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A brief history of in-person room draw, Carleton’s most terrifying tradition

Room draw. It is an inescapable part of the Carleton system, feared by many, attempted to be outsmarted by some, loathed by all. Countless horror stories surround it, at this point almost legend — back stabbings, betrayals and last minute disasters that find their unfortunate recipients deep in the bowels of the Libe, desperately refreshing their computer screens, willing to accept something as horrible as a Goodhue double. The anxiety surrounding this is understandable. There is nothing quite so constant in a Carleton term as the place you are living in and who you are living in it with. 

Believe it or not, things used to be much more stressful. 

2015. Notable events of the year: NASA’s Dawn probe enters orbit near Ceres, the Eurasian Economic Union goes into effect, and Carleton College’s Office of Residential Life announces that, going forward, room draw will take place entirely online. Taken from the Carletonian, 2015: “STUDENTS DRAW INTO CYBERSPACE. This time last year Carls were anxiously preparing to gather with their class year in the Great Hall to select the following year’s housing. Sweat dripped off of nervous brows, tensions rose, friendships ended and pity pizza was served to those unlucky rising sophomores with the highest numbers. This year, however, all of the stress will happen behind screens.” 

Archaic as it now seems, Carleton room draw used to be a three-day event in the Great Hall in which students would mingle, attempt to coordinate with potential roommates, form groups, and (in the early days) step on a stage in front of their peers to publicly announce to the Room Draw Committee where they would be living. If a student was abroad or off-campus they had to designate a proxy to pick for them in the process and pray that this proxy would choose wisely. A notable difference between this system and room draw’s present model was the inability for one person with a strong number to draw friends with weaker ones into their living situation. Instead, the numbers of a group were added together to arrive at an aggregate score — the higher the score, the better the pickings. The strength of these scores got progressively weaker with each grade, strongly disincentivizing upperclassmen from drawing in underclassmen friends who could potentially sabotage their shot at a Sevy suite. In some years, KRLX broadcasted the process live, announcing which rooms had been drawn every half hour. When a building was completely full, it was announced as dead. Floor plans of various residence halls were laid out on long tables for students, who appear in photos like military generals plotting their next course of attack, to view. Pre-gaming, it seems, was encouraged. A Carletonian satire article from 1986 says: “One last bit of our sage counsel, go to room draw blasted as hell. No one should subject themselves to this kind of chaos sober.” Some even attempted to make drinking an official part of the process. From a 1975 edition of the Carletonian, then nicknamed The ‘Tonian (complete with groovy Austin Powers font): “Despite pressure from a small faction of the room draw committee…a proposal that would place kegs of beer at strategic locations in the Sayles-Hill gymnasium was decisively rejected…Such opportunities for spiritual relief may well be necessary if this year, as in past years, students enter the gymnasium…unprepared for the confusion awaiting them.” 

Room draw, especially done in person, has been a cause for much student anguish. The Carletonian is littered with articles written over the decades demanding changes to the procedure to deflate its intensity. As one Carletonian writer explained in 1989: “Room draw at Carleton is considered an ordeal, and people who avoid it through being off-campus fall term or through other means are considered ‘lucky’…The Room Draw policy is long enough that few people choose to read it…This complexity is a major reason why the policy resists change.” One of this writer’s biggest issues with the room draw process is still hotly debated — whether the quality of a student’s past draw number should be taken into account for future years, thus avoiding someone being potentially “shafted” in their living situation for their entire Carleton career. Problems like these point to the minute complexity of the room draw system and the moral questions it brings up amongst students of fairness, loyalty and trust. 

As the years progressed, Residential Life began to implement changes. In 1993, students were no longer made to select their rooms on a stage in the Great Hall but rather in a private alcove, three at a time. Residential Life also mandated breaks every hour and locked down on its no-alcohol policy. In response to questions about these changes, Room Draw Committee member Zandy Garrard ‘94 said to the Carletonian in 1993: “I’d say the whole system will be way more formal.” Residential Life would continue this trend of formalizing Room Draw in the years to come, culminating in 2015 with the shift to cyberspace.

But, for a moment, let’s go back to room draw’s glory days in the Great Hall. Perhaps the best evocation of the in-person room draw experience and the fear that came with it can be found in a 1986 article from the Humor section of the Carletonian entitled “Room Draw: The Horror, The Horror!” (quoted earlier): “When you walk into Great Hall, the first thing you will notice are hundreds of other poor confused slobs who, just like you, are milling about in a haze of anxiety and fear which will soon grow into bona-fide panic…your true enemy is that smiling person standing right next to you who just five minutes ago said something like, ‘Hey, Don’t worry, I’ll room with you. I don’t care that your number is 473 below mine. What are best friends for?’ Well (sucker), about thirty seconds from now he’s going to betray you quicker than you can spit. There’s nothing that you can do about it, but maybe this warning will lessen the shock.” This story, while satirical, points to the most unpleasant facet of room draw, unavoidable either online or in person: it is a process that forces students to quantify their friendships, to fit their social groups into tight strictures defined by doubles and quads, weighing the value of one relationship over that of the other. It is a painful system, undeniably flawed, and never able to please everyone. Much like going to the DMV, or doing taxes, it is just one of those unpleasant things that one has to do in life. And no room, no matter how dingy, is worth sacrificing a friendship. The writer in the aforementioned 1989 Carletonian article says it best: “As a final note, I would like to remind everyone that while getting a good room is important, there is much more ‘scamming’ and the like than there really needs to be. I have seen many people stay together despite bad numbers, scrape the bottom of the barrel to get a room, and be fairly happy there. Don’t desert your friends, and be considerate of others during draw. You may actually have more fun that way.” 

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