When Princeton students arrived on campus in January for yet another virtual semester, the doors of Prospect Avenue had been shuttered for 10 months. Nevertheless, the clubs moved forward with their tradition of Bicker, this time in a completely virtual format.
Sophomores tried to put their best selves forward through a computer screen; upperclassmen, many relying on only two weeks of in-person experience, attempted to explain what the club was like; and Bicker committees worked through the trials and tribulations of online Bicker.
The Daily Princetonian sat down with Bicker chairs, members of eating clubs, and sophomore bickerees to discuss the drawbacks and surprising benefits of a Bicker experience like no other.
Let the preparations begin
The process began well before Street Week in January. Current President and former Bicker Chair of Tower Club, Savannah Hampton ’22, began working with Tower’s Bicker Committee in early November.
“It was just a logistical headache to coordinate,” Hampton said. “We wanted to ensure that everyone, regardless of their affiliation or time zone, could bicker Tower and have the same chances as everyone else,” she added.
This would mean putting in the extra hours before January not only to get Bicker organized but also to give potential members a sense of the club’s community.
“We tried to include as much information as we could on what Tower and our members represented,” Hampton stated.
According to Ethan Thai ’21, a senior member of Tower and former member of the club’s Bicker Committee, Tower had a dozen pre-Bicker events, more than the club would have in a typical year. “Many of the sophomore … bickerees had never even set foot inside of the club,” Thai explained.
Each club created its own solutions to this universal challenge.
An anonymous Cannon Dial Elm Club Bicker Committee member said they “filmed the inside of the club and sent out a lot of emails about Cannon and Bicker to each of the [residential] college’s listservs to make sure that all of the sophomores were covered and that all of the bickerees had a comparable experience.”
Still, many bickerees felt that the allotted online time to get to know the club and its members was not enough, asserting that they relied on the little knowledge they had accumulated about the club during freshman year and through the grapevine.
“I chose to bicker it on pure intuition — I had never been inside and had only heard about it from one of my friends,” explained a sophomore who bickered Cap and Gown Club.
Connections that stay: Positive surprises from online Bicker
“[Even] though I didn’t really get a complete sense of the club, the pre-Bicker events reflected the culture surrounding the club, and I feel like I could fit in when we’re back on campus,” said one sophomore who bickered Tower.
“[Bicker] just felt like some social event that you went to meet people, not like an interview — I had fun,” the Tower bickeree added.
In addition to the preparations taken to promote each club, a few of the eating clubs made a concerted effort this year to reduce stigma around bickering and tried to make the experience more accessible. Many club members felt that this attempt at increased sensitivity was especially important because virtual Bicker coincided with the arrival quarantine for students moving to campus.
“I was worried that the isolation from quarantine would be compounded with the stress of bickering, which could lead to some unfortunate or unhealthy situations,” Thai said. “It was very clearly emphasized that, should there be anything uncomfortable that arises, it should be reported.”
“Our biggest goal was to make sure that everyone felt comfortable and enjoyed themselves,” the member of Cannon’s Bicker Committee said.
Their efforts seemed to resonate with the bickerees.
“[Bicker] felt very low stakes,” a Tower bickeree said. “Originally I wasn’t going to bicker, but since we didn’t have to pay anything this semester and could meet new people, why not?”
“It felt like they were a lot more open to how we were feeling. They were trying to get us to relax, and [they] emphasized being yourself,” a Cannon bickeree explained.
In addition to its formal purpose, Bicker assumed another social function this year: allowing members and bickerees alike to interact with people they would not have otherwise had a chance to meet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was, of course, some Zoom fatigue, but it was nice to get more social interaction since I’ve been locked in my house with just my family for months on end,” one of the Tower bickerees stated.
“I got to know a lot of people, and when I go back to campus, if I see them in class or my precept, I think that connection stays,” a junior member of Cottage Club added.
A junior member of Cap also shared that Bicker mitigated the isolating effects of arrival quarantine. “Bicker was a good way to get people to feel like a human being because you get to talk to people and that’s better than being stuck in your room all day with only an hour to go outside.”
A look towards future reforms
Despite surprising silver linings, many students still agree that Bicker is not a perfect process.
“Bickering is terrible and it needs to be reformed,” the junior Cap member stated. “It’s all a product of luck and the way someone gets in is so subjective.”
“Whether or not you get into a club could be dependent on what time during the night you came up [in discussions],” the Cap member continued. “If you were later in the day versus first or second, that makes a difference, especially if the members are cranky and want to go to bed.”
“A lot of it has to do with prior connections, and no one goes into it with a truly blank slate,” the member of Cannon's Bicker Committee said. “It’s not equitable, and even with a thousand improvements it might not ever become equitable. At the end of the day, it’s still a selective process.”
Moving forward, some of the eating clubs and their members are open to Bicker reform.
“[Cannon’s bicker committee] is pushing against the ways that the process and affiliations can be manipulated to gain an advantage,” the Bicker Committee member stated. “We are open to any and all ideas, suggestions, concerns from members and people outside of the club who chose a different club or didn’t bicker Cannon at all.”
Hampton said she feels similarly. “There are stereotypes and affiliations associated with every club, but we tried to move away from that by trying to get interest from … as many different types of people as possible.” She added that Tower worked to maintain a positive-only policy for discussions.
Members emphasized that, despite their interest in Bicker reform, such decisions are often not up to them. For Cannon, much of Bicker policy is determined by the graduate board.
“Bicker, from a policy standpoint, is beyond the officers’ and committee’s decisions. It was out of our hands,” revealed the member of Cannon's Bicker Committee.
Discussions of Bicker reforms are far from over, but for now, members are excited to welcome new students to their clubs.
Hampton summed it up: “To the critics, it’s perfectly valid and we hear you loud and clear ... but ultimately, we were excited to introduce new members and we tried to look on the positive side.”