TELUSHKIN: Leave nerds alone

If you’ve ever seen a high school yearbook, you’ve undoubtedly come across the quote attributed to Mark Twain: “I’ve never let schooling get in the way of my education.” Sometimes, this seems to categorize Yalies’ feelings about classes all too well.

As a friend of mine once put it, “going to classes is the price we pay for being at Yale.” (As another friend pointed out — no, actually, $50,000 is the price we pay for going to Yale.) Yalies are happy, and we are so proud about being happy, and all that happiness comes from all these awesome, fulfilling, other-than-sitting-in-a-library things we do. Which is great! I love my friends and activities too. But when I hear friends complain about section jerks (more commonly known by a slightly more graphic term), I get frustrated. It can seem like we have forgotten that we are primarily students.

I’m not talking here about the kid who dominates section or a seminar with nothing to say. That person sucks, all agreed. Don’t say something unless you are genuinely excited to say it. Done.

No, I’m talking about the other kid, the freshman who shows up with his reading all highlighted and annotated and with accompanying notes — the kid who asks clarification questions a minute before section is supposed to end, as if maliciously not realizing nobody else cares. I’ve even heard of a kid who printed out every article from the footnotes of his reading.

Typical responses to such reports: ew, gross, ugh and who does that? Someone who does all of his or her reading? Does their best to never miss a lecture? Either it’s a freshman that will soon learn the folly of his ways, or it must be a section jerk.

Guys. I get it. There are days when I too sit in bed listening to Leonard Cohen and eating Ritz crackers, laughing at the thought of 9 a.m. courses. But seriously. For many of us, college is the last time we will ever be students, have the luxury to learn about things formally just because they interest us. Let’s give the kids some slack. Shouldn’t it be admirable they care so much?

Frankly, I’m jealous. There are times in seminar I feel I’ve cheated myself, knowing I will probably never again return to these texts, authors and ideas. As a campus, social pressure should encourage, not discourage, people to work as hard as they can in their classes.

Unfortunately, working hard has a bad rep. If two kids both get As on a paper but one spent hours working on it and the other wrote it in 30 minutes, then logic tells us the second kid must be smarter. Therefore, by admitting you work really hard, you place yourself in the not-the-most-brilliant kid category, because you can’t write papers the morning of and gets As. Nobody wants that.

This creates a culture, kind of like being elect, where people need to act like they are one of the chosen. We start our papers at 5 a.m. because, you know, there was that thing last night, and we, the special, can get away with it. Students boast about writing papers that say nothing but get good grades, about amazing a professor without having done any of the reading — we admire this famous BSing, this admission that we bluff through a good amount of our academic input, this admission that we don’t care and that most of our comments lack substance.

That approach, understandable as it is, saddens me. I don’t care how hard you have to work — or don’t have to work — to get by in a course. Such a criteria does away with learning for the sake of learning, valuing doing your personal best and gaining knowledge because you love it. Rarely have I heard of someone who started a paper early because she cared about the subject and wanted to really write the best possible paper. Such a comment, I imagine, would be embarrassing to admit.

I’m not saying we should all feel guilty and time our lunches to maximize reading time, but students who deviate from the norm of being satisfied with a lot of BSing deserve respect, not eye-rolling. We are Yale students. We are here to learn, not only to network and socialize and enjoy the shortest, gladdest years of life.

Of course, your identity as a student need not define your time here if you don’t want it to. You can get a great education out of Yale while avoiding as much school as possible. And being a student doesn’t have to translate into doing all your reading, tracking down obscure sources in the Beinecke in your spare time or learning Nietzsche weekly with a friend for fun. But let’s stop making fun of the kids who do.

Shira Telushkin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at


  • The Anti-Yale

    This article hits home.

    I went to college four times. The phenomenon of the unfinishable reading list always bothered me. It FORCED me to be a hypocrite, to pretend I’d finished the list when it way beyond ordinary human capacity to do so.

    For for the first, second, and fourth of my degrees I wrote papers because I HAD to, papers I didn’t believe in, although maybe a couple of those papers were worth reading.

    But for the third degree, the divinity degree, I promised myself I would never write a paper I didn’t believe in, and with one possible exception, I kept that promise.

    That degree was for TRUTH —or my pursuit of TRUTH —-not for academic ladder climbing. I took the degree to find out the truth (about, life, religion, god) and for no other reason.

    And the truth is?

    The truth is that nobody knows the truth, and that’s the truth.

    It took four years and an M. Div. to find that out, for CERTAIN.

    Now, no bunko-artist, no bully bible beating holy roller, can back me into a corner with fear that I am going to hell, or incurring God’s wrath.

    I know better.

    Thanks to my promise to myself and the integrity of the YDS which gave me the breathing space to keep it.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    See my blog
    The Bound and the Unbound: Oedipus, Isaac, and Jesus

  • River_Tam

    Let’s go one step further – let’s make it embarrassing for Yalies to admit that they think a quarter of a million dollar education consists of drunken conversations in the buttery rather than showing up for class.

  • panthera

    A pre-frosh asked me what I thought about Yale a few days ago. Obviously he was interested to hear anything but how amazing Yale is which he had heard all day and why I thought it was the biggest yet most necessary mistake of my life coming here. After telling him about big fish and small fish and about trying to see your own reflection while you’re still in the water, I told him to forget about classes or professors or opportunities or whatever I thought he would be basing his decision on.

    Then I asked him: “Where do you want life to happen? Where do you want your heart to be broken?”

    He responded, “Oh, you mean the weather?”

    “NO, no….Well, yeah, it would be nicer to be heartbroken in California…”

    It’s so not about the classes and Yale is a tiny fishbowl.

  • jorge_julio

    go Shira!

  • scienceprof

    As a Yale professor, let me say that it appears to me that Yale undergraduates for the most part work hard at their academics and are mostly not embarrassed to admit they are enthusiastic about learning or that they have to work hard to do well in class. The issue of students pathetically trying to impress their classmates by not admitting they are working hard or not participating enthusiastically in sections is not nearly as bad at Yale as it is at some of Yale’s peer institutions that I have studied at or worked at in the past. Unfortunately, the desire to pretend that you can excel with ease is a part of the general culture of young overachievers in America, but Yale has done ok at keeping this type of anti-intellectualism at bay.

    • inycepoo

      This view of a science professor may or may not be affected by the fact that it’s just that much harder for STEM kids to fake their way to success in class. It’s just not possible to start a physics E&M p-set, let’s say, at 4 am the day it’s due and score an A on it, unless the student was a physics genius to begin with. But if that were the case, he/she wouldn’t have waited that late to start it anyways…

      Now, for a social science class, however, it’s very possible to BS your way in an essay to a stellar grade in a short amount of time. I, for one, am going to do that right now for a poli sci paper, and it doesn’t seem that intimidating at all. For sure, I will do WAY better on this paper than I did on my orgo midterm, and I’ll have spent just about the same amount of time on both by the end of tomorrow. (This isn’t because I’m a slacker; midterm season has just been too crazy.)

      I’m not trying to imply one discipline’s superiority to the other, but this is just the fact of the matter..

      • negative_entropy

        I tend to agree that it’s more difficult to BS your way through a STEM problem set than a humanities paper. I was a TF in chemistry and can attest that the hard-working students were the ones who got A’s and B’s. There were students who worked hard and still got a C or a D, though, but for the most part, those who got C’s and D’s were the ones who thought they could coast through with minimal effort.

  • joematcha

    I appreciate this article a lot, but I wonder if this phenomenon is a bit overblown? I have definitely engaged in this kind of lackadaisical one-upmanship before and even denigration of people working harder than I was (the latter always jokingly), but in truth most of it was exaggeration and I’ve always assumed it’s the same for most people as well.

    I did come to Yale because the experience of being an undergraduate truly is more than just our amazing classrooms and I am glad that schools like Yale exist where extracurriculars are such a huge part of most student’s lives. However, it would be nice if there were a better balance between the two.

  • ldffly

    Whatever happened to the word ‘weenie?’

    ‘Scienceprof’ has an interesting response. Right on the money. Especially when I hit graduate school and entered a few classrooms at the head of the table, the Yale undergrad’s capacities and appetites for work amazed me. As scienceprof noted, Yale students typically don’t hide it. Though I haven’t been on the campus for many years, I continue to tell people that if you have any ideas about attending Yale, you better have a deep seated need to work very hard. Otherwise, don’t bother.

    However, there always were the poseurs. Apparently, they continue in existence. The faculty always knew them. Believe me, they knew them. I saw a couple of them get humiliated when I was in graduate school and this professor took a great deal of delight in doing it. So if you are one of these types, don’t doubt that at some point, you will get caught out!

  • LakeHMM

    When we stigmatize “nerds” and studying, we’re not stigmatizing learning or knowledge. It *is* fair to stigmatize overstudying, because behind it is an obsession with the pomp and nonsense of academia and a desperate need to please authority figures. People who do this see themselves as intellectuals who can’t be bothered with lowly social interaction. There’s so much more to learn from interacting with people than from seeing which dead white man is able to phrase his meaningless point in the most obfuscated, inaccessible manner, so that the student can pat himself on the back for being such a good intellectual for knowing all those big words. I am fine with passing judgement on this mindset and the corresponding behavior, because it’s arrogant and destructive to humanity.

    • eli2015

      You’re making the bold claim that all academic disciplines (or at least the ones in which you read “dead white men”) exist only for the personal gratification and self-importance of the members of those fields.

      I’m sure there are some “overstudiers” who do so because of arrogance, pomp, a need to please authority, and a general disdain for humanity.

      But there are also those who “overstudy” because they’re genuinely interested in the subject. There are those who “overstudy” because they’re poor and need a way out. Some “overstudy” because of an incredible drive to excel, and some because they hope to make a contribution to human knowledge themselves.

      There’s something in common to all of these “overstudiers”: they think knowledge is worthwhile, and you clearly do not. If the most valuable part of your Yale experience is the “social interaction” you could save $50,000 a year and spend your time in a country club.

    • Inigo_Montoya

      >If the most valuable part of your Yale experience is the “social interaction” you could save $50,000 a year and spend your time in a country club.

      Exactly. LakeHMM’s supposedly anti-“arrogance” post displays privilege-blindness. It is also nearsighted in its focus on the humanities.

      There may be more about the human condition to learn from “interacting with people” than from reading Plato (that’s at least debatable). Yet if you are so crass as to want to *save human lives* by, say, being a doctor (and/or can’t take Yale’s price tag so lightly that you’re comfortable getting an unemployable degree), I guarantee you that you’re not going to learn more about organic chemistry from “interacting with people” than you will from working in a lab, going to orgo lecture, and doing your homework.

  • MapleLeaf14

    I appreciate the sentiment of this article, but I’m afraid I disagree. One of the things I love about Yale is that people are not ashamed to work hard and everyone legitimately enjoys talking about academics/interesting topics. Yeah, there are a few bad apples. But, over all, this is one of the best places to be a nerd in the world!

  • mmr

    I don’t find this anti-intellectual vibe to be true at all. I think it’s actually the opposite: people commiserate when they run out of time and have to write a paper in 30 minutes. We all get overwhelmed at Yale and sometimes that means we don’t hand in our best work. People tell their friends about these instances as a way of getting it off their chest, and as a way to find out whether others have the same struggles.

    I think the resentment toward the freshman with the annotated reading comes from a sense of disbelief that someone could have their act together so completely. At the same time that we admire our friends who excel in their fields, it also makes us a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious about our own academic difficulties. That’s why I never ask a classmate “How’s your paper going?” or “Are you ready for this midterm?” – whichever one of us has made less progress is definitely going to feel bad after that conversation.

  • panthera

    LakeHMM – I couldn’t agree with you more. I do not want to be talking about how my paper is going and how ready I am for a midterm. These conversations are superficial and I don’t like to engage in them. Ask me what I read over the summer and I would love to talk about it and would probably complain about how few classes Yale actually offers that correspond to my interests. I’m obsessed with my academic pursuits but I never feel as if I can actually pursue them at Yale. Thus, I try to take advantage of the knowledge I DO feel I can adequately obtain here. And that knowledge is absolutely outside of the classroom. Knowledge doesn’t have to come from a book or a professor’s mouth or anything that might possibly be considered inaccessible. Yale students do not take advantage of the opportunity to acquire this type of knowledge. Without it, the world is worse off.

  • theblueandwhite14

    I truly admire students who are able to keep their high school work ethic once reaching Yale. Many of us *were* just like them in high school- I remember diligently doing my homework, overstudying for my exams and leaving the fun stuff to the end (if I even had time). But we often lose that once reaching Yale. Kudos to those still going strong.

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