ZHANG: Becoming a company of scholars

Last December, I ran into a friend in Bass Cafe. Our conversation drifted from winter woes to summer plans. Instead of pursuing an internship in the corporate world like many economics majors, my friend told me she wanted to do academic research.

“Yale’s full of closet academics,” she blurted out. “People talk about their extracurriculars all the time, but it’s taboo to talk about your academic life.”

I was once a closet academic. My identity at Yale centered on the Yale Daily News, where I spent 30 hours each week. The only time I discussed classes with friends was to complain about problem sets. Not many people knew about the political science research I conducted about international democratization. Furthermore, I didn’t know so many of my classmates were also helping professors with original research or considering applying to graduate schools.

Even though I attend a world-class university, I often felt my experience is far from “academic.” And as Yale College Dean Mary Miller and the ad hoc committee on grading policy begin to consider ways to curb grade inflation, I, too, begin to question the state of our undergraduate education.

As historian George W. Pierson once wrote, “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” Often times, however, I feel Yale College has become too much a society of friends than a company of scholars. Or, to be blunt, my friend at the University of Chicago calls Yalies dandies who squirm at a gentlemen’s B.

The biggest problem about Yale’s undergraduate academic culture is not grade inflation, as many students — including columnists writing for the News — have opined. While many of us celebrate Yale’s model of the liberal arts curriculum, some of us don’t seem to take classes seriously. On multiple occasions, my peers claim that they spend more time rehearsing, reporting or debating than completing their homework.

One argument I often hear is that the lessons Yalies learn outside the classroom are the ones that truly build character. Or that Yale’s emphasis on extracurriculars makes undergraduates well-rounded individuals. While I certainly value my time working in soup kitchens and writing for the News, I believe my classroom and research experience are equally fundamental.

The word “scholarship” frequently evokes the image of a hermit toiling away in some library. In reality, modern scholarship is a process that involves teamwork as well as dedication. No natural scientist can man a laboratory alone. No social scientists can carry out field experiments by themselves. Even humanists, often perceived to be solitary, are coming together for interdisciplinary collaboration that spans history, literature and philosophy. The joy of learning and creating new knowledge need not be solely private.

Rather than only focusing on grade inflation, administrators and faculty can also improve undergraduate education by encouraging collaborative learning and research among undergraduates. Programs targeting science majors, such as the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation Design, are a great start. Opportunities with a similar ethos can be extended to students in the humanities and social sciences. The establishment of research forums and workshop seminars for undergraduates across the disciplines would make learning seem less like a chore and more like an engaging experience.

Sure, we still have to take our exams and write our own papers. But as I learned over the past three years, it’s better to struggle with friends and classmates than alone. I am grateful for those who have helped me edit my first Directed Studies paper, my senior essay and everything in between.

Now, I am about to begin a PhD program in political science. Today, I talk frankly about my survey research on international security, sexism and affirmative action. But you don’t have to be a future academic to tell your friends that you’re really into Renaissance literature or labor economics or atomic physics. Though many of us try to downplay our academic interests, the numbers don’t lie; Yalies are serious about their learning. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the News, undergraduates reported they spent an average of six-and-a-half hours on classes and schoolwork each weekday — more than what they spent on extracurriculars and leisure activities combined.

There is only so much that administrators and professors can do to foster a community of learning. Yale College can only become a true “company of scholars” when more of us came out the academic closet.

Baobao Zhang is a senior in Calhoun College. She is a former multimedia editor for the News. Contact her at baobao.zhang@yale.edu .

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