The pursuit of academic variety

Every Thanksgiving, wandering about my aunt’s house waiting for dinner to be ready, picking from the cheese tray and sipping a glass of wine, I engage in the ancient, well-documented ‘Avoid-the-Extended-Family-You-Never-Really-Talk-To’ ritual dance; typically it works. Sometimes, though, I have some kind of tactical failure: I get caught in the awkward corner between the bottles on the counter and the jutting pantry, trapped by a few-times-removed cousin. Inevitably, given the attorney- and professor-infused composition of my family, the issue of my curriculum and/or graduate school comes up. As the issue of grad school, or really any practical, future-oriented concern, makes me uncomfortable, I try to avoid talking about that one.

I’m going to avoid talking about it here, too, and talk instead about the parade of enthusiastic and emphatic advice I’ve had an earful of over the past few years, along with some of my experiences navigating the plethora of options available at the College. Some of the advice I’ve gotten has been helpful; some of it hasn’t. There are things I wish I had known my first year and misconceptions I wish I hadn’t entertained early in my career. Now that I’m older and, hopefully, a little wiser, I think I’ve come to a couple of conclusions about academic life here.

To start, the advice I always got from the most committed of my cousins was twofold: Take a new language and take statistics. Well, I only took a language. But more generally speaking, I think it was sound advice in the following, more general, sense: There are a lot of classes that could be very valuable that people don’t take because they imagine they can “pick it up later in life” or “learn it on their own.” Conversely, there are a lot of things people take because they feel that they should “have some basic background.” I’ll give examples of both categories.

In the first category seem to be things like languages or literature survey courses. But, as some who are older and wiser have pointed out to me, how likely is it that you will take an hour every day out of your week later in life to learn Mandarin? Do you really think you could get as much out of Jane Eyre reading it by yourself as you could being instructed by someone who has a Ph.D. in a related area? The point is, don’t miss out on taking things that could broaden your horizons – or at the very least be a pleasant and refreshing diversion from what you typically study – because you think you have to take absolutely every advanced math class that the College offers and your schedule will admit of no distraction.

In the latter category, that of things people feel they should take to “have some background in,” there are things like economics classes, for example. Now, having been an economist in a past life and having, for a good period of time, thought I might pursue a Ph.D. in the subject, I am not picking on economists, and I am absolutely not minimizing the value of economics as a discipline or of everyone being at least conversational in the topic. But I am suggesting that taking the “Intro to Micro” course will not necessarily make you conversational in basic business sense, and if you are taking it for that reason, you might be disappointed. Moreover, you might miss out on taking something that could be enriching in a different, equally or more helpful way.

One of the nice things about the College’s liberal arts ethos is that it forces us, whether we like it or not, to expand our horizons. After spending a year in the much narrower English system, I appreciate more than ever the interdisciplinary nature of courses here and attitudes that professors here, for the most part, share about the value of academic cross-pollination. But there are still ways to avoid, despite the best institutional efforts, getting into the spirit of that concept of education.

Looking back, it seems to me the best way to do that is to basically follow the advice my family was foisting upon me all along: Take a variety of things. Don’t be seduced by what seems “useful now” – you’ll find novel applications for all kinds of things. Pursue professors you know are bright and engaging, even if they don’t teach your first choice material – because you might start liking that material more or enjoy the course for a totally different reason. We’re not in England, and we’re not in grad school yet, so we don’t have to be on a single track. The best thing we can do is take advantage of that.


Hilary Ledwell ’12 is a history and religion double major from Little Rock, Ark. She lives in Dodd House. 

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