About 12 years ago, Boston College philosophy professor Kerry Cronin added an unorthodox task to her syllabus: Ask someone out on a date, where there will be no alcohol or physical contact.
Sounds far easier than a research paper, right? A lot more fun, too.
But when Cronin first gave this assignment, she says her students talked a lot about asking someone out but didn’t follow through. (Later, she tweaked the assignment to give a two-week deadline.) “I realized at that point that the social script of dating was really long gone,” Cronin said over the phone recently. Because hookup culture has become so dominant on college campuses, Cronin says, going on a date has become “a weirdly countercultural thing to do.”
Cronin still gives a version of this assignment, which used to be mandatory but is now just for extra credit. On campus she’s become known as the “dating professor,” but you don’t need to be a Boston College student to reap her wisdom: There are numerous YouTube videos of her preaching her relationship gospel, and a documentary about the campus phenomenon she’s created is showing in select theaters on Tuesday.
How did going on a first date become “countercultural”? That may sound bonkers if you’re older than 22. But to many college students, Cronin acknowledges, meeting for a cup of coffee and sober conversation with someone you’re interested in on a Sunday afternoon can feel more intimate than getting naked with them on a Friday night.
Cronin sees two main reasons for why students aren’t prioritizing dating and relationships in college. First, serious commitments can seem far off as a college student; the median age of first marriage in the United States is age 27.4 for women and age 29.5 for men. Second, higher education is expensive - in 2016, the average graduate finished college with over $37,000 in student loan debt - so students’ primary concern is not falling in love but securing a job.
“Even students’ parents are telling them: ‘Don’t get caught up in a relationship now; you need to get your career set and on track before you even really start thinking about that,’ ” Cronin says. She adds that our “hypersexualized” culture focuses more on having sex than on “the foibles and the hard work and the joys and the despair of just casual dating.”
Cronin’s dating project is an attempt to nudge young people to embrace those foibles - the nervousness of asking someone out and the rejection that can result. She created the assignment after learning that many of her seniors were about to graduate and had never been on a first date. (Our own Washington Post Date Lab bears this out; the column recently set up a 24-year-old woman with a 23-year-old man who’d never been on a dinner date and didn’t know how to engage in conversation with a stranger.)
Plus, even in the real world, there are no dating rules anymore. Plans are frequently broken or rescheduled; dating apps create so many options that people are often treated as if they’re disposable. The person who asks someone outdoesn’t necessarily pick up the check anymore. All of which are why students are so intrigued and clueless about how to go about this assignment.
So Cronin gives guidelines: The student has to ask in person (“texting is the devil; stop it,” she says in one of her YouTube videos), and the recipient has to know it’s a date. And if they say they’re busy and to check back with them later, don’t. Just move on. “That’s a great skill to build, so that you can have a thicker skin,” Cronin says. She believes that the person who asks, pays. And the first date shouldn’t cost more than $10, include drugs or alcohol, or last longer than 90 minutes. “Nobody’s interesting after three hours,” she says, which is true for daters of any age.
Cronin is a philosophy professor. What does learning how to date have to do with Plato and Aristotle? She sees conversations about dating as part of the big questions her classes tackle, such as: How should I live my life? What kinds of relationships help me to become the kind of person I want to be?
If students don’t learn how to date while they’re in college, while surrounded by thousands of peers all in a similar stage in life, Cronin says, it only gets harder to build those skills after graduation. One skill that comes with practicing asking people out and inevitably experiencing rejection: Learning that your “ego strength” doesn’t come from someone else, Cronin says, citing a Freudian term, but that’s it’s natural to seek that ratification from other people.
Cronin has received all sort of pushback to her dating project - from super-Catholics, from super-feminists and from students who’d rather focus on getting a job than getting a date. Her defense? “Not everybody is called to romantic relationship, not everyone is called to marriage,” Cronin says. “But everybody’s called to relationships - that what it means to be human.”
And that’s what she’s trying to foster. She tells students: “This is mostly not about meeting your soul mate; it’s mostly about social courage and challenging yourself to be a little countercultural, to do something you know you want to do. And to just be okay with being a little awkward, a little vulnerable and asking a little bit of yourself.”
However, some of her students do meet their soul mates as a result of this assignment.
For example, when Erika Peña took Cronin’s class in 2008, she asked one of her guyfriends, Jared, to join her for ice cream not far from campus. The two of them knew each other through mutual friends and would frequently see one another at parties, but hadn’t spent one-on-one time together - until the dating assignment. It was the first time Peña had asked a guy on a date. “It leapfrogged us into having an actual conversation that didn’t revolve around a Jager Bomb,” Peña recalled recently. They went out a few more times, but graduation was nearing and Peña had a job lined up in New York City. “At 20, I wasn’t necessarily thinking I’m looking for something serious.”
But they continued dating for several years before getting engaged back at the ice cream shop where they had their first date. When they got married in 2014, Cronin attended their wedding. They now have a son, Adrian, who’s 15 months old.
If it hadn’t been for the dating project, Peña says, that date might have never happened. “At graduation, we probably would have gone our separate ways.”