Good lord, is there anything more depressing than applying to seminars? I was turned down from four today, and shopping period has literally just begun. My ego is currently lying in little shards on the floor. The saddest part is that I hadn’t even applied to one of them in the first place, but the professor rejected me from it anyway, just in case I’d been considering it.
There are a lot of things at Yale I enjoy complaining about. Durfee’s raising its prices from extortionate to straight-up hilarious is a big one at the moment. But seminar applications really do have to be one of the most aggravating things about this institution. Freshmen, in case you haven’t worked this out yet, here’s the deal with Yale classes. There are a lot of really, really amazing seminars here. There is also a solid smattering of moderately good ones. But you can’t just take them. Instead, you and 50 other students will first have to crouch on the floor in various agonizing positions and compete to write, in 15 minutes and on the back of an index card, the best explanation of why you want to take “The Comma in Western Media.” And then, regardless of what department it is, all the slots will just go to EP&E majors who preregistered in July.
I for one do not appreciate this. I’m an English major, so I really rely on class participation to charm my way out having a very shaky understanding of the world. It also means that for the rest of my life, I will be turning, cap in hand, to those same EP&E majors for my meager paychecks. Surely Yale could level the playing field a little and let me take an SC credit with actual professor contact? I feel this is not too much to ask.
I admit, I was initially concerned that my views might be skewed by this recent swath of rejection. So, in the interests of journalistic integrity, I polled a representative sample of students (namely the two people in line at Bass Café with me) to see what they thought of all this. Neither of them dared contradict me, and we swiftly started dissecting the vicious cycle that is seminar applications.
What this rigorous investigation revealed was that everyone — yes, overachieving freshmen, even you — will at some point apply to and get rejected from a class. First, we feel miffed and inadequate. Then we panic that — god forbid! — we won’t get into any seminars this semester. We frantically apply to nine more that we don’t really want to take. Unfortunately, so does everyone else, and suddenly even the most obscure classes are oversubscribed. Which is how, two days later, we end up somewhere in the upper reaches of WLH, desperately trying to convince a professor that we’ve always been interested in “The Modern Swiss Sewer System.” What am I doing here, we start wondering; what am I even doing with my life? Suddenly we are wracked with the same sort of existential angst I felt after watching Miley Cyrus twerk at the VMAs.
I find this whole trend particularly bleak because it reminds me how trigger-happy Yalies are with competition. We have this tendency, I’ve noticed, to create our own little boxing rings and push each other into them. Even the smallest club “needs” four leadership positions, and we scuffle over who gets them. We act like it’s feeding time at the zoo when “50 Most” is released. And we give seminars a cachet, hype some classes to celebrity status, so that even what we study becomes a prize hung on display.
I think we do it because it’s easy. Getting here means that competition is, by definition, something we’ve already excelled at. It’s a mode we understand. We know its rules and how to navigate it. And when, at Yale, we engage in it, we think that we don’t have a choice. But, at least in this case, we do. The competition around getting into classes is a prisoner’s dilemma on a campus-wide scale. And we can opt out at any time. Think about it: if everyone stuck to their guns and only pitched up at the classes they really wanted, then I wouldn’t have four emails in my inbox containing the words “very tough selection process.”
The thing is, we all know that that will never happen. It’s that old chestnut about wanting what you can’t have. Some courses are appealing precisely because they’re impossible to get into. So instead, here’s some advice as you sally forth into the next few days of trying not to write ‘passionate’ twice in the same sentence. Wear something bright if your strategy is to be sycophantic. Your professor will not remember your veiled pleas; they will, however, remember the violent green of your bowtie. Alternatively, bring them a present. (Try books for professors on Hillhouse, wine for the folks in LC.) Finally, if you see any EP&E majors grinning smugly as you fill out your index card, give them a swift elbow to the groin. And feel free to blame it on me.