NOT THE ONLY WAY
Improving social life is going to take more than kegstands and beer funnels. You’ll be surprised what the science fiction society could do for your Friday night.
The party scene was fresh for both my roommate and me when we first came to college. We had both worked hard in high school and stayed in on weekends to do homework—we were the stereotypical pre-Harvard nerds.
When she got to college, my roommate changed almost immediately. Jello shots would appear in our suite’s fridge. She would come home giggling, tipsy, and sometimes sloppy-drunk. I, on the other hand, was uncomfortable with the idea of alcohol. I quickly stopped trying to go to dorm parties with the other hordes of freshmen, preferring to hang out in the Pack (our nickname for Pennypacker). We went our separate ways after freshman year.
I have come a long way since then, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—plus, now I drink.
When I told my former roommate about my reverse reformation the week before spring break, she gave me a high-five. “I thought it was kind of strange that you didn’t want to go out, but it was less about the alcohol and more about the social thing,” she said. My frosh life just didn’t fit her definition of “social.”
Today, I can taste the difference between vodka and rum. When I want wine I ask my 21-plus friends to get me “two-buck chuck” because I know what it means. Occasionally, I come home sloppy-drunk. In my freshman roommate's words, I have started to “go out.”
This is good timing. I seem to be in tune not only with the United States’ preposterous law (I will turn 21 soon)—well, sort of—but also this campus.
The Boston Globe recently reported that, in 2002, Harvard students rated their social lives lower than many of their counterparts at other schools, including those at MIT. The 2.62 out of 5 average for social life on Harvard’s campus was lower than the 2.89 average for a group of 31 colleges, and the 2.53 for sense of community was lower than the average 2.8. Since then, the College has launched a number of initiatives directed at improving social life, from hiring “Fun Czar” Zachary A Corker ’04, to pushing for extended party hours, to working on the Harvard-Yale tailgate.
The national media made a huge joke out of the idea that Harvard students need to have administrative support to enjoy themselves, but I’m taking full advantage of it. As soon as the Undergraduate Council began to fund more parties, I started throwing them. Just as the administration created Pub Nights, I became interested in pubs. It’s the “beginning of a new era,” as posters for Pub Night declared. Everyone, from Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd to me, seems to be adjusting to a new, expanded understanding of what it means to have fun.
There’s just one problem. I am not actually being having more fun than I did before I started going out. I’ve just started socializing in different ways. Increasing social space, providing dollar drafts, making it easier to buy kegs—these are all great ideas. But making partying easier isn’t a panacea for our ailing social lives, and it certainly isn’t for everyone.
The more I step into the party scene, the more I realize how much it has to learn from those who don’t partake. In the name of moving 2.62 closer to 5, I decided to look at social groups that were not centered on weekend debauchery.
YOU DRINK? SINCE WHEN?
Over the last month, I would occasionally mention in conversations that I was working on a story about people who don’t party.
“How are you going to find those people?” some asked. In their minds, people who don’t party simply don’t socialize. Maybe they don’t need to—they are just buried in their books, those misanthropes.
I am used to these kinds of assumptions. When I go out on Saturday nights, friends of my roommate's from freshman year often come up to me in disbelief.
“You drink? Since when?” they ask. Or, “Wow, I didn’t know you went out!” They were shocked that someone “antisocial” like me would or could ever start being “social.” And though my freshman roommate didn’t express surprise when I told her I started drinking, she did tell me she found my freshman year behavior “strange.” In her view, the board games and late-night conversations didn’t quite make me “social” enough.
“I think often people who say that—their definitions of social are too narrow,” Corker said at the last Pub Night, where he took time out from schmoozing with “UC kids” and “final club presidents” to chat with me.
But though he acknowledges that “how people define social is different,” initiatives that Corker has helped spearhead buy into that narrow definition. The College’s most significant accomplishments on the social front during Corker’s tenure include convincing the Cambridge Licensing Commission to re-extend party hours to 2 a.m. and beginning a semi-regular event that may eventually lead to the creation of a permanent campus pub.
