Though the house system was originally created to bring faculty members and students together in a nonacademic setting, for most students, the ideal of sitting down for lunch with a senior professor is far from a reality.
In fact, says Director of Expository Writing Richard Marius, for many faculty members, venturing into a house for lunch is "frankly, terrifying."
"It's so forbidding not to see anybody you know," he says. "You feel like, `My God, is there anyone I can sit down with?"'
One place that faculty-student contact takes place with more ease, Marius says, is the Signet Society, an officially-recognized College organization that brings undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members and administrators together at daily lunches and at other events.
Members echo Marius' description of the club as an open, friendly forum for discussion on intellectual and artistic topics.
"At the Signet there is inter-generational discourse on a small level," says Matthew Lee '92, the club's vice president. "You find a more interesting side to the lecturer when you sit down to eat with him."
Gurney Professor of History and Political Science Adam B. Ulam, an associate member, concurs. "It's one of the few places where conversations [between students and faculty] are not forced and are not connected with courses," he says.
The Signet Society was created in 1871 by a group of dissidents who decided to boycott the Hasty Pudding Club and the rival sophomore society, Pi Eta. Initially, the club's charter contained a "Pudding clause" prohibiting its members from belonging to the Hasty Pudding.
The Signet today includes approximately 50 undergraduate members, 250 active associates and 2500 alumni and inactive associates. The club is governed by four undergraduate officers and a trustee organization called the Associate Board.
The trustees' job is "to make sure we have a building and we pay the bills," says Rodney G. Dennis, the board's president. "We are the people the undergraduate members go to if there's something they don't like."
The Signet's stated purpose is "to stimulate and promote greater interest and proficiency in letters, the arts and scholarship." Members are supposed to be selected on the basis of their contributions to the arts and to scholarship.
Most people join the club by being invited to lunch by a member and then "put up" by that member. Lately, however, that procedure has begun to change, says Signet President Sarah B. Fels '92.
Fels says that some new members simply called to ask about the club and were invited to lunch by officers.
"The fact that they came to the Signet on their own initially did not work against them at all," Fels says.