FLOORED: A Level-headed Response to the New Residential Life Proposal

In a second open letter written about the new residential life proposal, several House Captains of the 2nd House Committee respond to the issue. It was originally posted on USP Life! this morning in a Facebook post, which can be found here.

The Cinnamon Roll is a platform for all USP students to air their opinions and thoughts on all kinds of things. If you have an opinion about this particular issue or anything else under the sun and want to be heard, feel free to send your piece to the Submissions Desk at submissions.tcr@gmail.com. 

Dear members of the 13th Management Committee,

This letter represents the combined viewpoints of members of the 2nd House Committee, comprising:

Eugene Teng (House Captain, Ursaia),

Henry Lim (House Captain, Nocturna),

Tong Miin (House Captain, Ianthe), and

Mark Leong (House Captain, Ankaa)

and has been written in response to the new residential life proposal that was revealed on the 24th of February, 2014. On the whole, we have significant concerns about the viability of the proposed system, especially vis a vis the current system. We will raise these concerns before commenting on the system as it stands today, as well as making a counter-suggestion to what has been proposed.

The proposed residential system suggests placing the floor as the base unit of social interaction. Each floor would be led by a Level Head, which would be a Year 2 and above. This Level Head would then be responsible for the organising of social events for each floor. Further, six floors each year would be reserved for Year 1s, who will be randomly allocated rooms on these floors – making sure that Orientation Groups (OGs), which would still exist as part of the Freshman Orientation Programme (FOP), would be split up.

Issues with the current proposal

We see three main problems with this proposal. Firstly, the new system seems to breed insularity among the community – in particular the absence of inter-level interaction is a glaring omission. Secondly, we think that there will be immense difficulty in finding capable and willing Level Heads – which are the cornerstones of the new system. Thirdly, we feel that non-residents would be systematically excluded from this new system, leading to a rift between residents and non-residents of USP. We will go through each of these points in turn.

Firstly, we think that the dual policies of reserving floors for Year 1s and encouraging Year 2-4s to apply for residential living as a group will prevent inter-level interaction, as well as prevent the forging of new social circles outside of the first year. It should be noted that Year 1s already tend to form friendships organically, due to shared experiences of USP – for instance, going through the same WCT/QR classes, USS, interest group participation, and working committees to name a few. These are above and beyond the experiences shared in FOP, which not all freshmen may have the opportunity of participating in. The onus should thus be on the official social systems of USP to encourage inter-level bonding, instead of giving Year 1s yet another channel to interact with each other. This system does much the opposite – it literally insulates the Year 1s from their seniors after FOP has come to a close, and seems to result in exclusively intra-level cliques forming. Assuming that we want to promote the bonding of the entire USC (i.e. across different batches), this is neither healthy for the social dimension of USP, nor an improvement over what we have currently.

The forging of friendships in Year 1 is made all the more important by the tacit encouragement of seniors to apply for residential living as a group in future years – not just for suite living, but also along the corridors. The result of this system would be a single level being populated by a few cliques that were established in Year 1. While it is true that these cliques might get to know each other during level events organised by the Level Heads, it is more difficult as when a few cliques jointly take part in social events, the natural tendency is for these cliques to stick together. Short of forcefully splitting cliques apart during these social events (something that we can agree is heavy-handed and juvenile), the prospect of new social circles forming in this environment is dim. This unfortunate situation, combined with the insularity of the Year 1s, would lead to a state where cliques are fixed by the end of Year 1 and new batches entering USP will have little interaction with their seniors.

Secondly, the new system seems to revolve very heavily around the ability and the inclination of the Level Heads to organise social activities for the level, at least initially. With RAs taking on a purely administrative role and OGs no longer given official support past FOP, it falls to the efforts of a single person to organise social events for an entire floor of up to 36 people. This is, firstly, a mammoth task. As former House Captains, we are keenly aware of the difficulties in organising intra-house and inter-house events for the wider community – the need to draw in a wide variety of people with different interests, as well as juggling logistics, funding and safety issues. It is safe to say that none of us could have done it on their own, without the help and support of the other House Captains as well as our respective House Committees. Even if Level Heads combined their efforts, this would turn them into basically District Committees – not unlike House Committees, with the additional difficulty of starting from scratch with their residents.

Even ignoring the questionable ability of the MC to find willing Level Heads who will put in the effort to make things happen, it seems like wishful thinking to assume that Level Heads will be able to organise successful activities for a diverse group of USP students. In the first place, Level Heads do not have the elected mandate that the House Captains and their Committees enjoyed – organising events was much smoother knowing that we had the support of most of our houses. Arbitrarily electing a person as a ‘Level Head’ may not provide him/her with the requisite social clout/respect needed to successfully organise events which would have many floor-mates participating in. For instance, it can also be seen that RA-organised events (neighbourhood events) have been thus far not very successful – Level Heads might well face similar difficulties.

However, we feel compelled to point out that in reality, we think it extremely unlikely that the USP community will be able to produce 18 Level Heads committed to the task. In practice, we find that healthy competition for the role of House Captain is already rare; many houses frequently have only one candidate for the position. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine these candidates running for the motive of getting free T-shirts, free stays, or sprucing up their CV. These candidates are frequently motivated by a bond to their house – a bond established during FOP. A house seems to inspire potentially a stronger bond as compared to something as nebulous as a floor, even though both systems are admittedly arbitrary. We find this problem to be at its most obvious for the Year 1 levels – would any individual volunteer to stay apart from his or her friends, the sole senior on a level of 35 Year 1s, and organise social events for this group for the entire year.

Thirdly, when the base unit of social interaction becomes the floor, it naturally excludes non-residents from taking part in these activities. We understand that non-residents would be allowed access to the upper floors, but which floor activities would they participate in? Can it be reasonably expected that, given how they are usually not around on a day-to-day basis, that these non-residents would be able to integrate fully into the social groups that would arise from the new floor system? We are skeptical that they will be able to do so. In contrast, the current House system specifically includes all of the house – residents and non-residents alike. It might be true that non-residents still do not receive as much social and pastoral support compared to residents, but systematically excluding them from the basic social unit seems like a bad idea. We envision a result where non-residents no longer wish to participate in social activities, further leading to the insularity as mentioned previously.

These are the major issues we have identified with the new system that has been proposed. However, these objective issues aside, we feel obliged to point out that this system is not only new but also replacing a system that is currently two and a half years old – the House system that has existed since USP moved into Cinnamon College in 2011. We cannot avoid responding to the new proposal without referring to the old system. While we are obviously invested in this old system as former House Captains, we would like to point out that we are not against modifying the old system – heavily, if need be – if it would represent an improvement over the status quo. We however feel that this new system does not address the problems that the House system have been accused of. We will now go over the current problems that we admit are present in the House + Neighbourhood system that currently exists.

“Solutions” of the new system

Firstly, the neighbourhood system has not admittedly been very effective in forging new social circles. While neighbourhood events vary in popularity, it is clear that they are not the main social base for the vast majority of students. Previous attempts to make neighbourhood events compulsory also did not really work, leaving neighbourhoods currently without a large sense of purpose. This can be perhaps attributed to the fact that bonds formed with OGs during FOP are much stronger than any bonds that might be formed during initial neighbourhood events, preventing neighbourhood social bonds from ever taking hold. However, the same criticism can be applied to the new system as well – OGs will still exist, and will be then forcefully split up with the new floor system. If the floor system eventually takes over the OGs, then the problems that we have raised above will apply. Otherwise, if the OGs continue to take precedence for most people, then the same problems the neighbourhood system faces now will continue in the new system. However, the OGs will no longer be officially supported by USP in the form of funding and official support and leadership systems. We find it hard to see this as an improvement.

Secondly, the Houses are criticised, according to the proposal, as “merely social entities that cater mainly to freshmen”. We feel that this criticism is a strange one. Being called a “mere social entity” implies that Houses are expected to also provide students with an extensive pastoral care network. For starters, are “freshmen floors” really the best way to ensure better care for freshmen? We will go back to this point later. However, in practice, we think that houses do not only cater towards freshmen – Year 2s and above, in our experience, frequently participate in intra-house and inter-house events. Furthermore, given that Year 2s and above tend to be busier, we see a large proportion of Year 2s who make time specially for these house events as their main source of social interaction in large groups. It is also extremely puzzling to us that, if this was one of the reasons for the abolishing of the house system, the new system is even more discouraging of inter-level bonding.

We would also like to point out that the House system has not had a fair crack of the whip as a medium for inter-level bonding. Because the house system is currently only three years old, not all members of USP have had the chance to go through the House system, starting from the FOP level with OGs transitioning into houses. The houses have not had the chance to operate in an environment where every level of USP has experienced the house system and hence feels some sense of belonging to his or her house. Without this data, we think that it is extremely premature to make conclusions as to the success or failure of the House system.

The above summarises our responses to the new system that has been proposed by the 13th Management Committee. However, we feel that it is helpful to give our own take on not only what we see the role of the house as, as well as formally give our own suggestion as to what we think would be an improved social system of USP.

The role of student support groups

The MC seems to assume that houses, or whatever its replacement is, needs to provide “pastoral care” for all students under its wing. Quite precisely what “pastoral care” is seems to us to be nebulous, but for lack of a better source, we have consulted Wikipedia: “Pastoral care [is]… the practice of looking after the personal and social wellbeing of children or students… It can encompass a wide variety of issues including health, social and moral education, behavior management and emotional support.”

