The Situation Rooms
ResLife’s Secret Hazing Ritual
By Hallie Nell Swanson
You know how it is: you walk into a Carman room and weird shit is going down. Maybe some kid has bought a bar on Craigslist and is having a paint party. Maybe your Speedo-clad gay floormate has emerged from the room’s (proverbial?) closet and is arguing with his Bible-clutching roommate about whether he’s going to hell.
While the first did happen last year, the second is a scenario from the final part of RA training, an event called ‘Behind Closed Doors.’ A room on each of Carman’s empty floors is taken over by current RAs, who act out worst-case scenarios that the new RAs-in-training must deal with. There are thirteen scenarios, one for each floor. Some are funny—there’s a crazy party and a heated sorority-girl roommate dispute. There’s also drug use (Adderall, marijuana), a stressed-out student, a negligent fellow RA, a case of sexual assault, a suicidal resident, and a ‘bias incident’ (a “performed negative opinion or attitude toward a group of persons based on their race, religion, ethnicity/ national origin, or sexual orientation”). It’s more taxing than a single day as an RA could possibly be: “The general idea behind it all is, you are the worst resident you’ve ever encountered,” says one RA of the role play. “You embody that asshole and you try to make them your reality.”
On each floor of Carman in Behind Closed Doors, RAs emerge from the elevator and are told to identify the incident. Once they do, the RA-in-training enters the room, along with some others who observe. Also there are the Graduate Hall Director (the RA’s immediate boss), and relevant administration personnel: representatives from Columbia Psychological Services for the suicidal resident; from the Office of Multicultural Affairs for the bias incident. They are there to “de-traumatize you after dealing with it ‘cause it’s pretty real,” according to one RA. After the scenario finishes, everyone has a discussion about how it went.
Sometimes the situations are hard to identify: a Wien RA, entering a room which was meant to convey a dispute with a fellow RA, thought the situation was a suicide one: “She was giving me one-word answers and was just generally depressed about life, her room was really messy. Apparently the messy room was just meant to convey that she was a mess…I was just like, time, I give up.” There is, however, no criticism: “They never tell you what you do is wrong; there’s no blame,” said one Broadway RA.
Of course, the set-ups don’t make room for some of an RA’s real life considerations. “There are certain fights you should take on and certain fights you shouldn’t, and that line is different in EC and Carman,” says the Wien RA. In his Behind Closed Doors, he was confronted with a party scenario where the party was a surprise party for another RA–something he wouldn’t have shut down in real life.
According to him, Behind Closed Doors is the most “hyped” part of RA training, rivaled only by an “absurd” fire safety video from the Eighties, which begins with a discarded lit cigarette and has a variety of alternate endings, including death. Last year the RAs asked to have the video played twice—since initially it couldn’t be heard over the laughter—and plan to ‘Rocky Horror’ it in 80s gear for this year. RA training lasts the entirety of the week before NSOP (there’s also a 3-day refresher in January), filled with required events from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. “It’s the most politically correct week of your life,” says the Broadway RA.
Given the training program’s focus on everything being “so PC and above board,” he says Behind Closed Doors is a little out of place. One wonders about the Speedo and Bible as props for the gay and Christian student, and one version of the scenario, enacted by a bored actor towards the end of the day, included a fake exorcism. The Broadway RA points out that according to the University’s “extremely vague” definition of hazing, the Behind Closed Doors process could conceivably qualify. Part of the day also involves trying to “catch out” a novice RA by taking photos of them making the mistake of touching residents or their property and publishing them on an independently run Facebook group for the RA training week. The exercise, says the Wien RA, is extremely helpful—a photo of an RA picking up a resident’s drugs shows how the resident could counter-claim that they belonged to the RA. There is still, though, “an element of public shaming.”
It’s for this reason that, according to a Wien RA who’s informed about the national ResLife scene (there are apparently “magazines about Residential Life”), there’s a growing tendency for colleges to abandon Behind Closed Doors-type programs. “You’re putting people in situations that they aren’t comfortable in for the sake of bonding and community spirit,” he says. “You need to pull together. But the fact that you’re struggling inherently makes it hazing in a lot of policies, including the Columbia one, regardless of if you consented to it.”
“For returners,” says the Wien RA, “it’s kind of a day-long party.” In its broader strokes, the end of RA training does resemble the end of a fraternity pledge process. It’s perhaps no coincidence that this tough week is finished with the “RA bash” (which last year was held on a boat, reportedly because it is cheaper than renting out Low Library, and because nobody can leave).
But there is value, according to the Wien RA, in making the handbook situations real. “Trial by fire is, in my opinion, one of the best ways for people to actually grasp a concept. You can read the book, but you won’t absorb it until you do it yourself, or see someone else mess up doing it,” he says. Residential Life likes to use the example of an RA who disciplined a resident for hanging a Nazi flag in his room. It was only after the matter had gone much higher that he had a chance to explain himself: the flag had been taken from Auschwitz by his grandmother, a survivor, on D-Day, and remains in the family to remind them. This incident is simulated in Behind Closed Doors with a student who “reclaims” a slur by writing it on his whiteboard. Having an incident enacted in real life, he says, can force you to “realize that your first assumption isn’t always right and you need to be a thousand times nicer than you think you should be.”
Behind Closed Doors also serves as a “shared dialogue and way of understanding things,” says the Wien RA. The program’s “bonding” elements serve some purpose: “I can talk about any experience with any RA,” he says, recalling chatting to another RA about the difficulties of avoiding personal opinions in the gay vs. religious roommate scenario, for example. The handbook can tell you the rules, but making the right call is something you have to work on yourself with experience. As the handbook says, “We hired you for your judgment; use it accordingly.”