During Monday night’s program on Open Source, which I really enjoyed participating in, there was a brief moment where the studio I was in dropped its connection, just as I was about to say something mildly critical about Swarthmore. (Everything else that got said made liberal-arts colleges come out looking like the positive alternative to big research universities, which is an impression I’m quite happy to give.)
What I was thinking about is the extent to which even in a teaching-centered institution that promotes a pretty healthy degree of connection between the faculty, we mostly teach courses that narrowly service departmental curricula deriving from a state-of-the-art sense of what a given specific discipline entails. Broader, connective, integrative courses, or material that doesn’t belong to a conventional discipline, often falls out of view.
This has been on my mind a lot this academic year for various reasons. I spoke along with a colleague to our Alumni Council early this year on this problem, that the faculty don’t ask ourselves enough what it is that 18-22 year olds who are not going to be academics themselves really need to learn or would benefit from knowing, preferring instead to ask, “What’s the proper sequence of courses for this discipline”, or “what’s in the scholarly literature on this topic?” as if the discipline or literature’s benefits are self-evident. We review interdisciplinary minors here every five years, and sometimes do external reviews of departments, but we don’t really expect departments and disciplines to provide an ongoing, renewable and contestable sense of their relevance to the students, the college, the curriculum.
These are old complaints for me in the context of this blog, I know. I think the newer context to which they are becoming relevant is an increasing sense among the student body and recent alumni that Swarthmore has a degree of intensity that is unwholesome or counterproductive.
It’s hard to know what to make of that sentiment when I encounter it. Over time, I’ve felt more and more remote from student experience, for some of the same reasons that Rebekah Nathan discusses in My Freshman Year, her account of a year she spent being with students at her institution. It’s a natural thing. Professors have a very bad tendency as they get older to subscribe to the local declension narrative and talk about how things aren’t as good as they were in the old days, and so on. Sometimes I really don’t want to know more about the students, either: aspects of their institutional experience belong to them, and them alone.
There is some evidence burbling up here and there in ways I can’t ignore that what was mostly an amusing schtick about the college (e.g, the catchphrase, Anywhere else it would have been an ‘A’) is maybe slowly transforming into something less light or neutrally quirky, that it has costs that maybe we’d want to lessen or redirect.
Keep in mind that students also tend to think they know more about what’s going on than they do, or to see things in ways that appear to anyone else to be pretty self-absorbed and maybe even melodramatic. Not just here, everywhere. The smaller the community, perhaps the easier it is for waves of collective melodrama to pass through everyone. Students also can misperceive or exaggerate trends, or assume themselves to be typical or representative in their experience when they’re not.
All these small colleges have their own personalities, and much of what is publically understood about those personalities is something of an illusion. Still, the “brand image” is also a bit of an attractor. Swarthmore’s said to be intense, serious and intellectual, and so it draws some 18-year olds who are or imagine themselves to be intense, serious or intellectual. Particularly for those who think that they are that way but find that they really are not, the feedback loop that gets produced by the match of institutional image and self-image can be a bit daunting, depressing, alienating. Of course, even for those who are authentically intense, part of that authentic personality tends to be a certain kind of dour, serious, self-important take on things.
To some extent, my response to that is a classic old-fogeyish, “Welcome to life!” Our expectations about experiences rarely match the experience itself. Coming from California to go to college in Connecticut, I thought the entire East Coast was all bricks-and-ivy and people in tweed coats smoking pipes, that it was all very sophisticated and European and intellectual. And I thought that’s what I wanted when I was still a surly adolescent. I was wrong about what the East Coast was, and in pretty short order I also found I was wrong about what I wanted. It would be silly to hold a place responsible for not being what I foolishly thought it would be, or be surprised that what I thought I wanted at 18 is not what I wanted at 25 or 35 or 40.
The things that make the biggest difference in the life of an undergraduate college student are often the things that the best possible planning cannot account for or capture. You can’t know who will be on your hall or be your roommate. I haven’t talked to my roommates for two decades but I married a woman who lived on my freshman hall and I’m still married to her. One thing with no effect on me, the other with a life-altering impact, both unpredictable. The professors and classes who mattered: I didn’t know who they would be. The things I thought I was interested in that I turned out not to be interested in. The things that interested me then and don’t interest me now.
