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A Tale of Two House Lists

The Undergraduate

By Judd B. Kessler

When first-years get their housing assignments on Thursday, each student will have been randomly assigned to one of twelve microcosms of the College. At the time of its implementation seven years ago, randomization was feared to bring the death of House community. But in the years since then, House e-mail lists have risen to prominence, allowing students to feel connected to one another, and their Houses—from the comfort of their dorm rooms.

These House lists are meant to double as bulletin boards and wide-reaching virtual House communities. While gathering together all the members of Quincy seems a daunting task, a simple e-mail to Quincy-Open will reach the inboxes of 336 students, tutors and staff.

But House lists are only mediocre bulletin boards. In a survey of 92 Harvard undergraduates that I conducted last spring, students ranked House e-mail lists as less effective at getting information to them than either posters in the Yard or announcements in their House dining halls. While the lists are probably sufficient if you want to sell an old textbook, e-mails sent to uninterested students’ inboxes are easily ignored.

But the lists are not only about pedaling used wares; they also propose to be purveyors of House community. And while they have large memberships and are often quite active, these lists only create the illusion of an intellectual community. Readily available online, February archives from Cabot-Open and Quincy-Open—typical House lists—highlight the shortcomings of House e-mail lists to provide true intellectual community.

Certainly these lists are active. Quincy-Open members received 404 e-mails in February. Cabot-Open members were almost twice as prolific, composing 780 posts in the same four weeks—an average of almost 28 per day.

And just as we would expect an intellectual community to be, these lists are much more active during the week, when students are at their computers—probably procrastinating—than on Friday and the weekend, when students can go out and interact in the real world. Cabot-Open produced 70 percent more e-mails on the average weekday—not including Friday—than it did on the average weekend day. Quincy-Open was twice as active on the average Monday through Thursday than on the average Friday.

But students hoping to find the Holy Grail of House intellectual community in their inboxes will likely be disappointed. Only a small fraction of the postings to these lists—14 percent in Quincy, 18 percent in Cabot—were comprised of five or more e-mails on the same topic. Within these “threads,” real discussion and debate are possible. But the topics that attract the most attention on House lists tend to be the most humorous. In February, the longest thread on Cabot-Open was 26 posts with the subject “odd goings-on in the F entry laundry room.” Initially raising concern about a busted washing machine, the responses immediately turned into a flurry of personal jokes and somehow morphed into a debate about which states make up the Midwest. Likewise, another popular Cabot-Open thread discussed the candidates on Joe Millionaire.

Of course, these lighthearted topics are common on House lists. Even topics that begin with a serious international concern, national policy issue or contentious debate about Harvard, are often hijacked by jokes and short, witty, personal retorts. In Quincy, a proposal for Bush to debate Saddam, quite quickly—and naturally—turned into a forum for American Gladiator jokes and a call for Turbo to come back from retirement. In most Houses, when serious debates arise, they are the exception to the rule. And it is quite clear that they should be.

House e-mail lists are an ineffective place for debating serious issues; that they fail at providing a true academic community should be no surprise. The limitations of e-mail range from the difficulty of engaging in back-and-forth debate to the failure of typing to compete with the rate of speech. The surprise may come at the lists’ effectiveness at providing an often entertaining, social community.

E-mail lists mostly serve as breeding grounds for House celebrities and House clowns. On a platform reaching hundreds of potential readers, many strong personalities provide a running commentary on Joe Millionaire, House life and other people’s serious—and humorous—posts. Discussions on House lists are often dominated by a self-selecting group of active participants. On Cabot-Open, 60 percent of the list’s 141 February thread e-mails were composed by only 19 people. Both lists had a person who posted 21 times during February—or three out of every four days. (These did not include the lists’ “Black History Fact” providers, who posted once a day.)

First-years should be ready for their House assignments and should sign up for their House open lists, but they should not be fooled into believing that the lists will fulfill their desire for debate on weighty matters. Instead, these lists will provide most students with mild entertainment when they have the time to peruse the posts (possibly in digest form). For a select few first-years, House lists will become a forum for their own witty remarks and ruminations. But to debate serious issues, and to create true House community, students will have to venture out of their dorm rooms and search for one another in the real world.

Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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