Club Feature on the TCLI

In these trying times, we can all use a good laugh. Fortunately Trinity College has its own club exactly to serve such an end: The Trinity College Literary Institute (i.e., TCLI, the Lit), Trinity College’s own stand-up comedy club — or, as it describes itself, the “Satirical Debating Society”. The TCLI is one of Trinity college’s most controversial clubs, not least due to its alleged links to the disbanded Trinity College Secret Society, Episkopon. I have interviewed two of the TCLI’s executives, Alison Dudu and Nika Gottlieb, to properly introduce the club to our readers, demystify your misconceptions, and answer any questions you might have had about Canada’s oldest debating society that isn’t really a debating society.

These interviews were compiled and edited for clarity and length by the author. The final version was confirmed by the interviewees as accurately representing their sentiments.  

Could you introduce yourself briefly: Who are you? What are you studying, and what is your position within the TCLI?

Alison: I’m Alison Dudu, I’m a  fourth year Trin student in IR, Economics.

I’m serving as the Prime Minister this year, which is a Co-president in the governance structures of the College.

Given the unique and somewhat nature of TCLI titles, could you gives us a quick rundown of the Governance structure?

Alison: Of course. So it’s a co-presidency: the prime minister and the speaker. The Speaker is more responsible for the club-facing side of things and gives a speech each debate, while the PM is more involved in the financial and governance and behind the scenes aspects of things.

Then there’s the “leader of the opposition” and the “deputy speaker” who are basically Vice Presidents and help out as needed.  

There’s also the treasurer, and the clerk who is responsible for social media, taking “minutes”, a funny or satirical overview of proceedings. 

Then we have four first-year representatives (FYRs) who are recruited for the annual “First Year Debate”, and it’s a great way to get more hands on deck for stuff like food runs, as well as being a generally nice way for new students to get involved in college life.

There’s also general executive committee members who are normally elected at the Annual General Meeting to the Music, Art, or Poet Laureate committee and present a humorous piece of the subject on debate nights, and occasionally we appoint other positions, at the Exec’s discretion as necessary, especially if you have someone who really wanted to be on the exec and wasn’t elected. (Although some people find it problematic, it’s not that deep, it’s really just a comedy club and we can always use extra help on food runs.)   

What brought you to the TCLI and made you want to get involved, as an Executive?

Alison: I didn’t really think I was a funny person, but the one person who I knew when I came to Trinity  was an upper year student who convinced me to come to the Lit. He told me I would like it and convinced me to run for a first-year rep position. 

I really fell in love with it, since when it was in person, you really got to meet people in upper years and really benefit from those kinds of friendships in terms of support and navigating the College. It was also just like good fun on wednesdays to have a laugh, and just stop being so serious. 

Since I really loved it I wanted to make sure it would keep going, and especially during COVID, and just keep making people laugh. I’ve technically been on the Exec right from first year, starting as a FYR, then becoming a General Executive/Committee member, then in third year the Deputy speaker, and finally the Prime Minister this year.

What kind of activities do you do? And what is the time commitment like?

Alison: In normal years, we hold weekly satirical debates, from 9 to 10:30.

The “debates” are really a loose term connected to the Club’s history. It used to be a serious debating society, the oldest in Canada actually, but sometime in the 1900s it eventually became what it is more of a parody or a comedy club, under the influence of general Trin culture. Trin loves satire. Trin loves jokes. Trin loves comedy. So it was natural in a way that this happened. The debates are never supposed to be serious even if it’s a seemingly serious topic like “The troubles in Ireland”. For the inauguration debate, the resolution was, “Be it resolved that Old Joe Biden had a farm.”

You have two people for each side, but other than that it’s informal. The only requirement is that you  must say “The resolution must stand” or “The resolution must fall” at the end, depending on if you’re arguing for the “Government” or “Opposition” sides; and the speech should aim to be funny. People can do something like a story, or  skit, write a song, or just normal stand up comedy.  

We have a yearly formal dance event as well, called the “Bubbly”, because we used to have free champagne in the past, and the name stuck even when we ended that.

There are “The lit goes to…” events where we go to a place (like Canada’s Wonderland or Second City) and the club will subsidize half the price of tickets and transportation for Participants.

We also help out with Conversat, and stuff like that.

The only real commitment for the executives is the debates, and other tasks are more as needed we’ll hit up available Executives. And there is no formal commitment for general members – you can just show up to whatever debates look interesting.

As a follow-up, is it helpful to continue to list yourselves as a Literary society not a Comedy club given your programs?

Alison: I think it’s just very representative of the culture at Trin, where it’s this tongue in cheek thing, like really pretentious “I’m in The Lit” but it’s actually a satirical society.

We do our best to make sure people understand it’s not meant to be serious at the informal Orientation “Quad debate”, which we unfortunately weren’t allowed to do for the O-week this year.

How have your operations changed under the COVID pandemic rules?

Alison: We’ve started holding our  debates online via Zoom, which is very challenging in its own way for our speakers, since it’s very hard to read a blank room; it’s hard to tell if people are laughing and how they’re reacting. 

We’ve also moved from the normal weekly debates to once every two weeks, because we didn’t want to the Lit to feel like a chore, with people already being on their Zoom all day.

We typically draw 20-30 people, roughly the same attendance as offline, which is great. 

What makes the TCLI an open and welcoming environment? Perhaps if you could comment on allegations about Episkopon and the reputation of the Club as well.

Alison: So yes, we’re very conscious about some of the historical connections. Over the summer we’ve made a lot of edits and improvements which are available online on our Facebook. We’ve formally banned hate speech, and instituted a code of conduct which banned hurtful subject matter such as homophobic, slutshaming, racist, sexist material from being considered as free speach in the club. We limited how you can make fun of people and they have to be aware and okay with it, with the exception that you are allowed to make fun of people in leadership positions in regard to their professional role, but not as people or personal attacks.

The Lit is actually very open, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to talk to anyone to engage with the club or anything like that. It’s supery easy to just drop in and enjoy some comedy and just have a place to decompress. At the same time, the Exec are always happy to see new faces and are really welcoming towards anyone who wants to be more involved with the club. 

Part of the reason for the exclusionary reputation of the Lit, is that historically there were a lot of running jokes, where it felt like a soap opera style where you had to be in on all the sessions to keep track of everything; if you missed a week, you would feel like you were missing a lot of stuff. 

We’ve worked to have a wider variety of debaters, and on being more accessible, with stuff like posting all the topics ahead of time so people know what they want to sign up for, and encouraging people to not rely so much on inside jokes. 

Regarding allegations of being unwelcoming to non-resident students, it was never been our intention to exclude them. These event historically included alcohol, so they were later at night, and although substance use is no longer encouraged, it is hard to find a time that works universally, but all classes are over by nine. We’re always trying to find a new time  but it’s always impossible to find one that works for everyone already involved with the Lit. It’s unfortunate, but it can’t be helped.

Regarding Episkopon, in addition to that organization being dissolved, none of the members on the Lit (this year at least) are connected to Episkopon. We have tried to distance ourselves from it and continue to do so.  

Why should more trin students be a part of your club?

Alison: The Lit is a great break from the intensity of the University and of Trinity College, with everyone super focused on working towards their resume and professional stuff. It’s a great way to forget you’re future nobel prize winners and stuff, and just focus on being 18, 19, and 20 years olds. It’s a great way to just try out doing comedy, and just have a laugh. 

Since we have less intergenerational exchange this year because of COVID, what’s a piece of advice you’d like to give to Trinity students at large, and especially to our first years? 

Alison: Feel free to try everything; don’t be afraid to do something new or unfamiliar. 

Don’t be embarrassed if you care about something; it’s a good thing, and our passion is what makes Trin different from other colleges, especially the larger ones like UC and Woodsworth. Being “checked out” is not what undergrad is supposed to be about; it’s awesome to be engaged, to care about the committees you’re on. It’s really sad to see fourth year who don’t care about anything; fourth years still being excited and engaged is a great part of Trin; it communicates to first years how great the community is. We can only keep Trin special if we all care about Trin. That’s what makes Trin special, the passion and engagement of the people. 

For my first question, perhaps if you could introduce yourself: Who are you? What are you studying? What’s your position in the TCLI?

My name is Nika Gottlieb; I’m a third year student doing a double major in Human Biology and European Studies. And I am the speaker of the Lit.

What brought you to the TCLI? Why did you want to be a part of it, and an executive?  

I was first drawn to the Lit when I noticed how much effort Trinity students put into its activities for no reason other than for the joy of being creative. I also found the Lit’s propensity for political satire hugely attractive. It really fits Trinity’s atmosphere. It’s wonderful to watch how Trinity students express their observations in ways that are cutting, funny, and poignant. I love being a part of that. 

What kind of activities does the TCLI do? What’s the time commitment like? And how would you say that that has changed due to covid and the contingent restrictions?

In terms of that question, I think that Alison covered that well.  Since everything is online, we host fewer accessory activities. We’re focusing only on debates.

Despite the loss of the in-person atmosphere,  we’ve still had excellent turnout. I’m really impressed by our consistent numbers- we see a lot of the same people as in person, and a lot of new people as well. I’m proud that we have been able to maintain that kind of presence during COVID, and I am confident that the Lit will continue to be a major part of the college’s campus activities after the pandemic.

What makes your club a safe and welcoming environment?

Our new policies are a step in improving the level of inclusivity in the club. I understand that it wasn’t always this way in the past and we still have work to do. I would say we’ve largely succeeded in curbing certain specific antiquated and problematic practices this year.

Beyond that, this year our executive is a diverse one. This year’s leadership also marks the first time in a long time that the top two leaders of the club, the Speaker and the Prime Minister, are both women of college. This is exciting because women in comedy aren’t always well represented, especially at Trin. 

Why should more of Trinity College’s students choose to be a part of your club? 

Any members of college who enjoy having a laugh, not taking themselves too seriously, and taking chances to be creative and thoughtful would enjoy the Lit. The TCLI is a wonderful way to let loose and enjoy the absurdity of our shared and unshared student experiences. As this year’s speaker, I’ve been known to lean in to controversy. Crucially, everyone at the Lit brings a different perspective, an aspect that is celebrated. Surely makes the speeches more interesting!

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to all Trinity College students, but especially first years?

Especially at a time when our college is undergoing such an identity crisis, don’t be afraid to be noticed or criticized for saying what you think. It’s up to all of us to decide what our college is going to be like moving forward. Don’t disengage from that conversation for fear of pushing boundaries. If you have something to say, put it out there and listen carefully to the response. I’ve never regretted taking that kind of risk because it resulted in several productive and engaging conversations. So be bold- not out of antagonism, but authenticity.

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