Exercises in Thought: Social Life

Exercises in Thought columnists Tim Carroll ’25 and Joe Sweeney ’25 explore the liberal arts social scene, from hazy nightlife to stodgy well-being spaces.

Joe Sweeney: “Have You Heard It?”

There’s something wrong with this party.

I don’t refer to the things which are always obviously wrong with all Amherst parties. It is not that “Starships” has appeared on the queue for the fourth time tonight; it is not that I’ve been drunkenly accosted, for the fourth time tonight, by that guy in my seminar who never talks to me, and who will definitely not talk to me in class on Monday; it is not even that, for the fourth time tonight, I tripped and fell because of how sticky the floors are (the third time I just laid there for a long, long time).

No. I have been observing you all, closely, and what I observe is a deeper sickness. And it is symptomatic of this deeper sickness that you, when imagining my observation, probably assumed that I stood looking out from some shadowy corner. Wrong. I am standing in the middle of this party, my gaze leveled, all while periodically busting a move so as never to draw your slightest suspicion.

You and your assumptions! You “assume” that if you dance too vigorously you’ll lose some essential part of your dignity. You “assume” that you can probably handle that eighth shot without puking on someone’s carpet. You “assume” that you probably won’t get laid tonight – and you “assume” that you probably will get laid tonight.

The whole of your thinking operates by means of such assumptions. But I remember, just a few hours before, when you had a very different attitude toward assumptions. Remember? When we were discussing John Locke, and you interjected that we had to reexamine what makes natural law “natural”? When you made us pause and evaluate the standards (and standard-bearers) of “progress”? When we were reading “Giovanni’s Room” and you mused that even though James Baldwin consciously attempted in the novel to separate issues of sexuality and race, it is still nonetheless essential that we analyze his work through an intersectional lens – and that, moreover, the fact that he felt the need to separate the two issues makes such intersectional analysis all the more necessary? Remember?

Of course you remember. I know you do, because you mumbled all this to me on your way to puking on someone’s carpet.

The robustness of your thought! The bold flights of invention! Tell me, in this ballroom coldly glowing, where has it fled? The daring independence from all that had come before you, for which you were so admired… lost, wind-blown before this anonymous crowd!

Why should it be? Why shouldn’t your classroom skepticism extend to this realm? Is it simply because it would diminish your chances of getting laid? Perhaps it would. But let us proceed for a moment on the assumption, just the one assumption, that categorically you will not get laid, and I think you will find your reluctance to think critically at this party has a more profound foundation. For this is what I observe: You act as if the only reason you have thought so hard, so tirelessly, so ruthlessly during the week, is to justify this moment in Seelye, or Drew, or Plimpton (of all places) where you think nothing at all and so feel some paltry smidgen of happiness.

Isn’t this somewhat perverse? Does it not indicate some imaginative poverty? This is a liberal arts college – why are we partying as if the beginning of thought is the end of joy? Shouldn’t we be experimenting with ways in which critical thought can enlarge not just our academic lives, but all of our experiences? Shouldn’t we direct our critical capacities, shouldn’t we take as an integral part to the development of our critical capacities the creative reshaping of the ways we come together, talk together, drink together — laugh, dance, sing and get laid together? Why shouldn’t we at least try? Goddamnit, starships were meant to fly!

… You want an example? Well, the Pink Out Rave was pretty good, but I agree, something more comprehensive is required, a grand theory, a way of being in the world… allow me to step outside for a moment, would you? Outside is where all my best ideas come to me…

… All right, all right, all right. Have you ever heard of the Drug Dance Dialectic?

That was a trick question, I tricked you, you’re so stupid (I don’t mean that, I’m sorry, you’re beautiful). Of course you haven’t heard of it, I just invented it with my mind. And now I’m going to tell you about it. Yes.

So we’re dancing right? Yeah, we’re dancing, la di da di da, just as happy as a pack of clams … except guess what? I’m not happy as a clam. Because I feel like I don’t belong. My Clamerica citizenship is fraudulent and if they find me out they’re gonna deport me to Clamtanamo Bay. But I can’t tell anyone because that would just make things worse. So I’ll just keep dancing, just keep dancing, and maybe something will happen that will… wait, something’s happening! Or maybe it’s always been happening (wooooahh)… all these people dancing, moving as I do… is it possible that they also feel they don’t belong? Is it possible that we all belong to unbelonging? Is it possible that they’re all just like me?

No! Stupid. Of course it isn’t possible. But if I keep dancing, I can feel like it’s possible… and maybe that’s even better.

This is the power of the Dance Drug Dialectic! I can feel the liberal arts coursing through my veins… yes, yes! This is my true purpose, the purpose I share with all elite liberal arts college students: I will become the most interesting of all the boring people in the world! Yes! And so: I will dance!

Make way! I am dancing now! Ha! I am dancing! Step aside! Ha! Ha! I am —


People talking. People standing in rows, circles, talking. People shuffling in and out of the kitchen for drinks and pizza. People standing in line for the bathroom but not actually because it’s just this one guy who thinks it’s a line when really it’s only a group of people standing near the bathroom and talking, talking, talking.

There’s a band. Someone’s singing. What are the lyrics?

“And it’s hard to say / Exactly how to make things right / But I’ll be right here / If you need help to get you through the night.”

Those are good lyrics.

He looks lonely up there. He has his band. People are dancing, smiling. One guy dances as if he’s possessed by the liberal arts. But none of that helps. Maybe people who sing songs for people always look lonely, even if they’re not.

Wait. No. There, beside the ballroom pillar, kneeling down like an overblown sunflower. A girl in a black dress who brought in the wind and laid it down beside a song, and who is now kneeling and still and looking up at him.

Oh! This is what the liberal arts are for. For her. For them. For this. This is what it could all be for. If this was all it was ever for, still how good it would be.

