Like most of us, I began blissfully unaware of what I’d become to my peers in section. Filling the room’s abundant silences with the expansive fog of my thoughts on Chaucer just felt right. In that long and tentative hour, there was so much space for words. And I had so many of them — words like “Virgil” and “decontextualized” and “symbolic economy of the poem.” They blossomed in the emptiness — like Japanese magnolias, or mushroom clouds.
We all know what to call that kid in section — the one who, like me, can’t keep her trap shut. It’s a term that the News’ pages are too clean to print. Hold it in your mind now. If you haven’t before, go ahead: Associate it with me.
This mark of Cain, this invisible scar is one we academic pariahs cannot conceal, cannot destroy. No matter where we turn, our reputation always precedes us.
And it’s not like we can stop being the pesky social learners that we are. Oh, we can temper our assertions with our genuine humility and doubt, or strain towards concision. We can reference the comments of our peers with praise. But such palliative means don’t change the simple fact that, by and large, our classmates hate us, and how frequently and how voluminously we talk.
And so, having accepted my shame, I took new precautions this semester. To protect my friendships, I warned my peers against taking section with me. “I’m a bit of uh, well, you know,” I said hesitantly. “I’m a section — ”
“ — quarterback?” My friend interjected.
“No, thank you,” I said, confused. “You can keep the change.”
But, dear readers, did you know that a quarterback is a position in football, which is, apparently, the game they play every year at Yale-Harvard? I did not. However, this sport, this “football” — which the rest of America finds inexplicably riveting — can help us rethink our inherited academic prejudices.
For these prejudices, I believe, are inherited. Did you know that, of all the schools in the Ivy League, Yale is the only undergraduate institution with a codified, derogatory term for the person who talks too much in section? I mean, I guess at Harvard the term is “student.” But at Brown? At Columbia? I’m sure they have such students also, in probably the same abundance as we have them at Yale.
And yet, from the moment we arrive on campus, we’re taught those two words, and told to apply them, liberally, whenever we feel angry or frustrated. So the terms of the discourse around section shape its narrative; the role exists, ergo, someone must fill it. Never mind the nature of the person’s comments or the kindness of his character: He will be pigeonholed.
I am not denying that people exist who make section deeply unpleasant. But most of us are, at worst, just misguided social learners who are too eager to share our thoughts and explore those of others. Which is where we return to this mystifying American obsession with football, and the alluring idea of the “section quarterback.”
The term “quarterback” embodies an ideal, not an actuality. Still, the comparison is useful. At his best, a quarterback is, my Louisiana education tells me, Drew Brees. He unites the class as a team, charging towards a touchdown on the field of the day’s text or a truth or an idea. He is central to the victorious teamwork that wins the game.
At her worst, the section quarterback is standing in the middle of the field unprotected, holding the football high in the air, and shaking her hips provocatively. She’s a masochist, begging for the class to work together to tackle her ideas in pursuit, again, of some sort of victory for the team. To the spectator, she’s a loser. But she provokes the spectacle of the game.
I’m okay with that. Certainly, I’d like it more than you hating me.
Understanding the section quarterback is a matter of empathy. So, perhaps, as an exercise, try this: On Super Bowl Sunday, go to a frat house. Watch the brothers watching football; feel their fury as they revel and jeer. Then, watch the quarterback in his own struggles. Empathize with his passions — these are the passions of your section nemesis.
Or: The next time you see that talkative nerd in section, imagine her, dressed in football gear, being tackled.
One of these exercises should help.
Michelle Taylor is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .