I had intended, in my penultimate column, to suggest a tweak to Yale’s approach to the public by offering a realizable, practical way the University could be more civic. This column was supposed to be an argument. It is not. I realized that the source of my criticism was actually just a way to hold on to one of the things I love most about being here. For once, some unfettered praise.
My intended argument was straightforward: Open Yale syllabi to the public. Similar to Yale’s videotaped “Open Yale Courses,” the University should open all syllabi to welcome people outside the academy into the conversation. This would melt the opacity of academia. A syllabus is a lens through which to think about a topic, an iceberg tip hewn off by a professor who is leading her field and already understands the broadest scope of the conversation. It is a distillation to render a nuanced conversation both digestible and communicable.
I recognize that syllabi are the result of months of preparation by professors. Yet I believe — I certainly hope — that most professors also want to expand access to knowledge past our moats. Knowledge is, fundamentally, power, and keeping our syllabi close to our chests sequesters knowledge from the public. Without a syllabus, academia seems too insurmountably immense to enter alone. Yale, as a site of knowledge production, has a civic duty to engage with the public by communicating our internal conversations to the world.
That was the column I had intended to write. Nice, right? We should totally do it. But that column hinges on the assumption that if you read all the materials presented on the syllabus, then you will understand the conversation around a specific topic.
In so assuming, I failed to understand the central function of syllabi, as a syllabus is not just a book list. Instead, it is an invitation to an extended, thoughtful conversation. We are not in a university of autodidacts, which is both a strength and a fault of Yale. Instead, we learn through conversations here — over dinner, over seminar, over dates, over and over and over again. This is a place of exchange, not just a site of encounter. Thus, a syllabus is an opportunity for a triangulated conversation between you, the material and your peers, a way to learn that is both social and individual. That is what I think I might miss the most.
The heart of our undergraduate liberal arts education is fundamentally a conversation, albeit one of many different varieties. It might be a tasting menu, flitting from one academic conversation to another. It may be a deep dive into a topic, a conversation whose contours are explored by exhausting the course offerings in your major. It might be a conversation that comes second to your social conversations as you lead clubs and develop friendships. Regardless of the avenue, a university is a place to learn what you want to talk about, how you want to think through that development and how you act in a conversation.
Like all other second semester seniors, I am standing on the precipice of graduation. I understand that most of us will not be learning in this way again for a while, if at all. There is an impracticality about some academia that is both beautiful and also quarantined here, and we will tap out of that conversation. But we will also tap out of conversations that arise from a shared understanding of what it means to be here. There are no other places where everyone has proverbially read the same books before they sit down at the table.
But still. There is something profound about having spent four years when your primary goal was to think better by thinking together, when speaking with requisite preparation was, itself, a civic action. As our intellectual worlds after graduation will have fewer guidelines and fewer stopgaps, we will have to learn how to continue learning without a map, a captain or a surveyor.
That is a good thing. It actually is a great thing. The most necessary way to grow after college is to learn other ways of learning. That’s what turns college students into adults, and that is what we all desperately need in the coming years. We should no longer be living with people who have lived just like us, who are our age and who think the way we do. A necessary next step is a period of uncomfortable intellectual wandering before we find our new normals. For that, we have to rely on our own syllabi.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.