Other institutional support for social life, such as the UC’s funding of House Committees (HoCos), has fallen trap to the same narrow view. According to Dunster HoCo Co-Chair Andrew L. Kalloch ’06, in the past, the UC generously financed HoCo happy hours. “But you couldn’t get that $600 for a cookout or something,” he says. After HoCos asked for fewer restrictions, this semester’s bill gives them the right to do “whatever they want” with the money, as Kalloch says. But that doesn’t change the fact that the original bill was limited to alcohol-centered events.
Kalloch, who does not drink, is excited about the change. “I think what people are demanding of HoCo is not just happy hours and alcohol, but casino nights and courtyard movies,” he says.
Happy hours weren’t for the freshman me. Person by person, weekend by weekend, I found the other kids who weren’t going out and getting trashed. I stuck with my other freshman roommate, chilled with some of the girls across the hall, and laughed with the boys next door. We bounced bagels in the stairway, had random conversations till late in the night, and threw our own alcohol-free mini-dance parties, where we danced however we wanted and giggled about it afterward.
While I loved my Pennypacker crowd, I was also excited to find an instant family in the Taiwanese Cultural Society (TCS) when I joined the group’s executive board freshman spring. I actually made friends with upperclassmen, who took the initiative to IM me and who could chat with me more knowledgeably about Taiwanese politics, identity, and food than my American roommates could.
One Friday evening, after a dumpling workshop, two then-sophomores and I were the only ones left cleaning up. On a whim, we decided to head to Dado Tea in Central Square for some bubble tea. Even though Dado was closed when we got there—cleaning took longer than we had expected—we had fun throwing out trash bags, walking down Mass. Ave., and making plans to go back later. When we went to bed that night, we weren’t drunk, but we were happy. I’d give the night a 5.
LEARNING FROM THE “WEIRDOS”
Towards the end of last semester, a good friend of my blocking group started talking a lot about HRSFA, the Harvard Radcliffe Science Fiction Association. Mauro C. Braunstein ’06 was spending most of his weekends and a lot of his weeknights hanging out with the club. “But you don’t read science fiction,” we teased him. “The video games you play with them, what does that have to do with sci-fi?”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I was intrigued. What sort of interest group can have such a magnetic attraction for someone who doesn’t even enjoy the thing the group is interested in?
This semester, I happened upon Braunstein eating a meal with a large group of people I didn’t know. They were mostly skinny males, and they were all members of HRSFA (pronounced “hurs-fa”). When I told them I was a reporter, Braunstein’s dinnermates were tentative, afraid I might caricature them as sci-fi-obsessed weirdos. But it wasn’t going to be one of those stories, I reassured them, and I knew Braunstein, so I was in. As I chatted with Noam Lerer ’07, one of the group’s co-chairs, they carried on spirited conversations of their own.
“HRSFA is a group of friends that gets to know each other really well,” Lerer said. A social studies concentrator, Lerer fell into the group his freshman fall after attending the Ig Nobel ceremony, a spoof event in Sanders Theater that HRSFA helps sponsor. “Within a week I had pretty much made most of the friends I have now.” His roommate is a fellow HRSFen (the term for members of HRSFA, pronounced “hurs-fen”), and Lerer considers it his primary social group.
And he doesn’t mean that they all hang out in Cabot Library, though HRSFen do like to “work in company”—sit in a JCR with work, do a little of it, start chatting, and become completely unproductive. There are HRSFA events almost every night of the week, both formal and informal. From spontaneous Kong runs (which can happen up to four times a week) to weekly gatherings organized around particular activities, there is always something going on with the core group, which numbers about 30, according to Lerer.
The national media may have made a joke out of the idea that Harvard students need to have planned fun, but it’s true. If a HRSFen is interested in something—say Smallville, or making funny commentary as bad movies are played (an activity known as Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K), or board games—he or she can propose the formation of a SIG (Special Interest Group). SIGs gather weekly to engage in their special-interest activities, and if they grow, they grow. And if no one comes, they die.
When the list of SIGs gets sent out weekly over an e-mail list, a large mass of people knows about each event and has the opportunity to participate in it, busy Harvardians can plan their schedules around the activities, and as long as enough people show interest, the events are reliably there, week after week.
Monthly, semesterly, and annual events supplement the roster. Elisabeth S. Cohen ’06, who is now entering her second term as co-chair, says she fell in love with the group when she met some HRSFen pre-frosh weekend and attended the monthly “Milk and Cookies” event, a Saturday night on which members read out loud short stories of their choosing.
Talking to her, I started to wish I had a reliable structure for scheduled time with my 30 closest friends.
AN EPIC NIGHT
The night before housing assignments were distributed to freshmen, HRSFA held a “Blocking Party” in the Lowell JCR. I walked in to find almost 20 people listening intently as video-game music emitted from Braunstein’s laptop. He had composed his own 25-minute video-game score and was getting feedback from his friends. I had noticed some of my blockmates filling out Braunstein’s detailed response form, but I had never taken the time to listen to his piece. I was touched that so many people were doing this, just for him.
After the piece ended, a cry arose for a round of Epic Duel—one of the latest obsessions of Lerer, Braunstein, and two other HRFSen—a board game based on dice, role-playing cards, and characters from Star Wars. The game can be played with as few as four players and as many as 12, and tonight they wanted an Epic Duel of epic proportions. Hustling together 11 players, Braunstein, Lerer, and the others tried to find their missing 12th. They zeroed in on Cohen.
Though Cohen’s longtime boyfriend Warren M. Tusk ’05 is one of the leading champions of the game, she was somewhat reluctant to join in. Edward J. Su ’07 attempted to change her mind.
“Generally, stupidity is a bad thing, but when you get enough of it, it becomes a good thing,” Su said.
“I guess that’s the point of MST3K too, which I never really got,” Cohen retorted gently. She turned to me: “Are you sure you don’t want to play?” She suggested I do so, saying that it would be a very “insightful” experience. So I took my place as Count Dooku and played one turn. When I bowed out of the game to chat with another HRSFen, Cohen took my place. As long as she was spending time with her closest friends, the activity didn’t really matter.
Then I noticed Lamont A. James ’08. Clad in a yellow t-shirt, standard-issue Harvard lanyard hanging from his neck, the Canaday resident was playing a video game (“Perfect Dark”) by himself.
The Navy brat says he got used to moving around a lot in his childhood, breeding independence, and, perhaps, an inclination for solitude. “I don’t mind—and this kind of disturbs me—just doing something on Saturday night by myself,” James says. “You still enjoy the company of others, but you don’t mind when that company’s gone.”
He seems to fit right into the mold of a stay-at-home sci-fi fan who is completely happy communicating solely with his or her computer—my former roommate's worst nightmare. And yes, this nondrinker has a favorite online comic or two.
But James has actually spent most of his weekends in the company of others since he joined HRSFA last year. James’ obsession with Magic: The Gathering, a card game he picked up after chess became “old and stale,” led him to become involved with the group, but it’s the people that have kept him around.
Towards the end of our conversation, James was considering going home to sleep before his 9 a.m. French class when Matthew B. Granoff ’07 interjected, “Last year most of us stayed up all night, class be damned.”
James wavered, concerned about making sure he passed all his classes. Granoff, who dates Lamont’s blockmate and fellow HRSFAn Alexa R. Weingarden ’08, relented but said, “I don’t want to put ridiculous pressure on you, but it’s a lot of fun.” To explain themselves, Granoff and James showed me their HRSFA membership cards, which read, “Because friends don’t let friends choose wisely.” I left, but James ended up watching the sunrise with Granoff, Lerer, and three others.
The more I got to know the HRSFen, the more they seemed like a co-ed frat. HRSFA’s main purpose is its social function. The group does organize large, public events (the annual VeriCon, a science-fiction conference) and it does publish (a semiannual literary magazine focused on science fiction and fantasy), but members usually spend time together just for the sake of spending time together.
One thing they don’t do together might distinguish HRSFA from most other on-campus social organizations. “It’s a place where people who don’t feel comfortable drinking feel comfortable,” Cohen says.
