What makes our dorms great made MIT great

You may or may not know the history behind MIT’s Building 20 – depending on your age, you may have even worked in it at one point. It was torn down when I was three, so I can’t directly relate to it. But when I heard the story of this ugly temporary building, and how much it did for the US in World War 2, and of all of the amazing things and people that happened inside it, I was moved. And when I walk through the building 32D lobby, I generally stop to look at all of the plaques adorning the walls as a monument to that “Magical Incubator”. Reading the things that those who worked in building 20 have to say reminds me of what I think MIT can and should be, and of all the things I love about my home.

(For context: I’m a course 8 sophomore in East Campus.)

1. Passion

“[Because the doors were always open,] as you wandered down the corridors, you saw what was going on in the rooms … In that process, you learned of many wondrous things in addition to your own work.” –Professor Walter E. Morrow

“Sessions typically began around 11 PM and lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. They would typically sit at a conference table, while we graduate students would sit in the background and listen in.” –Professor Alan V. Oppenheim

“It was always a fairly wonderful mix of people concerned with different disciplines. We got along fairly well together, so that you could always pop over next door and talk with somebody who had nothing to do with what you were doing. Simply because everybody had a passion for doing what they were doing.” –Professor Jerome Y. Lettvin

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned more in East Campus than in any academic building. Simply by being in lounges, listening to conversations, getting in arguments and turning to Wikipedia, I’ve learned about topics as diverse as the Riemann-Stieltjes integral, computer security, rope hauling systems, and the Freedom of Information Act, none of which would have ever come up in my physics classes. My recent interest in signal processing and speech recognition is partly spurred by Course 8’s flexible major option, but also by the excitement of a friend of mine who’s worked in those areas and geeked out about them in East Campus.

The best learning experiences, though, have been dorm projects. By being a freshman in a lounge at the time when First East (the hall I live on) was building its fully-programmable Disco Dance Floor, I got roped into learning about version control systems and imaging libraries. By experiencing East Campus REX, I learned how to use power tools and sewing tools, neither of which I’d really ever worked with before, and by serving on East Campus’ CameraComm (which creates the i3 video), I got to learn more about video editing (although honestly I learned more about liability, Housing policy, and bureaucracy). And of course all of these things required good teamwork and communication, which is not a very well-stressed aspect of the MIT curriculum (there is a world of difference between a CI-M Powerpoint presentation and five people who want to get something done). Of course all of these activities were completely optional, but we did them anyway – because we’re passionate about learning, making, and doing.

It was quite disheartening when the Task Force on the Future of an MIT Education spent 30 pages of their report on what they thought an MIT education was and needed, but failed to even mention the role played by residences and friends. To me, without friends to be excited with or residences to work on projects for, there would be no education – only problem sets and exams in a few narrow subjects. Without a whole dorm’s worth of excitement, we couldn’t have the Bad Ideas Competition every IAP, or roller coasters in our courtyard. And MIT would be so much less valuable.

(As an afterthought, I honestly suspect this is why MIT has such a long history of hacks – hacks are the ultimate form of a large group project done for joy. As the MIT musical “Hack, Punt, Tool” says: “A hack is up for just a fleeting span // There is no real meaning, in spending hours machining // If your team’s no closer than when you began.”)

2. Community

“…you not only start things but you also start [them] with a certain independence of mind. It’s this attitude that I think you should look for in a place…. It doesn’t matter that it’s dirty and noisy and hot. The important thing [is] the people.” –Professor Jerrold Zacharias, Director of LNS, 1946-1956

“It was inhabited by such a variety of people, even dogs and children… there were neighborhoods.” –Norma C. McGavern, UROP Director

“It has no pretenses at all. It attracts pepole who don’t care about appearances. They cooperate and work because of joy. Nowhere can you find an atmosphere where none of the other trappings of academia exist.” –Professor Gill Pratt

Halls tend to be very concerned about freshmen being “ghosty” when they show up; they are worried that the freshmen won’t spend enough time on hall hanging out in lounges, getting socially integrated, and joining the family, because they tend to see it as their duty to essentially raise the freshmen. Upperclassmen serve as mentors, role models, pset tutors, as well as Medlinks, shoulders to cry on, project leaders, and much more; I can’t imagine how freshmen in all-freshman dorms on other campuses handle anything. When a freshman starts hanging out a lot at an FSILG, upperclassmen start looking at each other nervously, thinking “how did we mess up?” or “why don’t they like us?”, because we want everyone to be a part of our family.

