We Should Hold our Eating House Members Accountable

Erica Miller ’19 (Response to Julia Cardwell ’19)

Photo Olivia Forrester ’22

Every spring semester, there are calls to stop the algorithm or to reevaluate its method at the least. We hear the stories of the girls not getting their top choice, heartbroken and defeated Self-Selection morning because they didn’t get to join the sisterhood they had originally hoped for. 

Last week in Perspectives, Julia Cardwell ’19 defended the algorithm, while also defending the Eating House system in which the algorithm operates. She encouraged readers, specifically first-year women joining Eating Houses, to work to “make the house what [they] want it to be.” 

I’m here to tell you few get the sisterhood bonds they hope for when joining an Eating House, regardless of the work they put in. 

Freshman year, first-year women are told to join the sisterhood, join the philanthropy, and become part of a sorority-style group without the demanding recruitment process required by national sorority organizations. However, this description oversells what is actually gained by joining an Eating House organization. 

As a former president of Connor House, I am well aware of the “requirements” of Eating House membership. Mandatory service hours, house meetings, and house cleanups are just a few of the new member expectations laid out in the beginning weeks. We say: follow these guidelines, and you get the benefits of attending the social events with your fellow sisters!

In reality, this was not my experience in Connor. The punishment for missing these mandatory requirements is entirely fine-based. Individuals who are financially privileged are able to skip these events and just accept the fine. In other words, they get to pay larger dues to be in the house, while not being forced to partake in any of the events that really create the “sisterhood” environment.

This is not to say I blame them: when given the option of cleaning the entire house or paying a small fine to get out of it, the choice becomes pretty clear. This is just to demonstrate one aspect of the Eating House system that does not support the aims of the organization. 

The ability to circumvent the membership requirements coupled with the naturally inclusive design of Eating Houses creates houses that are too large to serve their purpose. 

This is not to say that inclusivity is not a good thing—full diversity and inclusivity should be consistent goals of Eating Houses and their members. 

Instead, this is to say that any member obligation can be avoided by financial privilege. Ultimately, some individuals get to enjoy the benefits of Eating Houses without any real sacrifice on their part. In this vein, there is nothing that distinguishes Eating Houses from any other voluntary club on campus. In fact, it is actually harder to form a common identity or shared vision of the house in the current system.

Unlike other clubs on campus with set purposes, Eating Houses are formed to promote sisterhood. Instead of building on an idea or cause that all individuals support, Eating Houses are expected to cultivate a common identity from algorithmically-assigned individuals. 

With first-year’s entering classes having upwards of 40 girls, this common factor can be hard to determine. Each person will have different expectations from the organization, and girls are often told, “You can make the experience what you want.” 

However, different expectations, different goals, and different motives all create an environment that contributes very little to a shared sisterhood experience. The sheer size makes it impossible for girls to get to know one another, and often, the same “cliques” that joined together, remain in “cliques,” causing more division within the house.

As Cardwell suggested last week, blaming the algorithm is not fair. However, I disagree that individuals who are currently joining houses have the ability to make their experience whatever they want it to be. The structures of the houses allow only so much modification, and tradition typically trumps. 

The most fundamental ideal to Eating Houses as a whole–sisterhood–is not being achieved by the current structure. Like Cardwell, as a washed-up senior, my time is finished. 

But, first-years who just joined have a chance to push back against the current Patterson Court Council (PCC) Eating House structure and encourage change and reforms. As a former president of an Eating House, I’ve realized that small changes inside each individual house will not help combat these issues. 

In order to be effective, these changes must be initiated at the broader, structural level. Instead of encouraging the incoming classes to shape their house to their desires, we should encourage them to reshape the PCC community. 

Past presidents will recognize the issues caused by fine-based punishments, and many of the mandatory Eating House retreats were focused on building membership accountability and responsibility. 

However, we have been tackling this from the wrong angle. Independently, the houses can only do so much. Collectively, they can rewrite the rules under which they operate. 

Stricter membership standards, smaller house sizes, and even the potential of a fifth house are something that each house could see the benefits of, but that cannot be changed solely by one house. Collective action must be taken to change the structure of Eating Houses for the benefit of all. 

Erica Miller ’19 is a Political Science major from Crouse, North Carolina. Contact her at ermiller@davidson.edu. 

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