“Pastoral care” then seems to cover an extremely large range of activities, ranging from counselling to civics and moral education. We are still not sure exactly what is meant by the term “pastoral care” as it has been applied here, but we would like to make some general comments about the need for such care. Before the move to Cinnamon College in 2011 and the genesis of the house system, which student body was supposed to provide such services? Was there one? If not, then we can assume that the move to a residential system has somehow created the need for such a safety net for residents. While this is understandable, what exactly “pastoral care” entails has to be much better defined. The role of the Level Heads in providing for this “pastoral care” also needs to be clearly set out, both as an entity as well as vis a vis the RFs, the Office for Counselling Services, as well as other groups responsible for such “pastoral care”. In the absence of such definitions, it is no surprise that the House system (as well as the neighbourhood system) chose to fall back on social services as their main responsibility. Although the 3rd House Committee was tasked to focus more on “welfare” as opposed to inter-house events, what this exactly entailed was also left partially nebulous. This failure to define what the MC considers to be an extremely important task seems to us to be a main reason why there has been confusion over the limited role of the House system.

With that said, we feel that any definition of “welfare”, “pastoral care”, etc. has to start from basics – what exactly are we looking for in any kind of student welfare system? We assume that the USC is meant to represent every USP student, regardless of whether that student is a resident or not. What exactly does the USC “represent” on behalf of the students, and what are the key areas that it is responsible for? Without these two guiding questions, one cannot even begin to approach the nitty-gritty details, such as the base social unit, houses and neighbourhoods, Level Heads, and the like.

We feel that it is first appropriate to decide just how structured the system wants to be with regard to such services – does it aspire to nurture communities with specific foundational units and support or does it seek to operate on a more “do whatever you want, tell us if you need support” basis? There are implications for every point along this spectrum, between the extremes of structured, deliberate community building and free-wheeling, emergent community growth. And if USC aspires to the former, then it seems strange to us that OGs after FOP will be allowed to “organically develop”, even if this is at the expense of the structured systems (floors and Level Heads) that are being promoted.

What if, for whatever reason, the new system focusing on the floor as the base unit of “pastoral care” does not work out? For instance, if Level Heads fail to know their residents well, and social events are poorly attended – would the USC then step in to ensure that levels and districts no longer flounder? If the OGs end up being the dominant social grouping anyway, would the USC similarly intervene to drive social interaction back to “accepted official” channels? Assuming that the USC would not adopt such draconian measures, the question then becomes: would OGs then be taken for granted as an extra “safety net” when it comes to the issue of “pastoral care”?

Because once they are left free to develop or die, flourish or rot, USC cannot reasonably expect OGs (and houses)  to fulfil any function, in the same way as how OGs and OGLs in the past were not expected to “be there” for anyone. That much must be clear. Otherwise, this assumption that someone else will be there is a serious threat to the soundness of the level-district proposal. These issues might seem overly theoretical to most, but we believe that the failure to start from these basic levels was the main reason why the House system has come under attack – and the new system, while well-intentioned, has not taken things back to these fundamentals. A reconceptualisation of Residential Life cannot be done in isolation.

An integrated House-Neighbourhood system

With all that said, we would like to end by drawing attention back to a “counter-proposal” of full house-neighbourhood integration. This proposal was, to our knowledge, an extremely old idea starting from the time of the 1st House Committee. The proposal was formalised by the 2nd House Committee (our batch), and has been further expanded upon by the 3rd House Committee. A few of us attended the House-Neighbourhood discussion sessions that took place on the 10th and 12th of February, and the impression that we had was that the merger of houses and neighbourhoods was the suggested direction going forward. Therefore, this new proposal came entirely as a surprise to us.

Varun has explained the thought process behind the formulation of this new proposal. However, I believe that we have shown that the new system, if anything, exacerbates the issues that the house-neighbourhood dichotomy currently faces, and that it is an impractical solution to the issues that have been identified. In contrast, the complete integration of houses and neighbourhoods, while imperfect, gets around many of the problems:

  1. House neighbourhoods would not be divided according to level – thus, the potential for inter-level interaction is much increased;
  2. House Captains and House Committees are a proven system, unlike the Level Heads – they are an elected body that enjoys the support of their houses and hence would be more successful in organising social events;
  3. Houses explicitly include not just residents but non-residents in their activities as well – many non-residents feel some kind of bond towards their house

RAs under a full integration of houses and neighbourhoods would fulfill much the same role as they would do under the new proposed level system.

Finally, it should also be noted that an informal poll conducted on The Cinnamon Roll has full house-neighbourhood integration as the most popular option among respondees. We are not sure whether the baggage attached to the House system is the main reason for throwing it out entirely, but it seems to us that the new system accomplishes nothing that the House system has accomplished and can accomplish. This is tacitly acknowledged in the proposal, where most of the problems are listed as that of the neighbourhoods, which have been cannibalised by the House system as pastoral care and social entities. The focus should thus be on fixing this problem rather than starting from scratch (but not really starting from scratch with regard to clearly defining roles). The houses being “reborn as districts” seem to us to be an imperfect compromise that does not succeed in any of the aforementioned goals.

We therefore call for a more fundamental rethink of the role of any student social and pastoral care system in USP, but to not so easily dismiss the House system at least until it has been given a fair chance. We also call for the full integration of the House system and the neighbourhoods, which we feel is still the best way of achieving the social goals of USP as a community – which, at least, are reasonably well-defined at the moment.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best regards,

Eugene Teng, Henry Lim, Miin Tong, and Mark Leong