Consequently, I’ve found the East Side to be a phenomenally accepting place. We make a special effort to reach out to and include people when they are the least adapted the least homogenized, and so people live very different kinds of lifestyles, very enthusiastically, right next to each other. We have cosplayers, climbers, guitarists, hackers, gamers. We have early birds, night owls, people who sleep on non-24-hour cycles. We have people who eat only canned food and we have people who take an hour to cook dinner. We have deeply religious people and fundamentalist athiests, and rather than ignore each other, they talk about it. I hear from my LGBT friends that they find the East Side to be much more of a safe space than the rest of MIT, and I completely believe it.

That said, there is some uniformity in East Campus, and we do have a style: cargo shorts, dyed hair, short hair (or a mohawk), no shoes. Indie rock and indie punk music. Close friends sarcastically insulting each other. Copious amounts of snark. Some of these things are born of utility or laziness; others in disdain for mainstream society’s insincerity (calling East Campus “hipster” would not be wrong, and the word “counterculture” is embraced). This style varies by hall, and is stronger on some than others. (Tetazoo always likes to pretend that it’s not a hivemind.) But plenty of people don’t follow that style, and they’re just as much part of our community as anyone else.

3. Home

“Building 20 always thrived on ingenuity among its denizens. I always thought it was it was so easy to build experiments there – pull wires, bolt things to walls, come and go at any hour.” –Lawrence B. Kilham, Alumnus

“It was a place that would be shaped by its occupants … It was not something to be imposed on them; it was what you’d call a malleable space.” –Professor Jerome Y. Lettvin

“I got to love Building 20. It had a personality all its own: the creaky wooden floors, the leaky windows, the sprinklers that went off whether there was a fire or not, and there was so much scope for interior decoration: I remember painting each pipe a different color! When we moved to brand-new Building 36, I hated the shiny floors and touch-me-not walls.” –Neena Lyall, Laboratory for Computer Science

It’s unkind, unfair, and we try not to do it in public, but often we compare West Campus dorms to hotels. The basis of this is simply that on the East Side, we have the freedom to modify our spaces to fit our needs – we can paint the walls, we can drill things into walls to mount shelving or signs or anything we want. We find projector screens on reuse and tables in trash piles on loading docks, and spiff out our lounges into movie theatres. (In Random Hall, one of the floors auctioned off the rights to their name in order to raise funding to build stadium seating for their lounge.) Almost every freshman builds a loft upon arrival in East Campus, and the Institute furniture is often tossed out to be replaced with custom-built replacements. One way or another, people make their spaces into what they want them to be.

I don’t know if this behavior is prohibited on the West Side, or just less culturally encouraged, but either way, I know it doesn’t happen as much. To some extent, the East Campus buildings are so amenable to this sort of thing that they attract the sort of people who want to do it. But it makes a huge difference. Because I’m able to choose how my room and hall look, I don’t feel like I’m in a strange and foreign place thousands of miles away from home; I feel like I’m at home, thousands of miles away from my parents’ house.

An entire essay could be written on how important it is that I’m able to select where I live, and how it encourages the formation of families and subcultures, and how it makes people comfortable with their neighbors, and how tragic it is that those placed in McCormick aren’t able to FYRE out, et cetera. I’ll let someone else write that essay. Suffice it to say that it is a huge part of what makes people have the impression that they own their space and their surroundings, and that that impression is a huge part of what makes coping with MIT possible.

Sometimes, that impression is violated – usually this involves cleaning staff throwing things out of lounges. Over various summers, Burton 3rd has lost their thousand-dollar bar, First East lost the first version of their disco dance floor (that’s why we built a second one), and Tetazoo (Third East) lost a filing cabinet with decades of historical archives. I’ve lost textbooks, shoes, a shopping cart, and plenty of other things because cleaning staff took them (“grunged” them) from the hallway right outside my room. There was that huge controversy when a mural on Burton 1 was painted over without residents being consulted, and there are troubling signs that ResLife wants to regulate murals even more. But for the most part, we’re blessed to have freedom. And that freedom makes us feel at home.

4. Permittedness

“You got what you needed by improvising, not by waiting six months for MIT’s bureaucracy to process a purchase order.” –Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent

“His attitude as the chief administrator was not to intrude, but to see to it that the researchers could do what they wanted to do.” –Professor Emeritus Nelson Y-S. Kiang

I had the privilege to spend this past summer at Caltech, which, like MIT, has a vibrant set of undergraduate housing cultures. I hung out with people who loved their communities, homes, hobbies and studies as we do, and I got to learn about many exciting customs, traditions, and events that exist at Caltech. I also learned a lot about the recent history of student-administrator relations at Caltech, and it’s a cautionary tale.

