Let’s Talk About Dorm Talks

Dorm talks are a key avenue through which students can learn to interact freely and respectfully with one another, and presentation-style talks such as those given by YES+ seek to educate students on topics that may not be covered in the classroom. Boarders may also recall substance education talks run by proctors and house counselors. Many students, however, see these opportunities not as a chance for learning, but as a Sunday-night timesuck that keeps them from their homework or binging their favorite show. From a lack of engagement to immaturity in difficult conversations, we’re reflecting on why dorm talks seem to be so inconsistent in both quality and effect, how that affects our community, and whose perspectives are missing from the conversation. 

Let’s begin with a scenario most boarders will be familiar with. One Sunday evening, YES+ has come to your dorm for your healthy relationships conversation. The moment the student presenter says the word “penis,” the room churns in an uncomfortable giggle. With each new topic, your dormmates grow more uneasy and side conversations break out. By the time the presentation is over, you walk out, somehow understanding less about sex than you did in the first place. In this scenario, it is easy to dismiss disengaged or distracted students as uninvested and disrespectful. Conversations around how to stop a dorm sex talk from derailing into fits of laughter often frame individual immaturity as the primary cause of distraction. This would suggest that immaturity itself should be reason to modify sex talks themselves to be more easily digestible for a younger, underclassman audience.

However, immaturity itself may be a reaction to awkwardness, a natural response to new ideas. While laughter may be disruptive, we should recognize that for many, immaturity is the first step in becoming familiar with a new topic. Regular talks that accept discomfort as a way of learning will help to bring that maturity up to the level where proper conversations may be held. Exposure leads to growth. And we need to start somewhere.

However, these conversations can not be held in the first place without student engagement. Productive conversations where people gain valuable takeaways and insights requires willing participation. If people do not want to participate, they simply won’t engage, and if someone feels uncomfortable, they might start a side conversation or intentionally disassociate. All dorms should grant leeway to students. If a person finds themselves distressed by a conversation about, for example, sex, they should be given the space that they need. By making the environment more conducive to productive conversation for all those comfortable, students will get more out of dorm talks. But it won’t stop there. After an engaging dorm talk, students will be more likely to continue the conversation on their own. Students actively learn from their peers. They may acclimate to difficult topics in dorm talks, and later dive into these subjects through unstructured conversation between friends. Those who were excused from the talk would find other, less formal ways in which to educate themselves.

Here, we’re specifically discussing dorm talks—presentations on specific topics, such as sex or substance use, typically hosted by a house counselor or student group—not weekly dorm meetings. However, principles from one apply to the other. Engagement during meetings, dismissive attitudes, and disruptive behavior emerge in both settings. Perhaps this is a chance to consider our structure of “dorm talks” themselves.

When confronted about reforming dorm activities, such as meetings or dorm talks, the answer often comes down to: “it depends on the dorm.” Indeed, the efficacy of standardized dorm talks relies heavily on individual dorms, house counselors, proctors, and students. But seeking to solve inconsistency among dorms through standardization may not be the right path.  

Simply put, dorm talks should remain run at each individual dorm’s discretion. However, that does not mean that the consistent frustrations we have noticed should be disregarded. Dorms, on the individual level, should evaluate how maturity and engagement are lacking in their dorm talks, and should recognize improvements. And how better to talk about the concerns of a dorm  than with a dorm talk?