Valuing our (non)decisions

With the possible exception of those whose human inception was inspired by the coziness of a Williams winter (or in proverbial terms: legacy students), it’s safe to assume that all of us at the College have given up a form of autonomy during the college application process, whether in applying to Williams or any other top-tier institution. In the initial application process, we attempted to perfect the art of self-presentation, tracing our respective histories into a coherent account in order to represent our achievements and progress, after which we offered this account in the hope that an admissions committee would similarly value what we liberally attributed to ourselves. The strength of the similarity, we hoped, would make way for our inclusion in the category of students whose one commonality is that they had been accepted.

The fact that you are reading this piece in the Record is testament to the realization of this process. As a result, the measure of acceptance is normalized, and we find ourselves facing a plethora of more minute structures that seek again to categorize us in terms of acceptance and rejection. These structures, and there are many, come in the form of applications for internships, fellowships and jobs, through which we must construct and submit accounts of ourselves for the scrutiny and consideration of a committee, board or institution. In the process, we allow an entity external to ourselves to make decisions on our behalf and, once again, we give up a portion of our autonomy. Ultimately, and in the most dramatic sense, we are faced with a judgment, external to and independent of the value we placed on the submitted accounts.

There is a moment in which such externalization becomes terrifying, when we connect the result of the external decision directly to the value of ourselves, such that the result of the decision renders us powerless under its authority – and I use “judgment” as a dramatic gesture only to amuse the comparative literature majors who, on principle or in respect for their chosen field of study, rarely read the Record.

This extreme end, however, comes about only when we represent ourselves in a way that is contrary to any mode of authenticity, that is, when we consciously morph our history and our personality to meet the criteria that committees might readily appreciate, to fit a model that we do not actually represent. Interview nervousness, desperately strategic essay construction and the manipulation of the reasons for curricular and extracurricular choices are symptomatic of such negative self-morphing. Otherwise, if our self-presentation seeks to offer semblance to who we are, then our reactions to the result of a decision would closely resemble what I take Nicki Minaj’s reaction would be to a personality habituation center’s evaluation.

Consider the corporate position – a sought after end to a carefully planned and mostly supported Williams education – which demands a particular academic plan focused on quantitative skills, an adaptability to specific social and working conditions and sometimes even an athletic background. Within the category of those for whom a corporate position is desirable, there are those for whom it is an actual fit, and those for whom a social constitution has mandated that vocational path and restricted more self-actualizing possibilities. Also consider, on a more Williams-specific level, the student running for a leadership position who, for elective ends, succumbs to a campaign model that supports diplomatic ostentation over genuine interest in student life. This latter case exemplifies more clearly the constructed and symbolic order that undermines – and from a different frame of reference also parodies – its supposed aim.

These are only a few examples. Each one of us is capable of first realizing these categories, the sometimes violent hierarchies they put into place, and second, detaching ourselves from undesirable constitutions. In the process, we should hope to build less symbolically influenced, more genuine relations to ourselves, to what we enjoy and to that which we excel at. The value that had been lost would make its way back to us, and perhaps then we shall feel whole once again.

Abdullah Awad ’13 is from Amman, Jordan. He lives in West College.