In Which I Flaunt That Whole Ivy-League Thing Some More; or, Thoughts on the Eating Club System

So you might have heard that Princeton has some eating clubs (which, for clarity’s sake, are ten private dining-cum-social organizations for juniors and seniors, five of which use a competitive selection process sort of like fraternities do, and five of which don’t). If you follow Princeton news as obsessively as I do, you also might have heard that the university has established another in its series of task forces, which intends to “examine whether there are steps that can and should be taken to strengthen those relationships for the mutual benefit of the clubs and the University, and for the benefit of Princeton students and the undergraduate experience.” Of course, I’m skeptical, but the task force actually appears to be off to a very positive start: it’s launched a flashy website, which includes an eight-page document about the history of the clubs (a tad teleological in my opinion [though that may only be because “teleological” is my new favorite word to overuse], but a good primer if you don’t know much about the clubs). And on that website is a set of survey questions that the task force has asked all and sundry to answer. It’s a commendable gesture toward transparency and cross-community involvement, and I’d encourage everyone affiliated in any capacity with Princeton to fill in the form and offer your thoughts, whatever you happen to think about the clubs.

I spent some time composing my answers to the task force’s questions, and so in the interests of continuing to develop a cogent set of talking points regarding my feelings about the clubs, I thought I’d post those answers here:

How have you engaged with the eating clubs and what is your opinion of them?

I very rarely go to the Street at all, but occasionally will go to Terrace on a Thursday or Saturday night, particularly if there is a good band playing. I went much more frequently at the beginning of my time here, but never much enjoyed the atmosphere—even at a laid-back place like Terrace—and am glad that I’ve since discovered other social spaces where I feel as if I fit in better.

I don’t feel as if I fit in at the clubs; the atmosphere of “going out” (entailing dressing up, pregaming, putting on a different and false “self” for the night) is not one that suits me. Presently, I don’t feel as if I’m a dweeb or a nerd or a social failure or missing out on something really important by doing other things with my weekends, but I wish I’d known that as a freshman. It would have saved me a lot of depression and self-loathing. I don’t object to the clubs’ existence (though I certainly do to the bicker process! more on that in the next question), and I know that many people derive a large amount of enjoyment from them, but they remind me a little too much of high school and the notion that being popular and socially graceful are all-important.

If you think the eating club experience could be improved, what are your suggestions?

As a sophomore who does not plan on joining a club, I couldn’t comment on how the process could be improved for me, but as an outsider I would say that bicker is a particularly insidious institution. The notion that a set of entities so rooted in campus history and culture should continue, in 2009, to pride itself on its selectivity and exclusion is to me incredibly problematic. If we are going to have private upperclass dining and social organizations in which a great deal of student energy and emotion is invested, I think that the least we can do as a campus community is to ensure that those organizations are self-selecting (as the sign-in clubs are), not reigned over by a process in which many are inevitably—and, to them, tragically—left out. There’s enough stress at Princeton without sophomores crying every spring because they weren’t considered pretty enough or poised enough or athletic enough or accomplished enough or aristocratic enough for their club of choice.

What is your opinion of the relationships between the eating clubs and the University? If you think the relationships could be improved, what are your suggestions?

It is obvious to just about anyone at this campus that the clubs and the university enjoy a particularly strained relationship, as they have now for some decades. That’s no cause for alarm in itself—in some sense, a university administration and student organizations shouldn’t be on the same side, or be too closely connected. But I have perceived some antagonism in the student body that does seem ill-founded—i.e., this notion that the administration is trying to “dismantle” or “shut down” or “silence” the clubs through initiatives like the four-year residential colleges, Campus Club, etc. From my perspective, the university is picking up a sizable number of students—like myself—who were previously falling through the cracks of the club system and didn’t have the time, the culinary skills, or the social skills (necessary for a co-op or Spelman) to cook for themselves. If the clubs and the university are going to work together at all, they would do well to ensure that every student has a social “home” on-campus, that no one feels as if they “have” to join a club, and that no one feels like a loser for not doing so.

What topic(s) do you think the task force should focus on?

One of the things the task force is in a good position to do is to collect data, and I’d like to see two kinds of information come out of this initiative. Firstly, I’d like to know how the alternative social spaces on or near the Street that the university has established in recent years (e.g. the Fields Center, Campus Club, Frist, the CJL, etc.) are being used: are they acting as substitutes for the Street, as the first alternative social spaces in the ’60s and ’70s were; or, now that the clubs are accessible to more varied sectors of the university community, do these alternative social spaces serve more as supplements to Street culture? Are they places someone would stop at on the way to the Street, or places where someone would go instead of the Street? Secondly, I’d like to see some more detailed data on why students who don’t join clubs choose not to do so, particularly in the form of open-ended questions encouraging longer and more detailed answers. No matter how inclusive, the clubs cannot possibly serve every undergraduate’s social needs, and so at some point reform is going to hit a dead end—it would be useful to know if the four-year colleges and the independent/co-op communities are really filling that void, or if there are still populations of students who don’t feel as if there’s currently an upperclass dining option that suits their needs.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me, but also tell the task force! I would love it if they actually got some good feedback out of that web form.

3 thoughts on “In Which I Flaunt That Whole Ivy-League Thing Some More; or, Thoughts on the Eating Club System

  1. Infinite and never-ending solidarity for your decision not to join a club. I joined Terrace my sophomore year because, well, that’s where the “alternative” people go, and had a really isolating experience for a few months and then dropped out. Really, most of the benefits of the street can be accessed without actually joining a club and/or supporting a system that leads a solid quarter of Princeton’s population – as you so eloquently put it – spending Spring Break wondering why they weren’t good enough.

  2. Do you think there is a difference in how underclassmen and upperclassmen experience the eating clubs? That is, does the eating club change as a social scene when one becomes a member?
    I was thinking that maybe the University is focusing mostly on the night life, when in fact the eating clubs are exclusive spaces during the daytime and weekdays. I think it means a lot that many upperclassmen go to the eating clubs just to hang out during the day. What’s the significance of this to students who go independent or stay in residential colleges? Are they left out not just of the visible aspects of the Street, but also the entire social experience of their later two years at the University?

  3. That’s a wonderful question that deserves some consideration! I think you’re absolutely right that the university hasn’t focused on the eating clubs as daytime spaces nearly enough. And I think part of the reason is that they really do transform at night–partly due to circumstances outside our control, like the high drinking age, which really changes how people–especially underage people–perceive nighttime partying.

    I anticipate having a social experience next year in a four-year college, but I do wish that more of my friends were staying in the colleges. I never see anymore a lot of people whom I used to see every day because we lived in the same college and ate meals together. If I were to be really selfish, I’d say that everyone should be made to stay in college for four years, the way they do at Yale, but I realize this isn’t a possible change for Princeton right now, nor do I actually want to dictate the lives of people who find the clubs enjoyable and fulfilling, during the day or night.

    I’ve eaten lunch in Terrace a couple times, and it seems to be not significantly different from eating lunch in the dining hall. So I don’t think I’m missing much, but I wish my friends wouldn’t scatter to the wind and leave me behind in college. I want to stay in the college system, I really do, but sometimes I feel as if I see less of my upperclass friends than I do of my friends who have graduated.

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