Like at MIT, Caltech students feel as though they are in a constant struggle with its administration, and that they are struggling under the thumb of a liability-paranoid behemoth which does not understand or value what they value. Unlike at MIT, this exploded at Caltech recently when the Dean of Students closed down one of the undergraduate houses and dismantled its government without explaining why. Unlike at MIT, this struggle has been linked at Caltech to student suicides, and unlike at MIT, Caltech has finally chosen not to continue employing its universally hated Dean of Students.

Some beautiful pieces of writing have come out of this struggle as students desperately tried to explain to the public why their living groups are precious and threatened. I have highlighted two and saved them; this petition focuses on the role that a friendly atmosphere plays in preserving mental health, and this op-ed describes the gradual devolution of trust over the last five years. Caltech’s issues are different from ours, but there are parallels, and we can learn from them.

When I saw Caltech students building a rickety wooden frame for a previously-safe slide in order to appease administrators (the saying went, “there’s safety, and there’s Safety”), I thought of the recent mandatory “upgrades” to Random Hall’s security, which are universally believed to make Random Hall less safe. When I saw a usually-exuberant Caltech student deflated from constant metings with seven different administrators (none of whom had any strong incentive to say “yes”) just to run an event, I thought of the many East Campus traditions (which I will not describe) that have been run under the table for fear of the MIT approval process.

When MIT tries to tell us that CPW events must end at 1 AM, I think of the compelling essay that an anonymous MIT grad wrote contrasting MIT with Tsinghua University, where they turn off the dorm lights in the evenings. The essay is a vivid description of all the exciting things that happen in an MIT dorm and a glowing endorsement of the MIT administration’s tolerance for freedom. But when the GRT contract is modified to make them less trusted figures in our communities, and when new “mandatory” orientation events are promoted over REX, and when each year the i3 videos are placed under more and more scrutiny, I wonder how long that tolerance and understanding of dorm culture will last. There’s a reason that there’s a slogan around the East Side of “back in the day, when things were more hardcore”.

But I guess that’s why we’re writing all these essays – because we hope that if administrators understand us better, then we can turn this trend around.

Allan Sadun
EC Resident

1 thought on “What makes our dorms great made MIT great”

  1. Sadun, you should really get your hands on the actual physical 1956 Ryer Report which detailed how the MIT housing system would be set up. Really amazing, and what’s sad is how far from it we are today.


    *1956 Report of the Faculty Committee on Student Housing to the President, the Executive Committee of the Corporation and the Corporation, “Ryer Report.” Page 16-18 of the report is a history of residential housing at MIT. Also includes a bibliography of previous reports, memos and speeches used by the Committee. Includes “Statement by the Faculty Committee on Student Environment,” as App. I, 87-93.
    Reference: T171.M4233.S78 1956 Archives Reference, Rotch Library and Library Storage Annex.

    Charge: Committee charged by President Killian to make recommendations about how to, “develop a residential system which has as its primary function the furtherance of the education of our students.”

    Recommendations: Develop a graduate center east of the main educational buildings. (Utilize and add to existing East Campus housing.)
    Initiate a major program to improve the West Campus houses. (Convert existing graduate to undergraduate housing; construct new dorm for 400 students as well as a student center.)
    Continue the practice of having living groups legislate and administer their own rules.
    Continue to study the question of adequate housing and facilities for women students.
    Consolidate campus residential life on West campus, and academic activities on East campus.

    Quotes: Responsibility of the Institute – The best performance today of the purposes for which the Institute was chartered by the Commonwealth in 1861 is facilitated by the provision of residence on campus for as many students as possible. The potentialities which such residence affords for mental stimulation, social development, and maturing responsibility among student, for closer relationship between students and Faculty, and for general participation in a widening range of intellectual, aesthetic, and recreational community affairs are increasingly being realized. Full achievement of all of them is a prime goal of the whole endeavor. This is the basic philosophical reason for a residential system.
    Responsibility of the Faculty – As the residential system of the Institute is expanded and becomes further stabilized and consolidates as part of the non-curricular educational program, consideration should be given to increasing the number of Faculty Residents sufficiently to reduce the number of students per Resident.