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Residential Life Task Force
 

THEME BASED LIVING

Questions about whether Smith should offer theme-based living have been posed for many years. Often requests have arisen from students of color who suggest “identity-based” housing would offset the sense of isolation they feel. Others, often administrators or faculty, advocate first-year housing. The college has offered theme living in Dawes House, where students speak French. Chase house, where seniors live, might also be considered theme living, and sometimes Tenney House is cited because of the co-op style living and the requirement that cooking be vegetarian. Hopkins House in recent years has become a residence where students do their own cooking. Loosely defined, the Friedman apartments might also be considered theme-based living. About 5.5 % of Smith students live in non-traditional housing.

Issues of theme-based living came to the fore again as a result of student activism in the spring of 2002. One item in the May 14, 2002 "Repairing the Community" document agreed to by the Grassroots Organizing Group and the administration stated: "That the President-Elect pursue…a broad exploration of the residential system, including more apartments and co-ops and such options as a residence house for students concentrating in ethnic and area studies and a Spanish-speaking residence."

Early in the task force’s deliberations, we established a “theme-based living options” subcommittee to explore these ideas and opportunities. It included Tom Riddell, associate dean of the college, chair; Nicole Bowers '03; Will Gipson, trustee; and Michelle Joffroy, assistant professor, Spanish & Portuguese.

Exploring Student Interest

The subcommittee focused on student interest in theme living options and the extent to which theme living might support the educational mission of the college's residential system. We examined the results of the Housing and Dining Preferences Survey with regard to theme living. There was moderate interest in a number of different options. When requested by the survey to choose an option, the most popular choices were language-based, substance-free, academic/intellectual, and specialized diet. More than 60% of those surveyed said they would not choose theme living. Our analysis of these findings suggests that a significant minority of Smith students have some interest in theme-based living options.

The subcommittee gathered information about theme-based living at similar residential, selective, liberal arts institutions. We were very impressed with the model of theme housing at Amherst College shared with the task force by Dean of Students Ben Lieber (1/31/03).

We met (2/13/03) with Randy Shannon, housing coordinator, to discuss current “theme” living—Dawes House, Tenney and Hopkins Houses, Chase House, and Friedman—and its place in the housing lottery and room draw timetable. We also educated ourselves about the room draw process as a whole. (Refer to Appendix 8 about room draw.)

We met (2/18/03) with Mentha Hynes, associate dean for multicultural affairs, to discuss the interest in theme-based living among students of color, ranging from the Grassroots Organizing Group1 to students associated with Unity groups2 to the broader group of all students of color. Dean Hynes reported that there is some interest and support for theme-based living among students of color around cultural and academic themes; she also noted that among these students there is also disinterest as well as some concerns.

We met (2/21/03 and 2/28/03) with two groups of first year students to discuss their thoughts about “first year housing.” These students were all generally opposed to first year housing, defined as housing where there are only first years. They described their present housing—living in a mixed house, but in proximity to a concentration of first years—as a good experience. One first year student sent an email, which captures their thinking: "I did want to express my opinion about the idea of first year housing. I'm assuming that you mean housing especially for first year students. I really like living in a house with all four classes, I found it to be really helpful. There are people in the house who can recommend professors, or help guide you through the first year. It's also nice to have an immediate group of people of different ages and experiences to be friends with, particularly if most of the people in your classes are also first years."

We met (3/4/03) with a group of students of color to explore their ideas concerning theme-based living. This was a wide-ranging discussion where we shared some of the ideas that we have developed out of our discussions, meetings with staff and students, and research. There was some enthusiasm about language-based, cultural-based, and interdisciplinary/intellectually-based living, which also have faculty and staff involvement. There was also some opposition to theme-based living on the grounds that it might produce segregation and disrupt diversity in the current housing system. An email received from a sophomore supported the option of theme-based living (quoting in part, but at length):

… In my opinion Smith housing is a bit outdated and is falling behind other schools. Just from my own observation I notice that many students of color tend to switch houses numerous times during their four years, and many of us lack a sense of house pride, etc. I think often we are isolated in our houses, and we move around to avoid feeling alienated from the house or being labeled negatively for not participating or lacking enthusiasm. Personally, I think it would be nice to live in a house where I could cook foods that I enjoy and share it with others who enjoy it, but I have never wanted to live in the co-ops because they are strictly vegetarian or vegan and therefore attract a certain constituency. Plus, they are impossible to get into.

