Being John Milton and the struggles of learning

I just realized this is my last column before Yale’s spring break, from which you will return with just a month and a half to go before the semester ends. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, half of the last chunk of the real world’s junior year has flown away. While I’ve been chatting the days away at Auntie’s Tea and spending the nights befriending Euro-pop and alco-pop, my counterparts back home are doing real work, learning and busy being brilliant as usual.

This may all seem obvious to you, but I’ve been so occupied with trying to settle in and figure out a life for myself, I totally forgot about that whole academics thing. Imagine suddenly having a dating and partying scene, a town as gorgeous and flourishing as the university, optional classes and a deceptively different culture to assimilate. Would you still be turning in stunning papers?

The answer, my professor would say, is yes, you irresponsible ninny.

Last week, as I was explaining the argument of my paper on John Locke to him at our supervision, he interrupted me halfway to ask me how long I had spent on it. I told him, slightly exaggerating, and he said, “Including reading?” Um–

“There is no way this took you six to seven hours,” he said, waving my paper at me. “You’re not being thoughtful. This is a decent academic argument, but you have not spent enough time thinking about Locke. I think you think that because you made a good impression on me at first, you have not put enough effort in the past two weeks. I’m sure you’re very busy, but you’re not taking advantage of the supervision system here, with the chance to meet one-on-one with somebody who knows what he’s talking about.”

He then proceeded to assault my understanding of John Locke. Quite intense, the Cambridge manner of teaching. Though I defended myself fairly well — I have, after all, studied the Second Treatise four times in the past three years with people whose opinions I worship — my supervisor did have a point. My mind has certainly been on many things besides political philosophy. And even after last week’s reaming, I still have yet to start the reading for my paper that is due tomorrow.

I just do not work well with the style of learning at Cambridge. Weekly hour-long meetings with professors, papers due the day before, a completely new topic every week and lectures that are tangential to my studies at best are both too much and not enough for me.

Now, as my other supervisor pointed out, this system has worked for some six centuries. Newton, Darwin (who lived in the house across the street from my place) and Milton had no problem with it. But they were geniuses. For me, a humble Yalie who has lived and breathed that particular system for a few years, there is no worse place to be academically. I’m used to last minute reading and writing, learning in groups and an organized system of teaching. Here, there is anything but.

Having mastered the art of starting my papers at the last possible moment at Yale (read: morning of), I am having major problems getting my bum to the umpteen libraries to read secondary sources as well as primary texts days before I write. Moreover, I am used to being graded on the argument within my paper; here, I’m judged on what is not in the paper as well. It’s frightening to have your intellectual capacity weighed — maybe we’re just too politically correct or sensitive to do so back home. Come to think of it, I should probably be inspired by my professor’s high expectations instead of being insulted.

But there is no doubt learning with others, as we do in the United States, is a wonderful — and apparently addictive — experience. I come from an experimental education high school where we did all our work in groups. At Yale, I’ve been spoiled with seminars since freshman year in Directed Studies. They’re great — I’m seeing from the yellow grass here — for really digging into texts and information, for hearing different perspectives and for taking some pressure off you while still leaving you open to learning.

Even the lectures are done differently here. While it could be argued — I’m not sure — Cambridge lectures are as pedagogical, organized and systematic as Yale’s, lecture courses at Yale are just that — courses centered around the lectures. Here they’re random lecture series that may, if you’re lucky, have something to do with the supervisions your course is centered around.

Whine, whine. I think my problem is that I like people more than books. I want to learn with people, from people, and when the prospect is just a really old book in either my dark basement room or the dark library, I choose to have tea with a friend instead. Maybe the emphasis on learning alone here has something do with their social awkwardness — or maybe I just need to quit writing columns and e-mails and get reading. I suppose it is an opportunity to be independent, to transcend my old way of thinking and to explore the depths of my mind. Now if only Auntie’s Tea were open all night.



Jennifer B. Wang is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.

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