Last semester, I received two separate invitations to a special outreach night at the Asian American Christian Fellowship (AACF, pronounced “double-A CF”). When there are two printed invitations sitting on your desk with two personalized handwritten messages, it’s hard not to feel welcomed and valued (even if you don’t end up going).
AACF and the Harvard Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) are non-denominational sister fellowships—groups of Christians who gather regularly for Bible study groups and worship sessions—affiliated with the same national organization.
For the last two-and-a-half years, I have been consistently amazed by how well members of HRCF and AACF relate to each other and reach out to people on the outside. Shared faith aside, what are they doing so well? I trekked up to Currier to visit Diana K. Lee ’05 and Yaa A.N. Bruce ’05, blockmates and former members of AACF’s leadership team. A friend in AACF recommended that I talk to Lee and Bruce.
The pair laughingly call themselves “antisocial.” They avoid large crowds, preferring more intimate opportunities to hang out—especially now that they’re no longer planning the events. “We’re still very invested in AACF. We just don’t spend as much time with large groups on the whole,” Lee says. “I try to spend time with people one-on-one, have meals together to have more serious conversations, grab some boba [another term for bubble tea].”
But Bruce and Lee like AACF for its larger group activities as well.
Like HRSFA, the fellowships are fond of acronyms. HRCF and AACF both hold Friday Large Groups, opportunities for speakers to share their experiences and for fellowship members to worship and pray together. After Large Groups, members can stick around for After-Fellowship Activities (AFAs). AFAs range from movie nights, to games of Capture the Flag on the T, to trips to dessert trips to Super 88, the Asian supermarket in Allston. And while some members of AACF and HRCF do drink, it’s not considered an important mode of socializing.
“I definitely feel that some AFAs could be called a party,” Bruce says. “[They] are kind of spontaneous, but actually planned.”
Planned spontaneity can make hanging out feel more natural. Whereas a freshman-entryway study break can feel awkwardly forced, AFAs happen after a group has already convened for prayer. People are there anyway. They might as well watch a movie together.
I started to think that Corker and Kidd might have a lot to learn from these groups. The CFs create the kind of community that Houses and proctor groups aspire to attain but can’t because Houses aren’t communities built up by voluntary participation. Not every single person who passes through the fellowships sticks with them devotedly, but those who do are content with their social lives.
STILL HAVING FUN
Three-quarters of the way through my college career, I’m pretty content too. My typical Saturday night used to be a round of Apples to Apples or Cranium. Now, I am more likely drinking rounds of screwdrivers and White Russians. But really, I’m not meeting or hanging out with more people than I did before. Partying has been fun, but aside from my freshman year dormmates, the older and younger people with whom I spend quality time are the people I met through TCS. The ones who took me on dim sum runs are now the ones who call me up even though they’ve graduated.
I’m glad TCS exists. I wouldn’t have met some of my closest friends without it. Taiwanese kids don’t fall into your lap that easily, even though ethnic affiliations are a bit easier to identify than other commonalities.
Cohen also points out the importance of having institutional structures.
“[Because] we are a club and we have administrative aspects that are largely to do with recruiting,” she says, “we are able to sustain continuity and be there for freshmen.” Being listed in the prefrosh weekend brochure, receiving grants from the UC and the Harvard Foundation, getting table space at the Activities Fair—all of these things help a club that is also a group of friends to sustain itself.
Right now, frats, sororities, and final clubs are coming up with those groups without ostensible Harvard support. Arguably, the latter are more exclusive than HRSFA, the fellowships, and the ethnic organizations, but perhaps if more small social groups won Harvard administrative support, College social life would improve. The more the merrier, and the more likely everyone will find a niche.
Voluntary-membership groups create things to entertain their members that are arguably more interesting than a standard dorm party-cum-keg. It’s not that more parties or more alcohol shouldn’t happen. It’s just that there’s a lot that the many vibrant social scenes that don’t depend on alcohol are doing right.
After all, 2.62 out of 5 for social satisfaction is pretty bad. I’d bet two drinks—or two glasses of milk and a handful of cookies—the HRSFA average is a lot higher.