The Edwards Collective Explored

by Aaron Robertson '17

Before entering Princeton as a freshman in Fall 2013, I had wondered whether I would find my “ideal community.” The phrase, which illuminated nothing, was ill-defined and formless. I was an optimistic writer searching for an enclave of fellow esthetes. Instead, I developed my first friendships on campus with students in my advisory group. Advisory groups—often endearingly called “zee groups”—consist of between 12-20 students who live near one another and are assigned a RCA (Residential College Adviser) and one or two RGSs (Residential Graduate Student). Reviews of the advisory group system vary across campus. Some of my peers rarely spoke with the people who lived a few doors down from them. These tended to be students whose RCA was only tangentially involved in their lives on-campus. Fortunately, I became close to many of the students on my floor. Though our RCA had a demanding schedule, she consistently held study breaks and invited us to speak with her about our concerns. In my conversations with other students, though, rarely were the RGSs mentioned. I had met our two RGSs once at the beginning of the year and knew they lived in a nice room within an equally nice tower of Blair Hall. I knew they were both baseball fans, and one of them studied history. That’s about it.

I conceived of the RGS as a figure disconnected from the undergraduate experience, despite the proximal living arrangements and occasional study breaks. This, I assumed, was no one’s fault. Who expected the busy grad students to form meaningful connections with similarly frantic undergrads? It was an ongoing experiment that did not yield exciting results.  

In my second semester, I learned about the Edwards Collective. The Collective is a relatively new residential community in Mathey College composed of 30+ students interested in the arts and humanities. Many of the students are directly involved in the arts on and off-campus. The group has occupied the third and fourth floors of Edwards Hall since 2013 (next year it will expand to half of the fifth floor) and attends art exhibits and performances across the East Coast. This year alone we have visited the Barnes Foundation, the Whitney Museum, the MET, the Anthology Film Archive, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and more. Much of the group dynamic, though, develops in more intimate settings than large performance spaces. Members gather for weekly Sunday dinners in a private dining room, loiter in the Edwards lounge, and spend fall and spring breaks together at various resorts. The group is an exceptional model of communal living that facilitates intellectual exchange. It also serves as an exemple of productive association between Princeton’s undergraduate and graduate communities.

Early last summer, members of the Collective received an introductory e-mail from current RGSs Brandon Green and Denis Zhernokleyev. In the message, they invited us to read Virginia Nicholson’s Among the Bohemians, which discusses a unique artistic community of early 20th century Britain. Green is a second-year student pursuing a PhD in Art & Archaeology who specializes in ancient Greek and Roman material culture. He worked as a museum and monument tour guide in Rome and hopes to become a curator. Zhernokleyev is a fifth-year Slavic Literature student. He’s currently writing on the significance of sight in Dostoyevksy’s work. My conversations with them revealed the exceptional experiences shared by Collective-affiliated undergrads and grads alike.

Beyond precepts, graduate seminars, and theses boot camps, Green claimed, there are few opportunities that enable grad-undergrad interactions.

“Really the RGS is the one golden opportunity the graduate students have to unawkwardly insert themselves in the lives of undergrads,” he said. Green first heard of the Collective while applying to become a RGS. Because he knew the Master of Mathey College, Harriet Flower, he had always expected to be at least somewhat involved in Collective life. When the Collective RGS positions opened, he was happy to be selected.

Green said, “I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I was presented with a self-selected [group of people] who were predisposed to my kind of mentalities…These are people who are interested in the kinds of activities I’m interested in.”

During his undergraduate experience at Cambridge University, Green himself befriended some grad students. “They were thinking about getting married and getting their PhDs,” Green said. “It was great to see them as people…who were definitely in a different world, a different phase of life in the world that you might want to go into.” Though Green said he would never have told the grad students themselves, they served as mature models who did professional work while also maintaining a link to the controlled chaos of undergraduate life. Green viewed his position in the Collective as offering “an alternative mode of existence” that younger humanities students could choose whether or not to emulate.

Zhernokleyev, who was a graduate student fellow for two years before becoming a RGS, attested to something similar. “I believe learning is a communal event,” he said. “[The Collective] explicitly makes communal life its purpose. And that’s a double blessing for me in my role as a RGS of the Edwards Collective.”

Although he is a Russian literature student, Zhernokleyev seemed surprised to have been chosen as a RGS for the group. In addition to the dynamic conversations that often follow one of the performances, he emphasized the practical value of his position. Because he is considering an academic career, he said, “[I]t’s very meaningful to see the other side of students’ lives. Even though I was an undergrad not such a long time ago, it’s a very different experience to actually observe students going through what I went through. I never really observed it, and now it’s a bit of a retrospective look on my own experience.”

Perhaps more than most other RGSs, Zhernokleyev and Green are integrated in the day-by-day lives of the undergraduates. “That experience outside of the classroom,” Zhernokleyev said, “directly affects and influences what happens in the classroom…A lot of the time successful teaching is the ability to gauge these conditions, understanding why [the undergraduates] might be tired, all these things.” The group serves as a paradigm of shared spaces for living and learning between grads and undergrads. The Collective is alluring, in part, because of its uniqueness. And though I do not know whether it would be useful to replicate this model in the other residential colleges, it stands as evidence against the relatively solitary life of the average graduate student.