In the autumn of 2004 I returned to Duke as a graduate student, and many things on campus had changed. Here at the age of 23 I began to feel old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out to bars. I developed proprietary claims to certain seats in the classroom. I regularly drank three bottles of beer with dinner, never more or less. My interest in coursework had waned and little remained except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. Occasional talks still intrigued me, and it was for this reason that I planned to attend an event organized by the Social Science Research Institute.
“Where is it taking place?” I asked a colleague.
“It’s over in Trent—a building you have probably never seen before.”
My eyes widened. “Yes Hooper, (for that was what I had chosen to call him) I have. I’ve been there before.” The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my personal dungeon. I had been there before; I knew all about it.
I had first visited Trent with my roommate Chris more than 5 years earlier. It was the end of freshman year and this excursion was tinged with apprehensive fear. We had just selected—I should say were forced to select—a room in Trent to inhabit during our sophomore year. We were going to assess this catastrophe. Things were not supposed to turn out this way. We had assembled an ideal housing block and hoped for, if not Main West, at least Edens. However the housing lottery turned out disastrously for us. It took a few days to comprehend the results—we had drawn the very last pick in the entire male undergraduate community.
To this day I do not know if there was a conspiracy afoot and whether this was housing’s way of getting even with the members of my block—all six of whom had been written up, many of them multiple times, for violations throughout freshman year. There was a chance too that our number might be so bad that they would run out of rooms to accommodate us, and we might end up on the waiting list with a shot at West. Hope turned into horror, however, as we approached the assignment desk at the end of room picks. THERE WAS ONE ROOM LEFT IN THE BASEMENT OF TRENT. We landed in what was, by definition, the least desired room on campus.
The view from the room consisted primarily of an embankment of dirt. If one stooped down he could see the sky in the background and sometimes make out the top of trucks driving noisily down Erwin road. We were supposed to have air conditioning, but the unit was broken for most of August and September. To make matters worse, the windows had been painted shut. The stifling hot dank of the warmer months was rivaled by the intense heart of the radiator, which had only two positions—on and off—in the winter. The RA next to us, an older gentleman returning to school to get a masters in education, showed us a modest scar on his arm, which he got from touching the radiator one night in his sleep. Our hallway was half populated with people who had chosen Trent because they disliked human company. Being a good 10-minute walk from the edges of West, Trent was an island of solitude in terms of undergraduate life.
It was thus that I remembered this peculiar brick building, a sort of undergraduate Alcatraz, and for these reasons that I was delighted by the construction of the new dorms on West, which meant that no undergrads would be forced to live in Trent again. Ironically, I still inhabit Trent on Mondays this semester, for that is where I spend some eight hours in courses. However, the building is not that bad when it is not one’s home.
But Duke dorms are still home for most undergraduates and that is why so much rides on the impending selection of a director of housing. Residential life is vitally important for a student community. While RLHS can boast achievements like getting rid of Trent, problems such as those recently chronicled on these pages—paternalistic alcohol policies, pointless linking and artificial quad organization—still plague the campus. Although Duke will likely never attain circumstances as ideal as Yale or Oxford’s residential colleges, students could at least be spared the hassle of senseless policies and the vicissitudes of autocratic administrators. As things stand, undergraduates are registering too many valid complaints about residential life. The purpose in abandoning Trent was precisely so that this would no longer need to be the case.
Bill English is a political science graduate student. His column appears every third Monday.
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