Okay, I must really be starved for questions if I’m now answering comments I read in other blogs. But I saw one I just couldn’t resist over in Mollie‘s neck of the woods (Note: as I am being greedy and co-opting Mollie’s question, and as her answer probably differs from mine, she should feel free to provide her own answer).
Sara Campbell asked “It’s cool that MIT has so many food opportunities, but do you feel that it causes people to be too spread out? I’m used to a dining hall culture, where you can walk in anytime and find some friends to sit down with, and I feel like I’d be lost with all those options! Does MIT compensate and have other places that bring everyone together?”
That’s a good question, and one I hear a lot from non-MIT people and prospective students. In order to understand the answer, it’s necessary to understand a little more about dining at MIT. The way it works is, there are a few dorms with dining halls. I believe these are Next House, Baker, Simmons and McCormick. If you live in one of these dorms, you’re required to buy a dining hall meal plan, in which you get discounted meals but in order to break even, you need to eat an awful lot of meals in a dining hall. Notice that I said “a dining hall”, not “the dining hall”, because if you have a plan at one of these dining halls, it’s good for all of them. So if you live in Next and you’re tooling problem sets with your friend at Baker, you don’t have to walk all the way back to eat; just grab your meal at Baker!
Some of the FSILGs (fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups) have not been so keen on the “mandatory” nature of these dining hall plans. Why do they care? Because many of them have their own meal plans, where meals are either cooked by a chef/cook or by house residents, depending on the house. I’ve eaten house dinners at four different FSILGs (see my entry where I ate at pika), and the quality of the meals has been quite high. House meals, and especially house dinners, are usually considered to be important community time for the house (if you’re still confused as to why the FSILG houses care about dorm dining halls, remember that freshmen, including those affiliated with FSILGs, are required to live in dorms, and if they live in dining hall dorms…you can probably see the conflict). Not in an FSILG, but have a bunch of friends who are? Or maybe, there’s one you’re thinking about joining? Want some good food and conversation? Some FSILGs allow non-members to purchase a half or full meal plan.
But what if you’re not in a dorm with a dining hall or an FSILG? Well, there’s plenty of MIT dining spots not connected with a living group (such as the Student Center options), or you can go out to eat. But before you decide to do that, remember that most living groups in this category have large, well-furnished kitchens, where you can cook your own food (which is cheaper than buying it). East Campus is an example of such a dorm, and each of its ten halls has a big kitchen. And most residents cook for themselves.
Many people get the wrong impression from this setup, and believe that individuals cooking for themselves are losing an important opportunity for community building. These people are underestimating the power of a kitchen. On 5th East, where I live, the kitchen opens into the larger and more popular of the two hall lounges, as you can see on this floor plan (G509 is the kitchen, G507 is the lounge). During the evening, there’s a steady flow of people between the kitchen and the lounge. If you wander into the kitchen to cook dinner, you’ll likely find other people waiting for their dinners to cook, sitting or standing around the kitchen and animatedly discussing/debating why their 6.001 projects don’t work, what the proper definintion of “twinkie” is, or whether it would be possible to build a giant fire-breating head for Rush (some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had have been in the hall kitchen). As the food finishes cooking, they trickle back into the lounge, where the same sort of conversation is going on but with the participants sitting on couches and the TV going in the background.
Some of the Cultural Houses in New House have a sort of middle-ground setup where there’s not a formal meal plan but everyone cooks together in the kitchen and enjoys the fruits of communal labor.
My point is that missing out on dining halls doesn’t mean missing out on community. If you tried to tell FSILG residents, or Cultural House residents, or 5th East residents, that their communities would be better off if they used dining halls and meal plans, I guarrantee you they’d be very offended.
In fact, this has happened before. A few years ago, MIT decided to have a mandatory meal plan for all undergrads in dorms. MIT was afraid that students were missing out on a great chance to come together in their communities by not having mandatory meal plans. Students were very unhappy about this. They protested. A lot. And mandatory meal plans were dropped. The mere mention of them causes some people to start breathing fire.
In short, Sara, no, I don’t feel that our dining system causes people to be too spread out. I think it’s a great community-builder, with the added benefit that students are allowed to make their own decisions. And I bet that’s a longer answer to your question than you expected or wanted. :-)
Hmm. In all this talk about dining, I didn’t get to the second part of the question, which was about common spaces for all students. I guess that’ll have to wait for another entry…