Monday, August 29, 2011

More on rooming with others

Today's New York Times opinion page features an essay that makes nearly the opposite claim regarding randomly-assigned roommates as your humble blogger (and some of her commenters) made two weeks ago. According to Dalton Conley, the kids today are over-managing their lives! they need more serendipity! and if it doesn't come in the form of a randomly-assigned roommate, they'll never be able to play well with others or appreciate diversity!

Okay, I exaggerate. Slightly. But Conley's essay, in addition to not taking the problems inherent in randomly-assigned roommates very seriously, just isn't an accurate imagining of young people's lives or even the college experience (this, despite the fact that Conley is a professor at NYU). Rather, it's a nostalgic look back at the benefits that Conley himself received from rooming, in the 1980s, with someone very unlike himself--confusedly conflated with a larger and basically unrelated worry about the ways that The Modern World has eliminated serendipity. Conley speaks about how he knows people "who can't bear to eat in a restaurant they haven't researched on Yelp," and laments that "Google now tailors searches to exactly what it thinks you want to find," but from where I sit it sounds like he's mourning the diminished opportunities for serendipity in his own life, or the lives of those in his peer group (do 18-year-olds fetishize Yelp? I think not), rather than providing a realistic picture of life as a young person living among thousands of other young people.

As we age, we do indeed tend to associate more and more with people like us or at least already known to us. We have fixed groups of friends, we have families, we have partners, we have colleagues, and we tend to be fixed more stably in a community or at least in a personal and professional identity. But college freshmen meet people unlike themselves all the time: in the dorm, in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, in the dining hall. Many of them (though certainly not all of them) are actively looking for new interests, ideas, identities, and they turn to their peers (and, yes, to technology) to help them learn more about a particular band, movie-maker, political position, or religious belief.

Moreover, any roommate is different from oneself, just by definition. Even someone who shares all one's tastes is likely to have different habits, personality quirks, and simply to manifest his or her presence at inconvenient times. It's hard for me to believe that a randomly-assigned roommate is actually significantly better at teaching one how to live with other people than a roommate one has had some limited say in choosing. The number of people I know who lost friends over shared-housing drama indicates that "difference" isn't always recognizable from the outside.

Yes, as Conley cheerfully notes in his closing, most people who wind up with "the roommate from hell" do survive, and some may even wind up with "great stories to tell [their] future spouse." But that's hardly an argument in favor of random roommate assignment.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

It seems to me one of the things that complicates this discussion is the huge variety of institutions (and students) out there. I was able to have a single 3 out of 4 years of college (the one year I didn't was when I studied abroad junior year). But I went to a fantabulously wealthy and tiny undergrad. The buildings (and aesthetics) at big state schools are so different - and also the demographics (at Huge Big 10 Grad School, something like 10% of undergrads even lived in the dorms). The Times article seems to me to address a relatively limited segment of students.

I guess I'd also love to know the statistics behind his claim that "many" students request each other, and what exactly "like-minded" and "similar backgrounds" means. I still think you're going to get quite a lot of difference in your roommates.

But yeah, I agree that not living with a random person doesn't really affect your opportunity to meet all kinds of different people. I was exposed to plenty of difference in my freshman-year single (I was in a suite, and also part of a sub-unit that had its own identity within the larger building). And being in a single didn't spare me from miserable experiences with suitemates.

(I also find the digs at Yelp and Google kind of weird. People who had access to information have always looked at reviews or looked up the kind of stuff on Google. Now it's just more people can have access to that information more easily. I don't think it's some kind of fundamental change in human nature.)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Okay, sorry to spew all over your comments, but this just struck me: the administrators who pair students in college have always sent out surveys/preference forms in order to guide their choices; it's never been *completely* random (see his point about not being paired with another party animal). It seems to me what the NYT guy is really complaining about is students taking control of that process, rather than letting the (wise, paternalistic) institution do it.

Flavia said...

NK: to your first comment: definitely. But that's par for the course at the NYT, whose articles about higher ed never seem to imagine students students who attend colleges that don't cost $40K a year.

I also agree with your second comment whole-heartedly. I'm not sure whether I was asked any questions beyond 1) what kind of music do you like?, and 2) what hours do you keep?, but my own freshman-year suite of six women was clearly designed to reflect the college's commitment to various forms of diversity: We had 1 New Yorker, 1 rural New Englander, 1 Pennsylvanian, 1 Midwesterner, 1 Southerner, 1 West Coaster. Half public school, half private; half on financial aid, half not; 1 Asian-American, 1 African-American, 1 Jew, 2 Catholics.

On the other hand, my future spouse's freshman class included a quad with four guys named Andrew and a triple with three women named Emily, Charlotte, and Anne (popularly known as "the Bronte sisters").

But while the folks who put my suite together may have had better intentions than the folks who thought it would be hilarious to put a bunch of guys with the same first name into the same room (and I have no complaints about my freshman-year living situation), someone else's engineering is not necessarily better or smarter than letting students have at least a little more say themselves.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

About the four guys named Andrew: One of our freshman dorm units had something like 5 Jennifers or Kristens in it! (I don't remember which name it was, but to be fair, it was one of the uber-typical names of my generation - it wasn't like rounding up 5 Anastasias.) So we definitely suspected the housing people of having weird senses of humor...

So yeah, it's never been *really* random.