I’m so glad I dropped out of Directed Studies.
I know what you’re probably thinking: She’s a slacker who couldn’t handle the Directed Suicide workload. She didn’t want to devote her entire life to the mountains of reading. She didn’t want to spend every Thursday night pulling an all-nighter to write a paper.
If you’re thinking this, you’re buying into the pernicious mythology that surrounds D.S. Because, yes, there is a lot of reading in D.S., but there is also a lot of reading in any other humanities-based course load — just like there are a lot of problem sets in physics classes or tests in language classes. We go to an excellent school, which is another way of saying that we are here, at least allegedly, to challenge ourselves. However, the elevation of D.S. above other freshman-year programs of study impedes the immersive humanities experience it is meant to provide.
At a school where every workload should be an intellectual battle, D.S. is wrongly considered a cut above the rest. “You write a paper every week,” people warn in hushed tones. “Don’t waste your Thursday nights like that.”
Bracketing a few hours a day to work on a paper isn’t any fun either, but all-nighters aren’t necessary to succeed in D.S. Still, Yale’s tendency to conflate suffering with virtue leads us to glorify the trope of the miserable D.S. student pulling an all-nighter, when we should be condemning her bad time-management skills instead.
Yale’s cult of suffering reaches its zenith within D.S. My secondary reason for abandoning the program is simple: I just couldn’t stand the complaining. Viewing the Western canon as a grueling trek akin to Dante’s “Inferno” creates an antagonistic relationship between the students and some of the greatest works ever written by (dead, white) man.
People justify D.S. by talking about the toga parties and the community that develops around the performance of mutual suffering, but if you don’t think that the very act of reading the assigned books will be fun, just don’t do it. Maybe I can’t appreciate it as a D.S. dropout, but why are so many people taking courses they profess to hate? When we place more emphasis on the “labor” than the “love,” we might feel hard-core, but we won’t be happy, and we won’t even learn as much.
Of course, it’s impossible to create a program full of students who are motivated by the pure desire to immerse themselves in the Western canon while billing it as elite and exclusive. One of the greatest ways in which the D.S. mythology is perpetuated is through the application process. Here’s the irony: We were told at the D.S. information session in August that anyone who wanted to do D.S. would be able to — even those who hadn’t applied over the summer. Enough students drop out that D.S. isn’t actually exclusive, and doesn’t actually need an application.
It may be bad for us to deify highly selective seminars that receive hundreds of applicants for two dozen spots, but it is even worse to glorify a process that is essentially self-selective. Inviting selected students to join and forcing others to “apply” creates an aura of exclusivity that instills the mindset that D.S. is something we should do — something that will look better on a resume than any other course load and must therefore be better than any other course load. It allows students in D.S. to feel like members of the chosen few, rather than students passionate about a niche interest — and encourages people to apply who prioritize the former over the latter.
Maybe program administrators worry that if D.S. were to actively welcome any student with an interest in the humanities, enrollment would decline precipitously. If adults who have been here longer than I have think that Yale students will only sign up for something that seems exclusive, I’m worried about my classmates.
I’m not opposed to the existence or the reading list of D.S. (though I’m sympathetic to critiques of the Dead White Men problem), but I would rather study the Western canon in a program half its size, in which every student was motivated solely by a love of the material. I would rather read the so-called “Great Books” without being lauded for an amount of suffering that isn’t unique to the program. The mythology that surrounds D.S. and pervades its classrooms is detrimental to the very mission that I truly believe motivated its creation: providing a place in which students who love the humanities can flourish.
Courtney Hodrick is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .