In 2008, Erika Peña took a philosophy class, and her Boston College professor, Kerry Cronin, gave the students a rather unorthodox assignment: Ask someone out on a date, where there will be no alcohol or physical contact.

Peña asked one of her friends, 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.

The assignment

Cronin created the assignment after learning that many of her seniors were about to graduate and had never been on a first date. When she first implemented it, 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.

The culture of dating

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 feels that our “hypersexualized” culture focuses more on getting laid than on “the foibles and the hard work and the joys and the despair of just casual dating.”

Essentially, there are no dating rules anymore.

The rules

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.

Life applications

What does learning how to date have to do with Cronin’s philosophy class? The professor 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.

Criticisms

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.”

Besides, some students do find true love.

Peña and her boyfriend 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.”

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