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Beyond the Iron Cur…I mean, Mass Ave by Jessie L. '07

Laura ’09 had an interesting bit a while back in her blog about East Campus and West Campus, a distinction that, at least to me, always brings the Cold War to mind in entertaining ways.

Here’s the difference: West Campus dorms can be considered more traditional in terms of college atmosphere. There are lots of parties, dances, and social events. East Campus dorms (keep in mind there is also a residence hall called East Campus, which is a specific dorm which falls under the umbrella category of East Campus dorms) are more diverse and unconventional. Residents in this part of campus tend to fit more easily into the “stereotypical MIT student” mold. Basically, West Campus mocks East Campus for being “weird” and East Campus mocks West Campus for being “normal.” Good fun all around, and I really hope I expressed this clearly and won’t be getting any angry emails from students about the way I portrayed them.

I decided to take this opportunity to elaborate a little on what she said, because it’s an interesting topic. Being in student government, I know a lot of people from a lot of different dorms, and I’ve discussed campus issues with a lot of people in a lot of dorms, and I’ve discussed West and East with both West Campus and East Campus denizens. So I’ve thought about this a lot.

West Campus is, in fact, “more traditional in terms of college atmosphere”. I doubt you would find a lot of people who’d argue with that, no matter where they live (there are, however, notable exceptions, such as the Burton 3rd Bombers or the Cultural Houses in New House). The walls are more likely to be Institute white, or brick, or of some other neutral-looking appearance, and there’s generally not as much freedom to make modifications to the buildings, like painting murals or drilling holes in the lounge ceiling. The dorms of West Campus run the gamut from quiet and introverted, to loud, sociable, and partying, but forms of socialization tend to be of a relatively traditional nature, such as semiformals. Some of these dorms have dining halls where many students eat dinner, and mandatory meal plans for residents of those dorms. In my experience, West Campus students are far more likely to be Course 15 (Management) than East Campus students.

East Campus (often defined to include the East Campus, Random Hall, Senior Haus, and Bexley Hall dorms) is the “weird” side of campus. Saying that students who live in these dorms more closely resemble the stereotypical MIT student may or may not be true, depending on whose version of the stereotype you’re looking at. One version of the stereotype is that MIT kids are clean-cut teachers’ pets who wear glasses, care only about math and science, never get in trouble, and do nothing but study all day, a profile which does not remotely resemble the typical East Campus resident. Many East Campus residents like role-playing games, blowing things up, building things, fighting with duct-tape-and-PVC “boffer swords”, and otherwise being really geeky in ways that go beyond the classroom. Many are heavily into fantasy or sci-fi. East Campus residents built the Disco Dance Floor and hosted the now-(in)famous Time Traveler Convention (for which I worked as a security guard and media handler). The hacking culture is very East Campus-centric, though there are West Campus hackers as well. The buildings are both more dilapidated and more colorful, and the students spend more time complaining about administrative policies that they think are intended to make MIT “more like Harvard”.

One misperception that I hear about West Campus is that they don’t do anything strange or geeky. I mean, yeah, they’re more traditional, but come on, this is MIT. The people might not fit whatever version of the stereotype you held, but they’re hardly “normal”. Baker drops a piano off the roof in the spring to celebrate Drop Date. Burton 3rd…is Burton 3rd, in all its glory. Not much “normal” there. The people who are attracted to Simmons are weird enough to find something appealing about living in a building that looks, in the words of my little sister, “like it’s going to walk across the field and eat us.” By the standards of East Campus, yes, West Campus is “normal” and “traditional”. By the standards of the rest of the world…yeah right.

One strange misperception I’ve heard from West Campus residents about East Campus is that they don’t realize East Campus has parties. East Campus does have parties (um, Steer Roast?), but they tend to be a little strange, much like the people throwing them. :) For example, every fall, not long after term starts, my hall, 5th East, holds “Reawakening”. See, our hall has its own dark god, Krotus, who feeds on our suffering. And when the school year starts, obviously that means there’s a lot more suffering for him to feed on, so we wake him up with a huge party that includes a “virgin sacrifice” conducted by hallmembers.

Not exactly your typical college party. *grin*

There are other cultural differences. West Campus has, as far as I can tell, more underrepresented minorities in residence. I have no idea why. East Campus has more LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) residents, or at least more who are out of closet. West Campus tends to be more politically correct. East Campus, in general, has more alumni involvement. West Campus probably has a greater fraction of people who play IM sports. East Campus seems to have a greater fraction of non-Windows users.

And so on, and so on. What really matters, though, is not the side of campus that your living group happens to be on. It’s that you can choose which one you’re in, that you bond with the people and culture in whichever one that is (be it Baker, or Random), and that MIT has an environment and a housing system where so many different subcultures can form, thrive, and sustain themselves for decades, with each group continuing to find enthusiastic new freshmen who will contribue to their community.

Of course, it’s not just East and West. I haven’t even mentioned the FSILGs, which provide community and support for many hundreds of MIT students. They, however, are outside the scope of this entry.

For more info on the dorms…

West Campus: Baker, Burton-Conner, MacGregor, McCormick, New House, Next House, Simmons

East Campus: Bexley, East Campus, Random Hall, Senior Haus

5 responses to “Beyond the Iron Cur…I mean, Mass Ave”

  1. Ben says:

    This post seriously kicks ass. It captures everything I’ve ever thought about the differences between east and west campus (as a non-alum observer). Before coming to MIT my “typical MIT student” stereotype was closely interrelated with the hacking culture; thus, I too made the generalization that east campus folks were more “MIT.” But now that I’ve spent some time here – and befriended a wide variety of students and alums – I’ve learned that it’s impossible to define the “typical” MIT student. Which is yet another reason why I love the place so much.

  2. Bryan says:

    You made some great observations in this entry, Jessie. You captured a lot about MIT in this one. Like Jessie said, just find a place where you feel comfortable and you enjoy the company of those around you; that’s what matters.

  3. Laura says:

    Yes! I inspired an entire entry! Whoo!

    Heehee. Iron curtain? What?

    I loved the phrase “Burton 3rd, in all its glory.” Only because I think my tour guide of BC was from Burton 3rd so…yeah that sort of gave an interesting color to the tour. =)

    Thanks for elaborating on my feeble attempt to describe the insane spectrum of MIT dorms. =)

  4. gregbo says:

    Are there any hard data breaking down each dorm by major? Seems odd to me that there aren’t more engineering majors on the west side. Things were much different during the early 1980s while I was a student.

    Re: URMs, west side numbers are skewed due to Chocolate City, perhaps?

  5. allie says:

    wow… how can you *not* know east campus has parties?