Self-Selection: Choosing to Consume

Catherine Cartier – As a person on Davidson’s campus,whether you’re affiliated with an eating house or not, it’s impossible to ignore the celebration and shrieking that characterizes Self Selection day. For firstyear students joining eating houses, it can be a day of excitement, centered around forming a new community with students of all ages. On Saturday, I too began my day with a run around campus and down the hill.

Ideally, I think Self Selection is a time to begin new relationships with members of a house. It’s a time to meet new potential friends for the next semester and into the future. Though we all have slightly different motivations and reasons for joining eating houses, I saw this same hope universally reflected in the excitement of many other new members. But if we want to know each other, to build that feeling of togetherness, why does self selection involve so much consumption?

Consumption begins with the knocks on our doors. We’re given new t-shirts and hats, bearing the names of our houses, which will join piles of other t-shirts in our closets. Later in the day, I received an email–along with the other new members of my house–instructing us to wear clothes that we can throw away to the toppings event. Not everyone has enough money to throw away an entire outfit and a pair of shoes. But beyond this, it’s simply wasteful. Yes, I won’t be wearing my giant pink Warner shirt that I wore for toppings every day of my life, but it’s still an article of clothing. To mindlessly receive it and discard it twelve short hours later ignores the reality that time and money went into its creation.

Then there’s the food that we receive at the eating houses. I learned yesterday that my house has reduced its food waste by giving away leftover food to a local charity, but I wonder about the other houses. I also wonder about the food that can’t be donated–I work at the composter in physical plant, and we rarely receive food from eating houses, although some give their leftover food to the farm. We also ate off of paper plates, using plastic silverware and cups. I saw hundreds of cups, plates, and silverware left in the trash after our event.

The toppings themselves are another area where consumption became the means by which we bonded. A main feature of self selection night is being covered in toppings–whether shaving cream, condiments, or chocolate sauce–by current house members. When I saw a huge bin full of chocolate sauce in my house before the event, part of me felt excited for the night ahead, but part of me wondered why we need to cover ourselves with these things to have a bonding experience.

Of course, self selection only happens once a year. Undeniably, consumer culture is particularly evident on this day, but it’s interwoven into other choices and events throughout the year. Last semester, I conducted a waste audit at F with the Office of Sustainability. We found 1835 beer cans and 585 red solo cups. Not a single one had been recycled. Many of us say we care about sustainability, but we disregard how wasteful our everyday choices are.

Looking ahead to the rest of the semester, I’m thinking about big-little week, a week with similar goals of group bonding and relationship forming. It’s exciting to have a mentor, but that person doesn’t need to shower us with gifts to be someone we can look up to. That mentorship could take shape through small yet thoughtful gestures, like encouraging notes or an impromptu performance.

The rituals of self selection–new t-shirts and toppings–are firmly ingrained in the traditions of our school. In reflecting on this, I’ve wondered–at what point should we accept things because they are tradition, and when do we need to step back and reevaluate our choices? Joining an eating house can feel more like purchasing–rather than investing in–new friendships. There’s certainly a place for fun that is carefree and joyful and silly, and that type of fun really does bring people together. It’s possible for us to have that atmosphere without producing excessive waste. From what I’ve seen, the bonds between people in eating houses is about much, much more than the shared rituals of self selection. What would it look like to have a self selection day focused less on consuming together and more on forming those new friendships?

Eating houses are unique to Davidson–they don’t have national affiliations–meaning we have power to change the choices we make, during the rituals of self selection and beyond. I ended up dropping my eating house membership. The consumer culture I experienced on self selection day played a role in my decision, but it wasn’t the sole factor. As the semester continues, I hope that PCC and campus as a whole can look critically at the role consumption plays in our social lives.

Catherine Cartier, ’20, is an undeclared student from Portage, Michigan. Contact her at