How good… how good to see her kneeling, to hear the song end, to see her stand and leave and not see her go wherever she’s taking the wind next, and how good it is to hear in her and the wind’s place everybody talking, talking, talking.

Tim Carroll: A Plea to Party: Social Life in the Liberal Arts

Perhaps so far in my column writings, I have come across as an austere, curmudgeonly grandpa. The past three pieces have basically been equivalent to: “You whippersnappers don’t take school seriously enough, stop whining about your to-go boxes and eat in the dining hall, and shut up and listen to your professors.” The uninformed may think that I spend all my weekends on Frost Library’s C-level, sheltered from the stereo thumps of the Triangle, or the beer-crusted floors of Jenkins. And they would be wrong, for I spend my time in B-level (I’m not a monster), and I make the effort to occasionally party on the weekends.

I carve time out of my precious schedule to party for good reason. While I could go to bed early and wake up to read more of Kafka’s short stories at 8 a.m. on a Saturday (though it is a wonderful way to spend a morning), I sometimes brave the winter Massachusetts nights on a journey to a mega mixer. In fact, I believe that students have an obligation to party insofar as it is an integral part of a liberal arts education. I am not saying that every student should get drunk out of their minds every weekend. But I do think there is serious value for a student to interact with their peers in an informal, social setting.

Partying enables us to interact with our peers in a unique context, which is important to obtain holistic perspectives of each other. The Joe I see in class is not the same Joe I see on the dance floor. Granted, Dance Floor Joe may not even be Joe’s authentic self, and it may not even be a closer approximation to his authentic self, but there is value nonetheless in seeing that version of him to the extent that it rounds out the constellation of the Joes that I know. I see more of him that way. Can I really claim to know Joe when I only see him at 8:30 a.m. in the Octagon on Mondays and Wednesdays? If we wish to realize the benefits of the diversity of character and thought among the Amherst student body, we should realize that we exchange different, if not more, parts of ourselves at a party. And this novel kind of exchange is not solely due to the average blood alcohol content of partygoers, but also due to the atmosphere of animality — the sweaty ballroom crawling with bodies and blasting with music — that weakens the cold facades between people. Something about the late hours of the night and the safety from prying eyes and ears of professors and administrators conjures a kind of knee-jerk candor.

Beyond this linkage between partying and diversity, it is also worth noting that everybody needs some balance in their lives. Something is necessary to break up the rigors of our studies. One might even argue that this kind of socialization is a basic human good that the college must help facilitate, just as it provides us with food, shelter, and exercise. While a clammy moshpit isn’t everyone’s idea of socialization or relaxation, a tame Zero Proof Bar or Marsh Coffee Haus are just some of the alternatives that can satisfy a wide variety of social appetites. In fact, it might not be necessary to go to traditional “parties” in order to reap most of the benefits of what I describe. Val’s Late Night Dining is great for facilitating a similar kind of social interaction.

Seeing as the college has at least a couple compelling institutional reasons to promote a vibrant social scene, one might be surprised that the college has not been allocating resources accordingly. (Friday Late Night Dining at Val just got cut!) While I think I am too removed from the relevant context and history to speak about the impact of the social dorms’ demolition, I can comment on the changes I have seen: the marginalization of spaces for spontaneous student connection, albeit non-party spaces.

The McCaffrey Room — once a space for student clubs like Board Game Club to spend Saturday afternoons in, or for affinity groups like the Asian Students Association to gather in for tea and origami — has become a corporate-feeling “Wellbeing Makerspace.” I think it’s bizarre how, instead of laying the groundwork for natural connection and well-being to emerge, Amherst is obsessed with engineering its students to be happier and more connected. Instead of having a central, cozy location for me and my friends to organize an event of our own, either 42 hours in advance and with school approval and funding or not,  we can instead, during specific hours, draw in coloring books, or pick up resources. Who doesn’t love resources? Similarly, instead of asking why students’ mental health is deteriorating, we lob band-aid solutions at the problem, like buying schoolwide subscriptions to the Calm app, or throwing well-being fairs that try to compel people to sleep more via raffling off goodies.

Schwemm’s Cafe, once a hub for late night student dining activity and connection, has been “moved” from Keefe Campus Center and merged with the Science Center Cafe, in a less central location and with reduced hours. What was once a place for chance late night encounters and gatherings has turned into a dead zone that people walk through to get to Grab-n-Go.

Thankfully, there is some good news with respect to recent architectural developments. The Greenways’ bridge system and the event space in Ford Hall have provided many spaces for students to connect. From what limited design plans we have, the new student center has promise to be a flexible student-centered space. Hopefully the new affinity spaces will be less cloistered than they are in Keefe Campus Center, wherein you must walk up a steep flight of stairs and dizzyingly circle around the building to find each community.

At the very least, I want to propose that writing about Amherst’s “party culture” should not be a niche topic classified as student rambling. Given that social life has meaningful connections to the mission of a diverse liberal arts education and student well-being in general, we should center these topics in conversation. There is much more to be said. Although I wish I was more wizened to talk about the Student Hosted Event Policy, I have yet to ascend to the rank of the AC Socialites and familiarize myself with its innerworkings. Yet I have heard that some aspects of it are arbitrary or frustrating. I also think it’s worth recognizing that Amherst’s last fully “social” dorm, Jenkins, is perennially controlled by student-athletes. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with either of these things, but at least they’re worth thinking about. Our social lives harbor some of the most profound divides across economic status (namely between athletes and non-athletes), racial status, and others. One look at a weekend party scene and its unequal demographic distribution will prove that to anybody. Although many parties are thrown at theme houses, that often results in “socially segregated” parties. The list goes on. These issues are not for the fringes. It’s time we took party talk seriously. Our education depends on it.