On April 4 at 5 p.m., more than 200 history majors turned in their final papers — which means that last week was senior essay week for a good chunk of campus. Instead of, “See you tonight at BAR,” I overheard my classmate tell her friend, “You can find me in Weenie Bin No. 15.”
I chose to work in my room and spent most of last week crouched over my keyboard, stopping only to drink water from my Nike sports bottle. It was a research paper marathon, and I had to stay properly hydrated. At the end of three intense days of writing, my eyes were begging to go on screen saver and my shoulders ached. But throughout the week, I felt a strange sense of euphoria, perhaps the runner’s high of academia. I derived a kind of pleasure from concentrating for long stretches. I was filled with glee when I realized that I had been working so hard, I’d lost track of time. And it goes without saying that when I finally printed out my essay — the longest piece I’ve ever written — I felt tremendous gratification. Unexpectedly, it turned out that my senior essay had become a cure for senioritis.
It was extremely satisfying to immerse myself in the material and become an expert on a narrow and somewhat obscure topic (Ferdinand Marcos’ fall from power in the Philippines). The grueling hours I spent in the microfilm room of Sterling’s basement just heightened my ultimate sense of triumph. And I realized that even as we seniors may have tired of the grind of midterms, papers, reading responses and the other hoops we’ve become pros at jumping through, it would be a shame if we left Yale with less intellectual curiosity than when we came.
When I toured colleges almost five years ago, one of the qualities that stood out to me about Yale was the intellectual vitality of the student body. I arrived on campus freshman year ready for captivating conversations with my peers and professors. And Yale has lived up to my expectations. Many times, I have listened to my fellow students discuss topics ranging from Don Quixote to medieval history over lunch or dinner. In turn, when I have been excited about a political science theory, an appreciative (or at least patient) audience has listened to me pontificate on the free-rider problem and its applications to common-room cleanliness.
But as seniors, and especially second-semester seniors, we are growing sick of school. As historical anecdotes and social science theories began to lose their luster, I had a hard time finding even three courses I was interested in taking this semester. We are approaching burnout, and it is natural for us to disengage. We have experienced forced retirement from our zillions of clubs and extracurricular activities, and now we look to the future. We spend our time stressing over and ultimately celebrating job offers and graduate school admissions. We have one foot out the door, which is a healthy part of making the transition to the next stage of our lives.
But we still have one foot here at Yale, and we must keep that foot alive and kicking. Even though we may be sick of our classes, we can still participate in the intellectual life of the University. And herein lies the beauty of the senior essay. At first it seems like the final hoop to jump through, the last item on the college checklist. But in fact, the senior essay gives students something to show for their final semesters at Yale, a last opportunity for academic fulfillment.
But as much as I derived an odd sort of pleasure from writing last week, I am relieved to be done with my draft, and I certainly don’t want to do it again. (I backed up my work like a maniac.) Plus, my senior essay provided only temporary relief for my senioritis, not a lasting cure.
One excellent (and longer-lasting) remedy for senioritis is the Mellon Forum, which adds a good dose of intellectual stimulation to the usual food-and-booze regimen that we have come to expect from senior activities. Seniors in each college meet weekly to discuss their senior essays over better-than-dinning-hall cuisine and wine. Throughout the year, I have been impressed by my peers’ scholarship and floored by the diverse topics they have chosen to research — subjects ranging from, to quote from next week’s program, “Allorecognition in Hydroids” to “Moral Cognition” to “Obesity in Black America.”
So I hope I will be able to fight off senioritis by continuing to nurture my intellectual curiosity. And, if all else fails — as an international studies major whose essay isn’t due for another three weeks — I still have some revising left to do.
Emily Fenner is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.