For the past week, dining hall conversations have followed a standard script: break was fine, but it’s good to be back. A squirmy justification follows — an apology for being unproductive but for enjoying that unproductivity. Perhaps, a quip from my professor sums it up best: “I needed a break from break.”
Let’s discuss our near-universal frustration with break using a hypothetical sophomore (call her “Amelia,” maybe) who starts break with the intention of Using Time Well. She decides to read the Old and New Testament, just because. She spends far too much a skein of wool to crochet an entire scarf, regardless of her chronic tennis elbow. She lays out a plan to study the difference between a Merlot and a Pinot Grigio (only theoretically, of course — our heroine is not yet “of age”). In the early days of late December, break is an endless sabbatical into which she will squish the Doing and the Learning she puts off at Yale.
Perhaps, O Clairvoyant Reader, you see where this is heading.
Instead of a scholarly furlough, our fictional coed watches all of Sherlock (again), eats mostly raw avocados purchased by her parents, and listens to her grandmother’s entertainingly catty gossip preached from a blue La-Z-Boy® chair. “Amelia” spends break intellectually drooling — not from desire, but from slackjawed hibernation. Like so many of her peers, “Amelia” does not know what to do with the idea of a break. A break from what, exactly? Without the type of thinking and structure of Yale, what else is there?
This break-floundering — “dead time,” rather than “down time” — illustrates a rift between the modern and ancient patrician classes. Modern patricians, us, are groomed to run a hard, fast race towards quantifiable success. Our world hinges on “negotium,” loosely Latin for “business affairs.” Because we modern patricians are creatures of negotium, and negotium alone, winter break frustrates and frightens us. Over family holidays, we plan to fill our longer summer breaks with internships. We spend weekends pounding the books and then pounding the drinks (to pounding music, more often than not). We’re all treadmilling towards false ends — GPAs, societies, careers we may not have even considered with the necessary deep breaths found only in, you guessed it, extended bouts of down time.
The ancients venerated this down time, called “otium,” loosely translated to “intellectually stimulating leisure time.” Instead of Netflix in their not-work time, they wrote poetry, took long walks in their luscious gardens and played the lyre (or some such thing). Their lives allowed for equal parts otium and negotium, whereas we claw our way out of endless cycles of productivity for brief spells of “vacatus” — intellectual and spiritual vacancy.
Let’s build otium back into Yale. Let’s establish a J-Term.
J-Term, called different names at different schools, is basically a few weeks of unrelated-to-a-major study. In these quasi-informal learning opportunities, students spend a few weeks geeking out together over “Dioramas!” or “Voodoo, Zombies and the Conjured Dead,” or “Cartographic Design” at Williams, Trinity or Middlebury respectively. Even He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named up in Cambridge offers crimson-clad Death Eaters a lifeguard certification, or the chance to attend “Resume and Cover Letter 101” — catering, clearly, to the highest abilities of its students. Whatever the quirky courses offered, the concept holds: In January between two intense, academic semesters lives a short period of nerdy, intellectual respite. These J-Term classes, which more closely resemble our college seminars than our Hu, So or Sc requirements, create both room for and the expectation of otium.
J-Term is school time outside of School Time, learning for learning’s sake, a reestablishment of the wissensdurst that got most of us here in the first place. Jumping from Yale’s hard negotium to break — which has no syllabus, no rubric for a successful holiday — is too much of a culture shock. It creates a binary: work time, down time.
Yet, I am too optimistic to believe that we have irrevocably lapsed into these vector identities, moving through college with both breakneck speed and career-oriented direction. J-Term, inherently an intellectual scalar, creates room: Read a book just to read a book, take a class on surveillance just to learn something new. Cultivating otium is the very lifeblood of the liberal arts, one we need to transfuse back into our Lux et Veritas capillaries. It’s a deep breath, shall we say, between laps. With a J-Term to wiggle back into learning, Yale students would have space for space, a time for time.
Amelia jane Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .