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Why Are There So Many Kinds of Tray Returns?

By Courtesy of David R. Cerbone
By Henry A. Cerbone, Contributing Opinion Writer
Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column "Academic Flotsam" appears on alternate Wednesdays.

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better.” — Iris Murdoch

As a student at Harvard, one quickly finds that the most important opinion you can have is which dining hall is the best. The selection criteria for this are varied: Some look only at the quality of the food, some the “vibes” of the seating area, and others still how true the dining hall is to an authentic “Harvard feel.” An often-overlooked metric is the style of tray returns. Given that the Houses have all undergone a series of renovations throughout the past several decades, one might, mistakenly, think that a standardized tray return would have emerged.

Alas, in Adams we have a standard conveyor built, seemingly like Lowell’s where there are hooks and a start-stop indexing system. These should not be confused with Quincy’s which is open-air or Dunster’s where you place the tray on a shelf that rotates into the back. This seemingly small feature illustrates a massive difference in engineering solutions throughout the House dining halls.

I have spent many a meal imagining the reason for such differences. The most amusing of these imaginings is that the House Dean or House Restoration Committee of each House had incredibly strong opinions about how the tray returns should be. I imagine angry demonstrations, trays thrown, hooks demanded, shelves balked at. Another reason might be sourced from biologists Gould and Lewontin’s “Spandrel argument.”

For those not acquainted with architecture and/or organismic biology, spandrels are the triangular space between the top of an arch and the rectangular frame. The argument in evolutionary biology was leveraged against the adaptationist program as showing that some characteristics are in fact a byproduct of the evolution of other characteristics or, in the case of spandrels, other architectural decisions. Some might argue that embracing the irrelevant led to Gould and Lewontin’s theory.

This notion of evolutionary, or in our case, engineering byproduct, falls short when digging into the speciation of tray returns at Harvard. It is not clear, after all, whether the designs can be laid in a sequential order, or whether they were influenced by each other in any way. There is a larger question that they bring up in their unimportance: Why on earth are we talking about them?

The best reason I can provide is that it is important to notice small things. And not just notice them, but find fascination in them. If you have enough fascination for something, you may even begin to derive joy from observing it. If you are forced to think of the best, funniest conversations that you have had in the past month, the ones where you laughed the hardest; made your friends embarrassed to be sitting with you in the dining hall due to the scene you caused; which ones do you remember most vividly?

I am willing to bet that the memory you will come up with does not involve discussing something serious. There will not be a whiff of interviews, applications, problem sets, relationship drama. Instead, the discussion will have been on how to explain Hegel to kindergarten students (and whether or not they know what a dialectic is). Or a heated debate on whether or not sprinkles are good. Or even, sometimes, just maybe, why there are so many different kinds of tray returns?

Returning to our opening quotation, the goal that Murdoch sets out for us is to find small treats that can quickly be procured. What is more inexpensive and quickly procurable than a discussion with a friend? A, hopefully humorous, shared obsession over something nonsensical. A degree of whimsy is a necessary addition to life might be an apt rephrasing of Murdoch’s advice.

The disagreeable reader may find the advice up to this point to be rather childish. “Let’s get serious!” they might exclaim. To those readers, I ask, have you ever met a child? What happy people! Not yet forced to confront the world with its host of issues. Instead, able to apply rich imaginative faculties to the most mundane of situations: think a rubber ducky and bath time. For those still unconvinced, I ask that you listen to Frank Sinatra’s Young at Heart. He expresses the importance of a childlike view better than I ever could.

The takeaway here is not that you should become obsessed with tray returns. Nor should you develop a staunch opinion on whether Hegel can be taught to kindergarten students. Instead, I hope that you will attempt to find something silly to develop a position towards. Something of not much consequence. This should not be in place of important positions and attitudes, but should act as a calming agent. Something to bring a smile when the day has been spent on more serious matters. An inexpensive, quickly procured treat of your own choosing.

Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column "Academic Flotsam" appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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