Reflections on the SCR
A Cynic's View
THIS MONTH, you're going to have visitors. Prestigious, interesting, famous visitors. They are going to come to your house and have lunch or dinner, just as they've done for years.
And you won't get a chance to talk with them, if you live in one of the three houses which don't invite undergraduates to Senior Common Room (SCR) meals.
The rest of the houses, with a few exceptions, invite only a handful of students to each SCR meal, according to a survey of SCR practices conducted last spring. So the professors and other house affiliates who take up house space and eat house food do not have to be bothered with meeting too many house residents.
This elitist lock-out makes a mockery of one of the original purposes of the house system.
More important, the separation of faculty meals and student meals perpetuates a two-class society at Harvard. The elite are fed with table cloths, liquor, and decorum. The rest of us are fed with the trappings and charm of an automotive assembly line.
The elite are white and male and besuited, for the most part, and veterans of Ph.D. programs. The rest of us are--well, we are whatever we are.
The elite are, in the words of one professor, an "all-star" faculty gleaned from the senior levels of other universities. They are paid for their work at Harvard. The rest of us came straight from high school. We are supposed to pay for our work here.
The elite are allowed to vote at Faculty Meetings, which ratifies decisions of the Faculty Council, which aids the Dean of the Faculty in running the College. The rest of us can vote at House Committee meetings, which rarely aid anyone in running anything.
The elite lecture from stages, their voices magnified electronically, to crowds of up to 1000. The rest of us are not permitted to interrupt, comment, or disturb their performances.
In sum, the elite at Harvard are larger than life, and the rest of are just about the same size as life.
We are periodically reminded of this basic difference by the exclusive SCR's.
WE ARE AGAIN reminded of this difference, however, at the non-exclusive SCR meals. At North House and to a lesser extent at a couple other houses, the meals are open to all students and publicized. Yet only a handful of students attend.
At Adams House and elsewhere, only half of the students invited to share the SCR meal actually show up, according to house officials.
For some reason, apparently, students do not want contact with professors. As an Undergraduate Council report on SCR's notes, "Most masters have horror stories about SCR members coming to lunch, and students ignoring them." The Council's report concludes that student disinterest is generally due to ignorance and shyness.
This is the conclusion reached a couple years ago by a junior faculty member who coined "the phantom student": the undergraduate who through lack of self-confidence or interest fails to pursue opportunities for student-faculty contact.
This article was thought so important that Harvard sent it to the parents of all undergraduates.
The implication was: you're paying a lot of money for Harvard, so your kids had damn well better take advantage of all these nifty opportunities they have.
The second implication was: if your kids ever complain about Harvard, just remember that it's not our fault, that we offer them more than they want.
I find these explanations degrading, based as they are on preconceptions of a faultless Harvard and a ungrateful/lethargic student body.
I'D LIKE TO forward two alternative explanations for the lack of student interest in student-faculty contact.
The first is that very few Harvard undergraduates are planning to go into academia. Few will choose to socialize in later life with professors. And yet it is assumed willy-nilly that these people should be our mentors, our role models, and our primary contact with an earlier generation.
The second reason, to bring back the notion of the two-class university, is that Harvard has worked so hard to raise its faculty to the level of demigods that students have learned to leave them alone.
It's like Greek mythology: mortals learned to avoid the capricious and powerful gods at all costs, except when they needed some special favor.
So office hours and SCR meals are attended only by the sycophants... and by those who have seen the emperor's clothes and realize the faculty to be human.
What is needed, perhaps, is some mass debunking of the Harvard faculty. We have to show the Wizard of Oz for what he really is--minus the amplification and smokescreen. We have to jump on Gulliver like the Lilliputians (the metaphors are really piling up now) and rip off the false nose and mustache.
In other words, we have to counteract the age-old Harvard attempt to glorify its professors and debase (at least in relative terms) its students.
Only then will students start attending SCR's--at least, the ones which they are allowed to attend.