If you look Kerry Cronin up on Boston College’s website, you’ll see she’s a professor of philosophy and theology, and director of a research center at the college, the Lonergan Institute. But ask any student on campus—even incoming freshman—and they’ll tell you that she’s the “dating doctor.” For the past eight years, Cronin’s been setting students up through her dating assignment—an extra credit project, recently covered in The Boston Globe, that requires students to accomplish a seemingly simple task: Ask someone out and go on a real-life date. *Gasp* [Tweet this news!]
The idea came out of a question—“How are you going to handle your relationships after graduation?”—she posed to a group of 15 students back in 2005. The students looked at her like she didn’t know what she was talking about.
What became clear was that of those 15 students, only one had ever “dated” someone. “These weren’t wallflowers either,” Cronin says. “These were really wonderful young people—extroverted, social, and active.”
The hook-up culture (especially the college hook up culture) is pervasive. The American Psychological Association estimates between 60 and 80 percent of American college students have had a hook-up experience. Cronin knew this. She just didn’t realize how pervasive it was: “Hooking up was sort of the only social script on campus.” It seemed as though students were pseudo-married, hooking up, or completely opting out.
The Dating Assignment
Most students who bow out of the extra credit assignment in Cronin’s class do so because you have to ask the other person out—wait for it—in person. That sounds like a crazy reason to forgo free points until you think about what most of us do all day: stare at computers, phones, and televisions—not people. Today’s technology allows us to operate with anonymity. Take Tinder, a popular dating app. “It thrives on ego bumps,” Cronin says. If someone “swipes” your photo to the right (and you do the same), you’re notified that you could be a match for each other.
The catch: “You never hear of the people who didn’t like you.” Thus, you avoid every single does-he-or-doesn’t-he-like-me awkward encounter you could possibly anticipate. As a generation that allows texting, emails, and now Tinder to do all the work, 20-somethings struggle with things that need to be said out loud—especially things that might produce awkwardness. “My students fear awkwardness like death,” Cronin says. “Being awkward is just the worst to them. They get anxious around awkward situations, awkward people—and they hate to seem awkward or seem like they care about someone or something.” Texting and hooking up keeps all of that…awkwardness…at bay, she says.
The good news: The awkwardness isn’t all that scary. When students take on Cronin’s assignment, they often come back with the same experience: The asking was the hardest part. “It’s just counter-cultural,” Cronin reiterates.
The dating assignment has the same rules regardless of gender. “In this cultural climate, everyone needs to be courageous,” she says. And, per the assignment, if you ask, you plan and you pay. (For her students in serious relationships, Cronin asks them to set friends up—no technology involved!)
Though some women push back on the idea of asking a guy out, post-date reflections reveal something entirely different: “I anticipated that women wanted to date and men wanted to hook up, but I found quite the contrary. I hear from many more male students that they would like to date, and that women are running the hook-up culture,” she says. Why? The suspicions are plenty—but the verdict’s still out. Cronin’s argument is simple: “Women are anxious about relationships because a lot of young adult relationships end with a lot of drama. People shy away, then, to avoid the blow up.”
Others—like Hanna Rosin in her 2012 book The End of Men—argue feministic points: Men are losing their grip. Women are—more than ever—receiving messages like this one: You’re going to go to college, start your career, and have a relationship later. You need to be free now. This is also the point of view of many young women, Cronin adds.
Even more: “Through hooking up, women signal how successful they are with their own power of attractiveness, gaining social status,” says Cronin. The problem? “When I talk to young adults, most of them say they want to get married and have a family,” Cronin says. “But you need to have habits of connection—and be able to see another person for who they are, and ask for what you really desire—to achieve that.”
Cronin’s goal isn’t for her students to find the loves of their lives (although some have—she is attending a wedding in July for two students who met through the assignment!). Her goal is for people to grow social courage—and know how great it feels to ask for what you want. This isn’t just a college problem. “I say to my students, ‘You think when you graduate, you’re going to know how to magically do this, but it’s going to be just as hard—in fact, it’s going to be harder.’”
To critics who say she is backward in her thinking, Cronin argues otherwise: “What bothers me most about the hook-up culture is that in most cases, people don’t even know their own feelings toward it. I’m all for knowing what one really longs for, and asking, ‘How do I more clearly know that?’” Hooking up promises all sorts of answers: sexual skill, ego, and social status, to name a few. But those things are temporary, Cronin says. “They don’t build great habits for marriage and family. It’s easy to let someone see your body. It’s hard to let someone see you.”
Cronin’s challenge: Take her challenge yourself. Make that big, scary jump and ask a real-life person out on a real-life date. You’ll be surprised at what you learn once you look up from that screen.