In the music industry, indie promoters often warn against “Difficult Second Album Syndrome”: the uncanny ability of a hot-button artist’s encore effort to profoundly disappoint. The eternal question: rehash — placate the fan-base, but anger the critics (Muse) — or experiment, undergo identity crisis and drive away the headphone-crowd (MGMT)? The ideal musical mix of old and new is painfully elusive. Not every second album bombs, but those that do inevitably hurt. Some artists never recover.
But bands can churn out as many albums as they please in search of their sound. Sophomore year, which I am on the verge of finishing, is a rigid halfway point. I began this year under the naive impression that the “slump” would come and go, a blip in an otherwise equally effervescent year. What I quickly realized was — no matter how great a psychological effort or how meticulous a mix of old and new — escape was futile. The temporary mid-year slump is a myth: Sophomore year is a slump, in and of itself, for reasons rendered all the more painful by their intangibility.
The first sign of trouble is an immaterial sense of disenchantment, as Yale’s luminous people, pursuits and places lose their marvelous, freshman-year gleam. Gothic wonders become grey spires, as great books become reading responses; Bulldog Days friends become passersby and energetic activities become obligatory resume-lines.
As if to compound the decay, the second year often opens rapturously, as we giddily return to the best place on earth. I, for one, set sail, buoyed by the same libertine, exploratory energy that made freshman year so incredible. Then, without warning, the dregs of expectation, cynicism, perspective — and, yes, even maturity — reared their heads: my first post-Directed Studies shopping period, changes at home, an unexpected breakup. My heels began to drag. Our Old Campus commune became a distant memory and my formerly unpredictable social scene began to rigidify around off-campus houses and scheduled lunches. I missed the newness of it all. Yale’s color waned, de-saturated by desensitizing routine and habituation. Many of us pay a heavy price for the new Yale grayscale.
We see world-weariness in one another, becoming less forgiving of each other’s foibles, less quick to laugh setbacks off or take confusion in stride. We settle into newly established roles. Encountering iCal malaise and overcrowding, I find myself indulging my worst character traits.
Confusion is the next symptom. Social groups have crystallized, academic requirements loom (“An Issues Approach to Biology”) and the intense magnitude of it all becomes overwhelmingly clear. Yale loses its comfortable overlaps and divides itself into divergent paths, Now, we must choose. From majors to summer jobs to Saturday night plans, the dizzying array of options weighs heavy upon the sophomore shoulder.
There is nobody for whom bad decisions can be blamed but oneself; and, due to Yale’s nonexistent advising system for sophomores, nobody to consult in the process. At age 20, we are expected to define ourselves in more permanent and meaningful ways than ever before. And we must do so in a markedly short amount of time, in a dramatically uncertain and unstructured environment. I applied to EP&E, took on an editorship that wouldn’t win me friends. Often this year I have felt far less sure of my path — and of myself — than I ever would have a year ago.
The result is more than angst, uncertainty or stress: It is fear. Sophomore year has been filled with it. Paradoxically, this is the first year when internal structure becomes necessary yet also the first year with so little external structure imposed. (The closest Yale has gotten to helping us out: A few years back, the Humanities Program offered four sophomore-only seminars for former Directed Studies students.)
“Life choices” — that awful phrase — are suddenly thrust upon us. At the same time, we become intensely aware of the shortness of “the best four years of our lives.” The end suddenly becomes tangible: Picking a major chooses the words on your diploma, internships presage careers beyond the gates and relationships kept and lost become permanent. It is a year filled with halves. Two out of four Camp Yales, Spring Flings and Commencements — finished. As we round out our unstructured yet heavily demanding sophomore year, the end is suddenly and terrifyingly closer than the start.
Of course, we all must eventually accept the burden of self-definition in an uncertain, overwhelming world — now. Indeed, Yale’s infinite opportunities — and dulcet harmonies — are the reason many of us chose it in the first place. We are still (obviously) incredibly lucky to be here. But sandwiched between a heavily guided yet exhilaratingly free first year and a dominant, campus-running third, sophomore-dom is caught in uneasy suspension.
As excited as I am for my next two years here — their opportunities to magnify past joys and correct past mistakes — in many ways, sophomore year has been a step-backwards in my search for self. Better sophomore advising (formalized and mandatory, throughout the year) would help a great deal. But beyond handling deadlines, CVs and applications, the dilemma of sophomore year is more pervading. It is one of attitude and energy, community and empathy.
Perhaps because Yale doesn’t focus on us, we spend too little time focusing on ourselves. We throw up our hands, resigning the year to a grueling intermission, and the prophetic slump self-fulfills. Sophomore year is drawing to a close, with all of Yale’s tangible benchmarks of success positive and growing. But beyond columns printed, positions gained, jobs offered, parties thrown and essays written, this year has taken its toll, impalpably, on us all.
Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.