This week Cannon Dial Elm Club sent out the latest in an illustrious series of blast emails to the Classes of 2012 through 14, and this one bore promising news: after several years of the Daily Princetonian’s false alarms, the club will finally open its doors for general debauchery. On Saturday, November 12, Cannon Club will host its first official tap night. In addition to thirty kegs—Beast, or something grander?—the email promises all kinds of luxuries: “3 tap rooms…technology rivaling NYC nightclubs… historic walls, list goes on.” (I am not sure what “historic walls” entails but the enigma I find irresistible.) And in a brilliant feat of self-promotion, the Club has set a strict standard for entry into the party: anyone who wants to get in has to have filled out an application for the upcoming Cannon bicker process. The curious masses, editors of this publication included, took a look at the app, probably intending to crank out a slipshod application late Friday night just to earn entry into the oldest newest club on the Street, this exotic new land with its fabled all-male tap room. Though we expected to find a boring series of blanks waiting to be dutifully filled out, we were greeted instead by an ambiguous little document that contained, yes, several boring blanks, but also plenty of intriguing blanks that deserved some unpacking.
Cannon is not unique in asking potential members to fill out a form like this; all five current bicker clubs corral their jittery sophomores on the first day of bicker, supply pen and paper, and have them write out some fairly pedestrian personal information (name, room number, email, class year, interests). Though there is club-to-club variation, it all basically amounts to a few minutes of rote blank-filling. The newest bicker club, though, seems intent on prying a bit deeper, and with a gleefully indelicate touch. The application might look dull and innocuous, but upon close reading, it invites some speculation about the graduate board’s intentions.
As soon as the standard personal info has been covered—the point at which any other bicker clubs would more or less stop asking questions—the Cannon application gets to the real substance. We proceed from residential college straight to Greek affiliation, a delicious juxtaposition that would make any Nassau Hall ideologue squirm. Then comes a series of superfluous questions about eating plans that are all effectively summarized by the last one (“Where are you planning on taking your meals”). And only then do we reach the key juncture: the perforation of the Orange Bubble. No other club would overtly express any interest in a bickeree’s standing outside of the Princeton campus, and why should they? Why should someone’s hometown, and, further along the axis of laughable absurdity, someone’s “Secondary School,” play a role in these decisions? Even more confoundingly, it requests the names of parents/guardians—is someone going to conduct a background check to ensure the applicants are of good stock? That they prepped at the right places? The jokes are all too easy, and one hopes that they can be dismissed as just that—as jokes.
But these shreds of family and educational information are either totally superfluous or vaguely menacing, and though it’s tempting to think it’s the former, the final question, which is also the most troubling, might suggest otherwise: “Are you a recipient of financial aid from Princeton?” At any other club, this kind of information would come into play only after admittance, when it becomes relevant to paying dues. But its inclusion here implies that financial need somehow bears on the selection process itself, as though the modern “need-blind” bicker process were regressing back to its ugly discriminatory past. I hope I’m reading way, way, too deeply into this, but I really cannot think of any more charitable explanation: this application, taken at face value, seems to engage in a kind of casual classism. Though I eagerly await reasonable justifications for the left-field questions on this application (and I want to believe there are reasonable justifications for all of them), Cannon Club graduate board chair Warren Crane ‘62 could not be reached for comment.
It’s acutely obvious that that the application is the work of a graduate board. It reads like a bunch of adults making a thinly veiled attempt to gauge the relative frattiness of their applicants, as they seek to resurrect the glorious Animal House that once was. But these two groups are separated by generations, and likely by physical distance, too, which makes this kind of personal judgment all the more difficult. Thus the need to harvest all kinds of salient background information: the affiliations, the breeding, the schooling, the good old red-blooded athleticism. (After hearing about the “Secondary School” question, a professor I spoke to suggested that the grad board was probably seeking out the old—and by now mostly obsolete—Princeton ideal of the prep-school athlete, the quarterback straight out of Groton.) While I respect the intent to keep Cannon true to its historical identity, and agree that the first batch of new members might as well align with that identity, this kind of character assessment isn’t easy to reduce to a written application and should really only be intuited through personal interaction. Because when you do try to appraise people on paper, you apparently end up asking the tactless, blindly groping questions that this application indeed asks.
Thus far, the Cannon graduate board has made perfectly clear its predilection for athletes: one need only look at the bicker committee it handpicked; or at the question on the application that eagerly asks the applicant to specify “varsity, JV, club”; or at the line on the information sheet that dryly observes, “As many of Cannon’s members will be athletes, all menu items will have nutritional information posted clearly” (implying that some of the club’s membership is a foregone conclusion). I see no problem with this preference. If we’re already in the business of profiling, participation in varsity sports seems to me a pretty benign metric. It’s a broad, impersonal category, and one that seems firmly rooted in the club’s history. But it’s the other more subversive elements of this application process that should give us pause. Few would dispute the fact that bicker can be a flawed process, a process fraught with snap judgments and unfortunate generalizations, but the Cannon application feels like a particularly grotesque caricature of all these flaws. All that generalizing and judging has been made explicit. It has been codified in writing, in each awkwardly loaded question on the application. It’s that bumbling, disarming bluntness that offends—or, at the very least, confuses.