We all know the feeling: the sinking spiral in the stomach when your professor refers to page 157 expecting you to know what was covered there, but you don’t know it because you didn’t read what he’s talking about.
The twist is, you did do the reading, but the professor gave some people one textbook and some people another textbook, each with different page 157s. Imagine the professor is society and the textbook is all of your life experiences and the elite institution you’re attending is — well, still Yale. Welcome to my nightmare, which actually manifests itself quite often on this campus.
Many of my friends from back home have the misconception that everyone at Yale already knows everything, which I think is strange; we are, after all, an educational institution. I, for one, certainly did not have foreknowledge of all of the content in the classes I am taking. None of us knows everything; we are all figuring it out.
And yet, sometimes we seem to forget this in our daily interactions. We cast wild, amused looks at our classmates when they mispronounce a word. We throw around pop culture quotes, ever strengthened by the deep interconnected and referential nature of the Internet, expecting our friends to understand. We cite historical figures and events to further our points without making sure all our listeners are along for the ride. We need a reminder that everyone is filling in the gaps in different areas — or rather, we get reminders and we need sympathy for our fellow Yalies.
This is not a new topic. In 1985, community college professor Jaime O’Neill wrote an article entitled “No Allusions in the Classroom” for Newsweek detailing a test he gave his students. No ordinary assessment, it examined students’ “general knowledge” of history and geography, two topics that are frequently referenced to make points in a teaching environment. The students came up with very inaccurate answers, which I encourage you to read.
This is not to say that the students O’Neill taught were dumb — if that were the standard, then we’d all be in trouble. The issue is that we, as students, try to hide our ignorance, to the detriment of our learning, as O’Neill pointed out. To be embarrassed about the areas in which we are lacking background is a natural response. But it is counterproductive not to admit it to people who could help us.
And yet, we are justified in being afraid. Just look at the responses we give when we hear another student use the wrong word in a sentence, or when we find out someone is not well-versed in another culture. We act shocked or we laugh or we criticize. And this perpetuates the cycle of misinformation because it promotes the fear of making mistakes.
I am not saying that we are responsible for educating everybody on everything. As a member of the Asian-American community, I have had enough of being the default ambassador and spokesperson for people of my ethnicity — and I haven’t even been asked that much about my Vietnamese heritage. But it is better for people to be informed than to be ostracized for their inexperience. By the same token, people should be (or be made) aware that one person does not speak for every member of a group of which they are a part.
Rather than being dismissive, we should respond gently to gaps in our peers’ knowledge, wherever they arise. Don’t say, “What? How can you not have heard of…?” or “They don’t talk about that in [insert hometown]?” Simple guidance is enough. Even the Internet has Urban Dictionary and Know Your Meme. A point in the right direction, if only to hold a person over in a conversation until she can go to a library and do more research — if she is so inclined — can do wonders for our communication with each other.
As associate professor of physics Sarah Demers said about social interactions in her Class of 2023 Keynote Address, sometimes “there are rules, and it’s obvious that there are rules, but no one is talking about them, and you don’t know what they are.” Sometimes we can cobble together enough information to stay afloat, and sometimes we just need help. Our community is better when we are there for each other, and reaching out for assistance should not be stigmatized.
So today and every day, take care in how you interact with your fellow students. We are all still learning here, and Yale of all places should be a safe environment to do that.
GIOVANNA TRUONG is a first year in Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .