That Trinity College prides itself in its Oxbridge roots is well known. From its gown-required dinners on Wednesday — that cost $125 to purchase — to its chapel services that are affiliated with the Anglican Church of Canada, Trinity College remains deeply rooted in its 200-year-old traditions. Not all of these traditions are necessarily bad; however, I think that certain traditions are inherently iniquitous and produce negative consequences for the college as a whole, especially its weekly high table dinners.
High table dinners are hosted in Strachan Hall every Wednesday. Members of the Senior Common Room, otherwise known as professors and fellows, dine near the front of the hall, ‘elevated’ from the undergraduate students, whose seating is arranged by year. If you are lucky enough to be one of the first to email the provost, you may be invited to sit at the coveted high table with the professors.
But what do these tables represent? We are told that they represent the educational attainment of each class of people. At the back are the first years, or those with the least schooling, while those at the front, the professors and fellows, have the most.
The more pressing question is, then, why we are divided in Strachan Hall by academic year. It certainly is not the case that these groups of people are, by nature, more likely to want to interact with each other. Instead, in a system that is eerily feudal, you are given the honour of sitting at a slightly elevated platform for completing a certain amount of schooling.
Other events at Trinity College are not usually arranged in such a manner, so why are the high tables?
Trinity entertains the fiction that these tables represent isolated and distinct classes of people, when, in actuality, these groups should and do interact with each other in a friendly manner. Students and professors should not be told who they can eat with.
The professor-student dynamic is a scary one, with the apprehension of saying the wrong thing and potentially ruining future research opportunities underlining many interactions. This relationship should not be terrifying; professors should be seen as approachable people, because that is what they are.
The only real difference between a student and a professor is the professor’s increased knowledge in a given area, and this isn’t an uncommon view among many professors. Many of my professors have requested that we students call them by their first name to put our relationship on equal ground. The high table tradition does the opposite: it reinforces the uncomfortable power relation. It infantilizes students, despite the fact that the vast majority of individuals in Strachan Hall are adults and should be treated as such. In fact, I know of a few professors who don’t go to the high table events for this very reason.
So how should we structure these events? Who should sit at each table? I believe that there ought not be a hierarchy at all. Allow people to sit with whom they would like to sit with. Allow professors to sit with and meet a variety of undergraduates from different academic backgrounds. Give undergraduates the opportunity to meet with a variety of different professors each week, rather than giving the privilege to just a few undergraduate students who luck out. The high table dinners are, in themselves, deeply troubling for what they continue to reinforce. Yet this tradition is even more troubling for the consequences it produces.
Trinity College has a reputation for being snobby, pretentious, and arrogant. Some insist that people don’t really care what college you go to; however, a quick glance through the U of T subreddit reveals that this is not the case. Students often call Trinity “Slytherin,” because of the perceived snobbiness of members of the college. People are quick to jump to words like ‘elitist,’ ‘pretentious,’ and ‘pompous,’ when asked to describe Trinity.
At the start of orientation last year, members of other colleges chanted, “Trin Trin, your parents got you in!” Was it all in good fun? Probably, but the mockery reveals the perceived haughty nature of Trinity, and I think the existence of the coveted high table dinners are part of the reason. If Trinity College is attempting to reduce its alienation and stigma, having weekly dinners where people have to dress up in gowns is certainly not helping.
Traditions are certainly important — they create a sense of community for those who participate in them. But traditions that are alienating and perceived as pretentious and elitist are less than desirable. One of the reasons that this tradition is viewed so negatively is because of where it comes from; it is the product of an aristocratic society. Trinity College has already been weathered by other discriminatory and offensive traditions, such as Episkopon and the ‘pourings-outs.’ Why then have we chosen to keep a tradition that was once used to appear holier-than-thou? Surely a sense of community can be retained even if we remove such an archaic tradition rooted in the privileged elite.
I cannot pretend to speak for a majority of the students at Trinity College, however, I hope that students there, and at other colleges, think about the nature of high table dinners, as well as traditions like it. It is important to recognize where they come from as well as the sorts of systems that they reinforce.
As a final note, I do not mean to suggest that anyone in particular is ‘pretentious.’ My only intent is to analyze the tradition and remark upon its validity in light of the stigma that it produces and the relations that it promotes.