So the other day after class, I was having a conversation with my professor about how the Tom Sawyer effect works in reverse. (For those of you unfamiliar with the technical term, the Tom Sawyer effect is when some unfortunate mandatory task like fence painting becomes fun because of a change in perspective.) The particular case we’re discussing is the reading of philosophy, something we obviously both enjoyed at one point; he’s teaching it and I’m majoring in it. Somehow, though, those thought-provoking readings, which we loved so dearly in our own free time, become anathema to us (me) when we are expected to prepare them for class. He still gets the better end of the deal though; because he gets paid to read stuff he no longer necessarily wants to, while I pay.
When I was hanging around my job during the summer, if someone I met showed any knowledge of or interest in philosophy, I was absolutely thrilled and wanted to discuss it to no end. Now it’s a grandiose effort to open my book, even though the material excites me. So here I am paying more than $30,000 a year to read things I don’t want to. Oh well, at least I know that all of you are suffering the same thing. As proof that everyone feels the same way, I present exhibit one: Mountain Day.
Mountain Day is a grand tradition of celebration where people climb the mountain, listen to singing, drink cider, and generally frolic. I’d say that at most six students really appreciate the traditional value and look forward to various arcane aspects of the celebration, and I guarantee that the other 1,994 just want the day off so they don’t have to go to class. The air is charged with excitement as my friends hope for reprieve from whatever Damoclesian assignment currently hangs overhead, an excitement augmented by the fact that most people don’t know when Mountain Day will fall.
We’re all thrilled at the possibility that we can skip class for a day. It’s just a mountain, it doesn’t move much, and it doesn’t really need a holiday, but we’ll take any excuse we can to skip class needlessly. Consider reading period, and the vast amount of academic work accomplished by diligent students during those four days. Whenever you give the whole campus a 4-day weekend, there’s going to be a lot of partying and not too much working. I mean, the more time you have, the less you get done. Some exams fall before reading period, and I think it works well because then there’s no illusion of doing anything academic over reading period. You could do something more useful over reading period, like, say, reading! I’ll either be reading the latest Harry Potter book or the epic tale of the great samurai Musashi. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re not going to class.
Exhibit two: The hypothetical. Your professor approaches you with an offer to make both of your lives easier. He promises you a B+ in the course and you’ll never have to show up or write any papers again. Okay, you might be really suspicious. But if you knew you could do fine without having to work at all, would you? If so, ask yourself why you didn’t just order a diploma online from a discount university. Yeah, Williams has a better reputation and it’s not a bad place to spend a few years, but still… With midterms and reading period and winter all dancing around our heads, we sometimes forget that we’ve chosen to be here, and we’re paying to be here, so we should bloody well enjoy class.
Some classes are inherently enjoyable. Many things can make class enjoyable, such as an entertaining professor, an enlightening professor, good classmates, interesting material, etc. However, the responsibility for making your class interesting is primarily your own. Find a topic you feel like discussing. Discuss it in class. If you like G.I. Joe, make a G.I. Joe metaphor. Try “Hitler’s invasion of Poland was similar to Cobra Commandos taking over the arctic bunker,” or “The Krebs cycle works the same way as Sgt. Slaughter’s bodyslam,” or even “Epistemology’s incompleteness means that knowing is only half the battle.”
Also, professors love to have class outside. Oftentimes they won’t admit it, but people are happier when class is outside, and professors are people too. When you enter the classroom, beg to have class outside. Use it as an example whenever possible, i.e., “Kant’s categorical imperative is something that is an inherent moral good, like having class outside” or “Hitler’s invasion of Poland was an unconscionable breach of international regulations, akin to having class inside on a nice day.” Since we’d rather pay tuition not to show up at all, if we have to be in class, the very least we can do is to be outside the classroom.
However, this is forgetting the reason we don’t want to be in class, namely the reverse Tom Sawyer effect. If you were just sitting around and some people came up to you and offered to sit in a room with you, talk about a subject that really interests you, bring up new and fascinating ideas, and explain things you were having difficulty understanding, you’d be thrilled to show up. It’s because we have to that we don’t want to. So try to put the Tom Sawyer effect to work in your favor—you can paint whatever fence you want, you just have to pick it.