An Opportunity at the Island in the Square
By Tushar Dwivedi
At some brief, likely indiscernible moment, it was clear to me at least, that the interview had changed in nature. Deep within the stacks, Robert Kiely, Professor of English, Emeritus, spoke of a time before time for myself: stories of Adams House’s unrivaled cultural aura, the frustrations of wanton gender discrimination, and of bold departures from corporate America. Deep outside the belly of Widener, hammers pounded on steel as the new Adams House rose, brick by brick in the early September wind.
Adams House, closest to all things modern-day Harvard (the Yard, the T-stop, El Jefe’s), serves a unique role on campus. Governing nearly three blocks of Harvard’s river campus, Adams House proudly presents its preeminence and age upon entry: the Gold Room, Dining Hall, and even the “modernized” Computer Room (filled with typewriters) are illustrious, frozen, and unchanging. As one resident, Nico Christiansen ’20 says, there are only two places to discover what has really happened here in the last 20 to 30 years – the tunnels below Apthorp House.”
When surveying several current Adams House residents, I simply asked what Adams House was to them and what principal words would remain locked in memory 50 years later. From responses, it became clear that Adams House’s primary function is simply to be a place of residence – as a resident put it, “the part of Harvard where our beds and food are, rather than class.” The houses have been nearly seamlessly integrated into the larger Harvard experience and as one student put it, “are pretty much utilitarian in their purpose.” Another mentioned that “he feels immense pride in the brief moments when the house unites in the face of tragedy or disgrace,” but wishes there was more than Thursday night alcohol to bring us together.
To this, I asked on whom the onus of creating a sense of common culture was – the Faculty Deans? The UC reps? The students? The most resounding answer by far was “current students.” The Faculty Deans and UC have provided all the resources and knowledge necessary, but without clear interest from students in genuinely getting to know others and their ideas outside of the traditional blocking group structure, there is little that can be done from the top.
Professor Kiely’s phone rang around 4pm, bringing me back to the real world briefly; the conversation had begun initially as a fascinating discussion of his experience at Harvard through the last fifty years. Tales of exits from Mad Men-esque advertising firms, challenging graduate programs ripe with gender discrimination, and books soon to be published captivated me, and amongst stories of his time as Master of Adams House, I found a glimmer of what we as students can do: voice opinions, show-off talents, engage outside of our blocking groups, disagree, and most importantly – simply talk to each other.
The Adams House of Kiely’s time was still built on student self-selection; Adams House in particular tended to attract those passionate about the literary, theatrical, and artistic sides of Harvard. As Kiely described, discussion, discourse, and the exchange of ideas were crucial to Adams House’s nature: at times, dinner would be composed of dozens of professors and a handful of students across disciplines and interests. The conversation I so coveted to have with Professor Kiely was one that students back then had often experienced in the houses – it was a central part of the Harvard experience. Newspaper editors and lampoon creatives were littered across the House (including those on the Independent!) as the House cultivated an identity driven by its students – one of discord, ideation, and differences of opinion.
As has been discussed at length, the Harvard of Kiely’s time was by no means perfect. Gender discrimination was a given for a seemingly absurd length of time, and the old House system definitely reflected socio-economic segregation at some level. However, as highlighted by my conversation with Professor Kiely, it is clear that there were still magical elements in the house. In the present time, the groundwork has been set wonderfully by the current Faculty Deans, and initiatives such as community table and the next-steps table provide students a platform to voice opinions, learn, and mentor. Externally, the country is at a significant divide, only further necessitating and providing an opportunity for discourse.
The physical construction of the new Adams House is an opportunity: a physical reset that may perhaps trigger a cultural one as well. Spending just a few minutes in the dining hall reveals how diverse the community within the House is; as one of the previously surveyed students mentioned, “We get put in these super diverse, cool, and interesting communities in Houses – but we just end up sticking with our… pretty homogenous blocking groups.”
This discussion is one the Independent has been following for some time now: understanding how public discourse has changed in the past few decades. Being a truly alternative newspaper requires rigorously understanding both sides of an argument, even in situations in which one path seems obvious. The discourse for which some students yearn in their college experience is one that many around the country seek in media, political, educational, and scientific forums. What is appropriate for discussion is not the same in a classroom versus a newspaper or House, but at the same basic level, it seems critical to building true community.
I asked Kiely whether he felt nostalgic about the renovations to the house. The memories he built with Adams are similar to the ones I and past editors have had with the Indy. House Masters / Faculty Deans and Editors may change, but the essence of the institution must stay the same and be one that incites a sense of wonder and excitement for each incoming class. The next iteration of Harvard grows with each House renovation just as the Indy evolves with each passing issue and semester; we hope, on all fronts, the pursuit of true, hearty, and healthy discourse remains strong.
Tushar Dwivedi ‘20 (Tushar_Dwivedi@college.harvard.edu) is Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Independent and a Senior in Adams House.