labeled different already, just for asking for a single - by their parents if not by future classmates.

As for that last bit, the advisability of bringing hook-ups back to the room, it helps to consider practicality - what if the other guy also has a homophobic roommate? (Presumably if the guy was actually a grown man with a studio apartment in Chelsea, or even just another student with a single room, they'd have gone there instead.) What if the other guy's roommate has his girlfriend over all the time and that room isn't free? What if the roommate's possibly homophobic but definitively not in the room for the next several hours? It's hard for me to see it as reckless not to consider that your roommate might have bugged the room and be secretly filming you having sex. Yes, technology allows this, but you'd have to be very, very cynical bordering on paranoid to imagine this would happen. I've never heard of it happening other than in this case.

PG said...

I agree that the filming aspect of the case is bizarre, but I think my point about how your roommate could see you just by walking into his room, and then spread the word in the old-fashioned way, still stands. People who felt a stigma to homosexual activity committed suicide upon being outed many times before webcams and YouTube were part of the problem. (And when homosexuality got you jailed, blackmailed, lynched, etc., suicide often seemed like the most honorable option.)

So long as you feel a stigma for an activity in which you want to engage, it's not a good idea to do it somewhere that a stigmatizer can see it, with his own two eyes, just by opening the door to his own room. Unless your roommate has actually left town, there's not really any time that it would be impossible for him to return to the room -- even if you know he's scheduled for a lengthy seminar or exam at a particular time, he could skip or get sick. (Or it could turn out that your roommate's exam is one she's permitted to pick up, take home to complete, then return -- the college roommate with whom I've been least in touch was one who was having sex with her boyfriend in the next room while I was writing my Constitution & Race exam.)

I understand that this goes back to the basic problem: a shared room isn't really one's own, whereas a single is. And I suspect much of our difference on this issue comes from attending very different undergrads -- Southern small-town public university versus Midwestern big-city private. I'm just skeptical that for schools like my alma mater (mandating all students live on campus first year; forbidding Greek activity until second semester; lacking enough space to allot every first year an on-campus single; also lacking any stigma to dorm singles for upperclass students who were eligible for them), offering singles would be a satisfactory solution that doesn't create its own set of problems.

Phoebe said...

PG,

UChicago also had space issues, also mandated that freshman lived in dorms. I think where we differ is that I don't see any danger - certainly not any danger that would come close to outweighing that posed by mandatory shared rooms - from allowing students to live in singles if they wish to do so. You haven't offered any positive arguments for room-sharing, other than that your own roommate situations went smoothly. By all accounts they mostly do. And the idea that singles-havers would be The Rich, or even in any perceptible way wealthier than their counterparts in doubles, strikes me as farfetched. How to fund the difference between a signle and a double for the poorer gay kids who need singles would be an issue, but given all the funding issues with going to college, a minor one.

It might be difficult, practically speaking, to allow all students the option of single rooms, but I don't see at all that this is something we should be asking schools not to even look into.

PG said...

How to fund the difference between a signle and a double for the poorer gay kids who need singles would be an issue, but given all the funding issues with going to college, a minor one.

But my understanding is that you're saying no one should have to *need* a single in order to get one, much less justify that need to a college administrator. Rather, you're saying singles should be available on demand to any student who requests one, even without claiming some minority status that could be threatened by another's bigotry.

It might be difficult, practically speaking, to allow all students the option of single rooms, but I don't see at all that this is something we should be asking schools not to even look into.

I don't think schools should be told not to look into it, but it's just been my experience that many colleges don't have enough space to simultaneously require all first-year students to live on campus, and to allow all upperclassmen who *want* to live on campus to do so, while having singles for everyone who wants one. As it was, the single I had my second year in college was so tiny that I couldn't have anyone bunk on the floor unless I put my desk chair out in the common area.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm going to hazard a guess that neither of us knows the technicalities of dorm-choice and feasibility. Was there even a place on the form to explain why you wanted a single room when I filled these out? I don't remember. I remember a friend of a friend having problems on account of being gay and having a homophobic roommate, but I don't remember the details, let alone whether anyone had requested a single and if so, whether homosexuality/homophobia was given as a reason.

What I'd most like to see is a default of single rooms/suites, i.e. there isn't a 24/7 possibility, as you correctly note, that someone else might be walking into your bedroom. But that strikes me as unrealistic, both b/c of space and b/c so many kids romanticize the roommate experience, see it as fundamental to going away to college. So the option of a single - the details to be sorted out by each college, given its own restraints - strikes me as the best compromise.