When a male friend of Boston College undergraduate Erika Peña wanted to go out with her, he, like many modern twentysomethings, had no clue how to ask. So instead Ms Peña asked him out. She had to. It was a requirement for one of her courses.
Although her Dominican roots meant that she knew a bit about old-fashioned dating, Ms Peña said the prospect was still “frightening, because I had never in my life asked a guy out on date”.
“We were all always together. There was always a party, there were always hook-ups, and I don’t think relationships grew out of those interactions. You would go on lunch dates with people but it wasn’t a ‘date’ date. It just wasn’t our norm.”
In an age when it might seem that students are immersed in social media to the exclusion of real human contact, and romance has been replaced by casual sexual encounters or “hook-ups”, one of Ms Peña’s instructors is making the case for an alternative.
Boston College academic Kerry Cronin, associate director of the philosophy department’s Lonergan Institute and fellow in the Center for Student Formation, requires her students, as part of a course on relationships and human development, to go on dates.
Dating is a “social script that’s being lost”, she said, adding that she first noticed the trend when lecturing on relationships at the private Jesuit university, and braced for the ensuing discussion.
“I was waiting for the really controversial questions, like on what date should you have sex,” she recalled. “But really most of the questions I was getting were, ‘Gosh, what would you do on a first date? Where would you go?’ ”
Her students, Ms Cronin realised, had no idea how to date.
“They were all stressed out about it and wanted to do it. But they didn’t seem to know what they were doing, and I was sort of perplexed by this,” she said.
So she began to set dates as assignments.
“I’d say, ‘OK, I want you to go on a date, and I want you to do it in the next two weeks.’ They’d hem and haw, as we all do, because of fear of rejection or whatever else.”
But soon students were opting to take the course at least in part because of the assignment.
“One of the things she highlights in her class is that this hook-up culture we all find ourselves in doesn’t make people happy. They actually want to go on dates,” observed Evan Goldstein, a theology student. “They just don’t have the cultural vocabulary to do that. Our culture in general has become sort of anaesthetised. No one ever wants to make themselves vulnerable.”
University students in particular, said Mr Goldstein, tend to put their careers above everything else, “including things that are perceived as being more quaint and traditional, such as relationships”.
Ms Cronin sets strict rules for the assignment. Dates must be alcohol-free and last for 60 to 90 minutes during the daytime, with someone of legitimate romantic interest, whom students must have to ask out in person and for whom they must pay.
The results, which students write about and discuss, can sometimes sound like the stuff of situation comedy. Mr Goldstein, for example, inadvertently asked a woman out for a first date on Valentine’s Day. Ms Peña took her date to an ice-cream shop popular with families and children.
But the initiative has sparked broader interest. Ms Cronin has now lectured on dating at some 50 other institutions, and a handful of academics have followed her lead and added dating to class assignments.
“You’re eroding a taboo that dating is something you don’t do,” Mr Goldstein said. As a topic, he said, “this isn’t just abstract and purely academic”, as is the case with other courses. “It’s relevant.”
Especially for Ms Peña. The man she dated for her class assignment took her back to the ice-cream store and proposed. They plan to marry this summer in New York, where she is a graduate business student.
“It’s not to say I owe my marriage to that assignment,” Ms Peña said as her fiancé listened in. “But it did finally get us dating.”