Senior RA observes freshmen behavioral patterns in nature

Four freshmen arrive at Sander’s Classroom before their professor. They are on guard, looking for others of their kind. I ask them to sign the attendance sheet. They advance in a single-file line, their leader weaving through the rows of empty seats to the front of the room. Here we have a classic example of alpha dynamics. The freshman leading the others has lowered shoulders and shiny hair. In most freshman communities, these are expressed traits of the dominant alpha. The alpha signs the attendance sheet with a flourished signature and I cannot read the name. This action reveals an important fact about the species: The “freshman” responds to environmental threats with a fake-it-‘til-you-make-it bravado. This evolutionary response maintains the balance between freshman and upperclassman organisms. If done correctly, this approach camouflages the freshman pack until its new members are fully-developed.

After each has signed the attendance sheet, they explore the auditorium, feeling their way through the rows with their hands out in front of them. The freshmen vocalize with high-pitched giggles, choosing a group of four seats in the third row. Their giggles are a response to another pack that has walked into the room. They position themselves to take a group selfie. Watch as the alpha freshman displays dominance over the herd by turning on the iPhone’s flash. The alpha takes a picture, saying, “Becca, you look so weird in the flash!” The alpha’s job is now complete; it is up to the herd to frantically follow suit. There is a chorus of laughter after, “Becca, this is sooo bad!” and “You look like the Grudge.” A response to the alpha’s challenge will determine Becca’s place in the herd for the coming season. This is nature at its most vulnerable. Becca quickly turns her head away from the alpha, lowering her eyes and flattening her side bangs across her forehead. A typical response to a challenge from the pack’s alpha, Becca whispers, “Don’t put it on Facebook,” and slouches lower into the seat.

The film’s starting credits are backed by loud choral music. A few freshmen take out notebooks, their eyes glassy from the projector’s glare. Note-taking is a practice specific to the freshmen species. While the species’ fitness does not depend on note-taking, this group seems particularly avid in their examination of the film’s opening sequence. Observe their movements—some freshmen alternate between scribbling and looking at the screen. Others write hunched over their notebooks. Some have rested their feet on the seats in front of them, an exercise in relaxation. Here we see a fine example of the community simplified. They are engaged or disengaged, acting upon their environments or merely existing within them. Nature’s push and pull on the smallest of creatures. However, this group is especially adept at relaxation. Watch two freshmen in the back row scrolling through Yik Yak. Their posture displays disinterest. They are fringe pack members, likely late-add.

On the other end of the room, we see the beginning of a mating ritual. Two freshmen sit side by side, their eyes darting around the room. The ritual is carried out entirely without eye contact. They will complete this stage of the ritual without speaking, as well. One tugs at the lanyard around their neck, displaying sexual interest. The other freshman responds, crossing one leg over the other, drawing attention to the awkward sexual tension. What is important to notice here is each freshman’s refusal to acknowledge the other. The Sanders Classroom freshmen mating ritual plays out over several weeks of film screenings. It is unlikely that the ritual will be consummated in conversation or exchanged phone numbers before at least three screenings, unless the ritual occurs between two alphas. Alpha mating rituals develop more quickly and display more exciting representations of freshmen interaction.

By the middle of the movie, the packs have increased their vocalizations. Some speak in hushed tones. Discussion between packs becomes common and jokes about the film’s costumes are exchanged. Someone cries out for a piece of gum. The freshmen freeze, silence falling over them as the film’s final death scene plays in the background. Now it’s a waiting game. Finally, the alpha gestures to her backpack. She has gum, and gives it to the hungry freshman. Crisis averted, and the freshmen return to relaxed positions. As the film ends, I at last turn on the lights in the auditorium. The freshmen raise their eyes to the ceiling lamps, stretching their arms and legs. The whole population stampedes through the rows of seats, journeying from Sanders Classroom to the watering hole for Buffalo Chicken wraps and homefries, leaving me to turn off the projector and delight in the richness of Nature.

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