I admire schools like Amherst that have options such as an Asian cultures house, or Hampshire which has a few similar houses for students of color, and I don't think it would be so bad for Smith to go that route. I wouldn't necessarily like to live in an "Asian"-themed house but I would like to live in a diverse house with other students of color. Perhaps the theme would take the form of anti-racism or global cultures/liberation or something, and could be open to all students who demonstrate a vested interest in the cause. I think it could be run like an organization wherein students of the house make the decisions. I also think there should be more than one house like this with variations of the theme, and that perhaps they should only be an option after a student's first year.

Traditionally Smith has been dedicated to creating a sense of unity on campus, and I think having options like this will encourage more unity, by allowing students who feel marginalized to consistently have a base of peer support in our lives on campus, so that we can build our network and the strength we need to effectively contribute to the general life on campus.

As it is, students of color are often resorting to sitting with one another in the dining rooms, and joining Unity organizations which often feel very formal or business-like, and sometimes exclusive. The various student orgs. are also very fragmented and racially separated, and therefore we don't have too many chances to interact with one another. And for those of us who are bi-racial, we're basically all over the place. I believe that meaningful connections could be made across cultures and race if there were living options like this.

… Furthermore, I think the current housing system discourages us from learning to be independent. We never have to cook, clean up after ourselves, or be responsible for others if we don't choose to. This may be a nice luxury for some, but I feel that it is depriving me of an opportunity to take care of myself. Getting a Friedman apartment is an option that comes too late, and it is also very difficult to get. I don't think we should have to struggle this much to be able to control what we eat and live among peers we have something in common with.

We tried to meet (3/5/03) with a group of departmental/program student liaisons to hear their opinions, but nobody attended the meeting. One student emailed with concerns about the cliquishness of one of the language-based houses at Amherst vis a vis other (prospective) speakers of that language. In all, we invited over 100 students to our "focus groups" on theme living options.

Formulating Our Proposals

Our recommendations were informed by our own efforts to think about the relationship between theme living options and the task force’s mission statement, as well as identifying some of the pros and cons of theme-based living. In one of the task force’s earlier exercises (10/25/02), the most “popular” goal/educational mission of residence life was: “Students should be changed by their residential experience – outlook broadened, exposed to difference, ideas/beliefs challenged.” We wondered whether theme-based living was in contradiction to this goal. Our conclusion was that it was not; rather, theme-based living options could contribute to educational and intellectual engagement in the Smith community, complement classroom knowledge, and support the educational objectives of some students. However, care would have to be taken to ensure that theme-based living groups did not isolate themselves from the broader educational purposes of the college and the residential life system. We are also convinced that theme-based living options would contribute to enhancing opportunities for students to achieve more mobility within the housing system at Smith.

PROPOSALS OF THEME-BASED LIVING OPTIONS SUBCOMMITTEE

The task force agrees that theme-based living could provide new models for integrating the academic life of the college into the housing system.

Basic tenets:

A structure should be established to oversee and evaluate the exploration of theme living opportunities for students at Smith.

Theme-based options should always involve students and faculty and/or staff and require some obligation for community service and/or education.

Theme-based living options would provide new models for integrating academic and community life.

Proposals should be evaluated according to their consistency with the various components of the Residential Life Task Force mission statement.

Flexibility must be built into the implementation; theme living opportunities must be re-evaluated every year to ensure engagement with the community and responsiveness to changing student interest.

Theme living need not occupy an entire house. Rather, floors and sections of some houses might be devoted to theme living.

Theme-based proposals must ensure the recruitment of a variety of students (not just groups of friends).

Recommendations:

Mission

Housing Options

Theme Based Living

Structure of
Residence Life
Staffing

Dining Options

Conclusion

Appendices

 
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