I think it’s safe to assume that everyone at Yale did pretty well in high school (if not sickeningly well). It’s not without reason that Rumpus has, as the center of its hookup bingo, “High School Valedictorian” every year — the main factor that led most of us to stumble onto Old Campus as 18-year-olds was academic achievement. And moreover, I think it’s also safe to assume that most of us had, in high school, something academic that really moved us, something that we thought we wanted to find or continue with at Yale.
But in my time at Yale, I’ve found that people’s intellectual pursuits in class are the thing that they constantly downplay in day-to-day life. In many ways, that’s a blessing — no one wants to hear about the A so-and-so got on the most recent midterm. It’s a sign of intellectual confidence that we’re all at a certain level of intellectual engagement, and people can stop rubbing it in one another’s faces. We’re smart; it’s a given. No need to talk about it more.
This semester, though, I’ve been wondering if we haven’t veered too far in that direction. I still don’t want to hear about anyone’s performance on a paper, but I think in an effort to craft identities that transcend academics alone, many people here allow themselves to stifle conversation about their academic interests. I, for example, spent the vast majority of my three-and-a-half years talking about my a cappella group; rarely, if ever, did I sit down to dinner with my friends to discuss the amazing things I learned in my EP&E seminar or to share my newfound passion for election law. That’s boring, I told myself; no one wants to hear that.
I don’t think that’s true anymore. As a senior, there are a few different opportunities for us to hear or read one another’s works. My first glimpse into this was through the EP&E department’s mandatory peer-review program. At this point, I’ve only read proposals, but the two I read were just fascinating.
What blew my mind, more than the caliber of the writing or the amount of work they’d put in, was that these two people, both of whom I knew in other contexts and had fully characterized through their out-of-class personas, had so much more academic depth to them than I had previously imagined. Rationally, I know everyone spends their days in class, but since so few people talk about it, I rarely associate people I know with their academic pursuits. But to learn that someone whom I had seen at a cappella concerts for three years had also, all that time, been working in a psychology lab and was planning to write a fifty-page paper on the way his findings fit into our ethical frameworks of punishment, completely changed the way I looked at him.
Another prime example is the Mellon Forums, where seniors present their research or thesis topic to their peers over a nice dinner. My rehearsals had always conflicted with these, so I didn’t attend one until last week, when my roommate was presenting. But even for just that one night, it was awe-inspiring to hear kids who I saw in the dining hall every day wax poetic about mitochondria, or play us a five-minute composition of their own creation.
Again, I can’t stress enough that this isn’t about me learning my classmates are smart; that’d be stupid. But I think the reason so few people allow themselves to gush about their classes is because we all take for granted that we are smart, and often resent what’s seen as an attempt to rub it in others’ faces. But there’s a huge difference between that and giving someone the space to talk about their academic interests. The fact of the matter is that everyone here has a subject that excites them, and I think that it would give me a more complete picture of what makes them tick if I could have an opportunity to ask them what they’re studying and why it interests them.
We leave plenty of room for extracurricular passions at Yale, which is great, because for many people those trump their passion for schoolwork. But I think we should make a greater effort to carve out a space to talk about what motivates people in the classroom. It doesn’t need to be formal; it could be as simple as trying to insert it into dinner table conversation. Every single night at dinner when I was growing up, my dad would ask me to tell him something new I learned that day. And sure, that might work better for a 10-year-old than for a 22-year-old, but I think that if we seriously asked one another something along those lines, we might be astonished by the spark we light up in our friends.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a senior is a senior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.