Senior Cocktails, faculty engagement, Espwesso, and the state of Wesleyan society.
The media has been having a field day with last Friday’s Senior Cocktails. History, at least as it is popularly understood, often influences the character of the future, so this article seeks to illuminate three brief bits of historical meaning. The first involves the intent of the Allbritton cafe now called Espwesso. The second, an old norm of behavior between faculty and students. And finally, the origins of Senior Cocktails, the third. All told, these elements collectively form the tale of a beautiful and normative aspect of Wesleyan society that aged, became tarnished, and eventually disappeared.
I titled this “The Bridge on the Drina,” after the Ivo Andric historical novel of the same name, for reasons that will hopefully be clear by the end of the article.
Allbritton, Wesleyan’s Kapia
As you might expect, the centerpiece of Andric’s novel is a bridge across the Drina river, lying athwart the town of Višegrad near the border between Bosnia and Serbia. This bridge serves in analogy for many aspects of Ottoman rule in the Balkans (and some of these I will reference later on), but for now its importance lies in the kapia, the widened center of the bridge. Upon the kapia sit the people of the town, resting on benches of carved stone, chatting, sipping coffee and plum brandy bought from the vendor’s stand, and conducting business of both great and little import. The kapia is as central to the society of the town as it is to the bridge itself.
So it was to be with cafe space allotted on the bottom floor of Allbritton. Long before the institution of the Espwesso Cafe we know and love, that same space was imagined as a light and cheerful corner where faculty (deprived of the one-time Downey House bar) could go to chat with colleagues or students, where departments might take a speaker for a coffee and a danish, where private and public University business might amicably be conducted. The space could have acted much as the kapia acted for Višegrad, as a nerve center for Wesleyan society. Today, we have Pi Cafe and Usdan Cafe during the daylight hours, but these are spaces are not particularly conducive to the same sort of activity and are often noisy and overcrowded besides. There’s the Daniel Family Commons, but this has limited hours, limited clientele, limited seating, and functions rather differently. We also have Espwesso, but no-one but students and Public Safety is around on campus by the time they open.
Unfortunately, either the funding for this idea ran out or Bon Appetit refused the competition, I’m not sure which. Either way, we don’t have a kapia.
An Old Paradigm
There was a time when faculty drank with their students, in a casually academic and truly ‘cocktail’ kind of way. This was not seen as unusual, or embarrassing, or dangerous, but rather something that contributed the cohesion of campus society and fostered long-term relationships between students and faculty that went intellectually deeper than term papers and letters of recommendation.
This time is now long past. Some decades ago, the normative paradigm shifted, and that sort of interaction became a little taboo. Once widely accepted, the practice all-but disappeared. (I dare say that the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act didn’t help.) While today not impossibly shun-worthy for those of legal age, such activities are, to my knowledge at any rate, rather uncommon.
But there was a time. Which brings me to…
Senior Cocktails: In the Beginning
Senior Cocktails began with the old paradigm in mind. It was a time for paying tribute to the bonds of the senior class and faculty over the course of their fleeting years at Wesleyan. Faculty and students could co-mingle, cocktail in hand, engaging with each other in light academic or social discussion and enriching their overall educational experience in profound ways, ways that modern minds untroubled by history might erroneously term ‘innovative.’
But that’s not what happened last Friday. Why not?
Well, faculty stopped going and behavior became rowdier. This didn’t happen all at once, but rather shifted in a gradual but mutually reinforcing cycle of behavioral change. As the old paradigm became obsolete, faculty became less inclined to attend (due to time and workload constraints as much as embarrassed unhappiness with the event itself). With fewer and fewer (and finally none) of the revered faculty in attendance to bear witness, seniors imagined the event more as an outlet for final hurrahs, and realized this imagination with a now-typical lubricated zeal. (This is not to imply that everyone, or even terribly many, imagined it as so — but loud actions speak loudly.)
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So where does this leave us? We have no kapia upon which students and faculty may form deeper connections, connections that are then celebrated and furthered in commemorative Senior Cocktails. Yes, we have cafes, but these are more focused on the distribution of food then upon the conversation passing over the drinks. Yes, we have robust relationships with faculty, but these are rarer and, in aggregate, shallower than the might be under other circumstances. Yes, we
have had Senior Cocktails, but the flavor of such events trumpet the celebration of a rather different culture.
A major theme of The Bridge on the Drina is that of connection. The bridge acts as the transit-point between different worlds; the kapia acts as the epicenter of that borderland. Interaction outside the classroom that connected faculty and students, once manifested in Senior Cocktails or smaller casual class parties and once imagined for the Allbritton cafe, many years ago built a bridge between the academic setting and the community’s ‘other’ life, broadening the integration of the lives of students and their professors. Has (our version of) modernity, another major theme of Andric’s novel, [spoiler alert] destroyed those bridges just as the Drina’s bridge was destroyed, broken by the horrific modernity of the Great War?
And can we ever rebuild?