You can overplan this part of your life when you’re looking at schools, and thus misattribute both later satisfaction and later bitterness to the choice you ended up making. The things that matter about the choice are the size and organizaton of a college or university, the types of programs it supports, the structure of its curriculum, that kind of thing. There are major rough choices to make along those dimensions, but past a certain point, flip a coin and stay loose about how things unfold. Here I sound a lot like my colleague Barry Schwartz, who offers some pretty valuable practical insight into choices and how we ought to think about making them.
Still, I do worry about the concern for intensity and a sense of dissatisfaction that I hear more and more of here among students and recent alums, because I think it does reflect a tendency of the faculty here and perhaps faculty almost everywhere to go about the business of liberal education with a kind of grimness, without explaining in any sustained and potentially debatable or contestable manner why we think particular courses, disciplines, and so on are important. I tell my students that the first (but not only) question of a liberal education always should be “so what?”, and expect them to rise to that challenge on their papers, in their discussion. I’d like to tell my colleagues the same, only I think I’d get a pretty sizeable number of blank stares or some irritable circle-the-wagons scoldings in reply. Or I’d get answers to “so what?” that are primarily intended for the consumption of other academics rather than students or wider publics.
If some students here (and perhaps at other institutions of our type) feel beaten down or frustrated by intensity, maybe it’s because it seems to no evident purpose save itself, because it feels like ritual self-injury , because the real answer to “so what?” is simply and dully, “because”. We don’t take the time for better answers and assume they will trickle down magically somehow. Or we don’t have those better answers and so dodge the question.
As an undergraduate at a similar kind of place in the 1980s, I took a ton of classes. I think I actually had, if I’d claimed my APs (I never bothered), the second largest number of credits for a 4-year undergraduate ever at my institution. That was intense sometimes, but I enjoyed the intensity. Because it was just about the pleasure of knowing. If a class wasn’t working out or wasn’t interesting to me, I dropped it. I started one class with a nice man who had a very serious drinking problem and I quit the course just because I could see it wasn’t going to return much to me. Didn’t matter, I wasn’t doing it for a major or a pre-professional track or anything else. I took classes in my two majors just to see what they were like, on topics that I had no prior or fixed reason to care about. I didn’t care that much about grade–I took an upper-level biology class on animal behavior and did pretty poorly in it grade-wise but got a lot out of it. I took two years of Spanish and one year of Latin because I thought it was important to try to learn languages, even though I was terrible in languages then and still am today. I was having fun, is the key thing. Yes, an egghead’s kind of fun, but fun nevertheless.
I think it’s still a bit of a secret to the students here, past and present, that some of the students who thrive most or get the most out of this place (and others like it) are those who try not to care too much about it all. I’ve had a couple of “B” students over the years where I think they’re better, more capable all-around intellects and people than some of my most conventionally strong “A” students. The “A” students tend to be more like me or other faculty, to know how to navigate the game as we define it, but often not to know how or when to defy, ignore or circumvent the game. There are exceptions: there is also a kind of occasional “A” student here who is almost terrifying in their sense of self-possession–I can think of a couple of alums in academia, two journalists, and a few other alums I’ve known who could be described that way. Good for them, but that’s rare. The thing anyone can do is make sure you’re playing and not being played, whatever your grades, and I think some of the students who end up with a partially negative sense of their time here are the ones who felt that they have no choice but to be played. You always have choices.
Still, I also think it’s partly our fault as a faculty in this place, partly the collective culture of academia, and also partly the fault of various pressures and expectations put upon our students by themselves and by people who matter to them in their personal lives. I do think we can do a better job explaining what we do and why we do it. I suspect if we did a better job, we’d do a lot of what we do differently. Intensity when you’re full of passion, commitment, lost in something abiding and authentic, is very different than a kind of multitasking, routinized, just-because intensity, the intensity of having three humdrum essays and a mid-term exam due on the same day. You can’t expect to deliver the former intensity consistently as a service to your students (by its nature it is elusive) but it would not be unreasonable to strive for it for insistently.