Every time I meet a new person at Yale, the litany of questions we ask one another remains relatively unchanged. Each of them is part of our desire to place this new acquaintance, to situate him or her into one or two relevant locations. We recite name, college, hometown, perhaps major, if we’re feeling intellectual, and then the classic question crops up: “So, what kind of stuff do you do?”
These questions are perfectly innocuous and make a lot of sense; in order to forge a connection with someone, it’s helpful to find common ground. They’re in Berkeley — do you two have any mutual Berkeley friends? They’re from Los Angeles — perhaps they know your one random friend from camp. And how are those Lakers doing? The questions are just part of a ritual to begin the pleasantries of a new and slightly awkward conversation.
But the question of “What do you do on campus?” I’ve found, is a question that is, if not unique to Yale, at least of more pressing concern here than at other schools. The question somehow implies that the very fact of being here, going to your classes, dutifully doing your reading and just hanging out with your friends isn’t quite enough. I have yet to ever talk to someone who responds to the question of what he or she does with the answer, “I take classes.”
Is that such a ridiculous answer, though? It is, of course, admirable to take immense satisfaction in one’s extracurricular activities. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent more time fretting about my a cappella group than I spent on my problem set this past week. The work that we are all involved in outside of the classroom can become an incredibly involved experience, if we let it. Often people say that they learn more from managing their respective groups than they do in any of their esoteric classes.
There is no doubt that this is true for many. But that doesn’t mean we should impose that norm on everyone. Or, to put it differently, it doesn’t mean that those who find it rewarding to invest all their spare time in publications, clubs or theater ought to expect the same of their peers. It’s easy to forget, but at many other schools it’s more than enough to simply go to your classes and spend time doing your reading, catching up with friends, or, God forbid, sleeping eight hours a night.
The depth of people’s involvement in their extracurriculars is a crucial part of what makes this campus so fulfilling. But the pressure to prioritize extracurriculars above all else can quickly become toxic. Sometimes I feel like I use my involvement in my a cappella group or my participation in the News as a crutch or tool for social capital. “I keep busy,” these accomplishments seem to say. It allows me to be more than just a student; these things are, in the eyes of my peers, more real than the confines of what one learns in a classroom.
But I think it might not be bad to recall that at the end of the day, many of us are here to take our classes very seriously. And there is quite simply nothing wrong with that — oftentimes in our zeal to express enthusiasm for our individual pursuits I worry that we belittle those who prioritize their academics. And even more than that, I worry that sometimes we allow our love of extracurriculars to serve as a justification for neglecting our classes. It’s so passé to let something as simple as a reading assignment take up a whole afternoon, much less let it be the most exciting part of your day. Classes are often treated as something to suffer through — something to occupy the hours of ten to three until you can get back to doing your real things.
That sentiment might hold true for many. But for those who want to go about their day investing time and energy in their classes rather than side projects, who are we to impose upon them a different set of priorities? It’s just as legitimate to love classes as it is to love singing. I worry that in asking our peers what they “do,” we’re leaping to the conclusion that everyone needs to have their “thing” — beyond a challenging course load. We’re forcing people to alter their behavior in an attempt to conform to the archetype of an overworked, bustling Yale student.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.