By this point in the semester, there are two kinds of students at Yale.
There are those whose intellectual primacy has been affirmed. At mealtime, they are too excited recounting adroit remarks they made to approving and incredibly learned, famous professors to eat their fast-congealing brownie pudding. Their course packets are already festooned with obnoxious multi-colored sticky notes.
When they ask you what classes you’re taking this semester and you rattle off a couple history lectures and a Group IV where you get natural science credit to read books on Star Trek, they listen quietly and smirk.
And then there are those of us who did not get into that seminar we wanted.
I got lucky this semester. When I received notice last week confirming I had weaseled into a political science seminar taught by a famous Washington pundit, I was elated. My email plea for admittance must have really stood out, I thought. He was probably impressed by the way I paraphrased reviews I found on Amazon.com to make it sound like I’d read his books. Good thing I remembered to mention the “Outstanding Social Science Student” award I got in 11th grade, and the fact that taking his seminar will be the culmination of my entire academic life.
But when I showed up for class later that week, the professor began discussion by saying the selection process was mostly by seniority and luck. He even had the nerve to use the “I threw all the applications down the stairs and watched where they landed” clichZ
I kept waiting for him to glance over and give me the “Except for you, where I based admittance on your uncommon brilliance and sheer force of mind” wink.
I guess he must have winked when I wasn’t looking.
Getting into limited enrollment seminars is a matter of academic honor. For those of us nostalgic for the college admissions process — and who isn’t? — seminars are a chance to apply to yet another arbitrary, unfair, selective process and prove we are smarter, better-qualified, and all-around better human beings than our classmates. We write fawning emails to professors, fudge a little when describing our programs of study and arrive at WLH 001 half an hour early not because we seek an intimate learning experience, but because getting in will prove that even at a place like Yale, we stand out.
Most of us came to college brainwashed by Princeton Review write-ups and admissions office propaganda into imagining the seminar as the ultimate Ivy League learning experience. We envisioned dazzling conversations held once a week in a wood-paneled room of some Gothic ruin where classmates who have beards and call themselves aesthetes and Classicists lean over half-finished cups of tea to debate the End of History.
But then again, Yale also promised that my hundreds of dollars worth of AP test credits would serve a purpose at college beyond appearing at the top of my transcript each semester and briefly confusing me with the cruel illusion that I have 42 credits and have already taken Biology.
Yale lies, folks.
The truth is that seminars are not all that great. Our professors may be smart people, but most of them have yet to figure out how to direct a discussion with 15 know-it-all 20-year-olds who may or may not have done their reading. And if the stars align and you do get an instructor who has mastered this skill, it will not matter, because all it takes to ruin a seminar is that one moron who will not shut up.
There are many species of morons. Some wear bow ties and carefully draft their “spontaneous” remarks on yellow legal pads the night before class. Others consistently make smart, germane observations observations that, strangely, appeared verbatim on Monday’s New York Times editorial page. And many raise their hand without anything particular in mind at all, treating the rest of the class to five minutes of “I forget what page number” and “I thought that part was sort of, like, dialectical and hermeneutic, you know?”
Who are these people? Why do they fiddle compulsively with their Starbucks coffee cup lids and have such irritating laughs? Isn’t it about time for their medications?
Why won’t they be quiet for just one minute so I can develop a lasting friendship with my famous professor? If they don’t shut up, I’ll never get myself invited over to his house for weighty discussion over Thai food.
It’s true, of course, that nothing can beat a good seminar. If you do get lucky, there is no comparison to two hours of fiery discussion punctuated by the occasional wise professorial maxim and stark but all-revealing chalkboard diagram. You need a cigarette afterwards.
Too bad the little asterisk next to the blue book listing doesn’t guarantee that.
Take lecture classes. Never waste an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.
Molly Worthen is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column regularly appears on alternate Thursdays.