It might seem surprising that I, someone from a metaphorical broken home, who has never experienced a college family event in his life, would stand up in defence of the union. After all, my experience has been pretty crap. Indeed, it seems far too mainstream to defend college families, especially the monogamous heterosexual kind one gets at stuï¬€y Trinity. The arguments in favour are tired and obvious: college families enable inter-year bonding, a support network upon arrival at Oxford and, most importantly, a bit of fun.
Yet, at the same time, it could also be argued that they rarely work and often lead to awkward “banter”. They also formalise divisions between years, creating a mentor-mentee relationship instead of an equal one. It is these assumptions that I want to challenge.
So, given that nothing comes of so many marriages, what do they
achieve apart from indoctrinating us with traditional family values from an early age?
Well, ï¬rst oï¬€, they provide support to snotty-nosed, innocent freshers before they arrive by giving them an alluring sense of security that they won’t be on their own when they arrive and won’t be stranded, alone, in the big bad world. That one’s college family rarely provides such support doesn’t matter. It is the idea that it might which comforts the fresher. Indeed, if Freddie Fresher was lucky enough, his college family might even have given him helpful advice before arrival.
Whilst many college families fall apart after the initial awkward meeting in fresher’s week, that is not to say that they all do. Even if the majority are misses, the fact that a few hit is important as it is through these few successes that crucial inter-year bonding takes places, which seems to be far too rare as it is. Although it is true that we are all adults now and so should be able to make the eï¬€ort ourselves, a little pushing never harmed anyone. Without college families, the great year divide would be bigger than ever.
One complaint that could be levelled against college families is the awkward “banter” it produces, such as ‘Do I know her? She’s my wife ha ha ha’ or some other banal remark. Yet, whilst this can get a little tiring on the ï¬fteenth time of hearing, it complements the aim of college families more generally, namely to act as a social lubricant.
Ultimately, college families boil down to an attempt to enable easier social interaction within groups of awkward brainboxes, whether through giving them something to talk about or providing them with a social occasion where they can meet new people. Whilst many, myself included, might see this as a little infantile, that does not change the fact that college families help provide some support to some very nervous freshers. So, in the spirit of happy families, I urge all newly weds to love and tend to their children as if they were their own. After all, if you have to have children, you might as well love them full-heartedly.
“You can’t get with your college dad! That’s soooo incestuous!”
My knuckles turn white as I overhear the same insipid joke, shrieked gleefully across the Turl Street Kitchen for the millionth time since the beginning of my time in Oxford. I reï¬‚ect on how many conversation crutches have been fashioned out of these invented roles, how many silences followed by uproarious laughter over dinner as someone announces that they saw their mum out last night. “Oh, you mean your COLLEGE mum!” My jaw clenches.
The college family is a fairly recent Oxford institution, having arisen in the past twenty years or so. If one were to rank Oxford traditions in order of usefulness, it would fall somewhere in the middle; higher than sub fusc, but below the tutorial system. Its primary use is to give freshers an opportunity for organised fun, which serves as a stopgap before you start having real fun. The issue, of course, is that it’s not your real family. If it were, the children would have shared experiences due to their shared upbringing – college siblings, by contrast, share at best a subject and at worst a common opinion of the Junction paint party.
Which brings me to the potentially more insidious side of college families: their implicit desire to attain the nirvana of ‘the family’, as imagined by Tory MPs and Enid Blyton. The nuclear, heterosexual family structure isn’t compulsory in all colleges, but it certainly pervades some. Trinity ballots its ï¬rst years into heteronormative boy-girl pairs. Typically, Wadham is tolerant of homosexual, asexual, polysexual, heterosexual, bisexual and pansexual permutations of parenthood. Trinity’s attitude may be seen to be stuï¬€y at best, oppressive at worst.
But even Wadham’s system leaves room for boring jokes and weirdly entrenched year divides. Whereas meeting someone in the year above at sixth form would engender complete apathy, at university your college parents are presented as an entirely diï¬€ erent generation. University is meant to be the ultimate leveller, yet calling your peer ‘mum’ is possibly the quickest way to regard them as ‘other’.
However, college families do unite as well as divide. The unfortunate corollary of this is that they promote an odd system of favouritism: family ties mean you’re entitled to their essays, but no genetic tie means that help is less readily oï¬€ered. A stauncher debater might even make the link between college families and the kind of door-opening Oxonians expect from alumni or their real family, which is something we’d do well to distance ourselves from.
The system seems like a fairly helpful but ultimately depressing artiï¬ce. Why can’t diï¬€ erent years be nice to each other without pretending they’re related? Why bring together people who have little in common and who will greet each other with curt nods by Christmas? To butcher Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike. Each college family is unhappy in its own special way.”