Closed Mind, Open Curriculum

(Gabrielle Mayer) — As is true of most rising freshmen, I had a long and luxurious summer honeymoon with my future college persona. I fantasized about my imminent undergrad escapades: the “epic” partying, the unprecedented independence, and the quirky, super-intriguing courses I’d be enrolling myself in semester after semester. My early August daydreams were vivid and varied; I obsessively monitored the countdown to my Amherst orientation through an omnipresent tab on my Safari browser.

And then, as was inevitably bound to occur, reality clashed with my languid (and perhaps heat induced) visions of campus life. I soon discovered that the Saturday night social scene (when paired with Sunday’s homework) can lead to severe sleep deprivation, and that it can sometimes be nice to have your mom there to fix you a cup of hot chocolate after an unexpectedly rainy commute across the quad. I acknowledge that these are undoubtedly first world problems, but hey – they felt really, really important at the time.

By the end of first semester, I had four months under my belt and had therefore become an expert on all things Amherst (that’s how it works, right?). I’d learned to stay out a little less late on the weekends, and to have my kettle pre-loaded with water on gloomily forecasted mornings. Problems solved, guys!

But despite these highly advanced adaptation mechanisms, I still found myself a little disillusioned with the academic elements of my fall semester. This is not to say my courses weren’t interesting; moreover, they were certainly more challenging than anything I’d ever encountered before. But I was in generalized introductory classes – so at times, my workload felt eerily reminiscent to my pre-Amherst one. I looked on with envy as my peers did readings for the highly-specialized and somewhat obscure courses for which they’d serendipitously preregistered. I mean, isn’t an in-depth, completely unnecessary understanding of “The Tea Ceremony and Japanese Culture” what the liberal arts experience is all about?

A cursory scan of the course catalog indicated that my issue lay not with the class offerings at Amherst – but rather, with how I perceived these classes. Somewhat paradoxically, my eyes would skip over anything that seemed foreign to me. Film study was an unprecedented option, and therefore inherently intimidating; the entire Classics department was similarly excluded from my list of options. The more choices I presented myself with, the more I clung to what I knew: and so before I could even stop myself, my computer mouse was hovering over the “add” button on another semester of Calculus.

In an uncharacteristic bout of spontaneity, I clicked the “back” button on my course scheduler and went searching for a Calc replacement – one that would give me the “off the beaten path” experience that I craved. With a sizeable amount of hesitation, I settled on an introductory art and architecture course. At the time, it felt like I was making some horrifically wrong decision – after all, the closest I’d ever come to contemplating building design were my misguided endeavors to create an (ultimately) nonfunctional birdhouse during third grade woodworking. This did not bode well for me. The raised eyebrows from friends and family – pixelated in the square window of the Skype video chat –  confirmed suspicions of my own mild lunacy. Ah, well. At least I still had my hot chocolate.

Four months later and halfway through my wildcard course, I can safely say that the class was worth the risk (and my somewhat melodramatic anxiety). It turns out that I find 18th century American portraiture to be exceedingly – perhaps excessively – interesting. My readings are always new ground for me, and lecture holds constant surprises. Every Tuesday and Thursday, 10:00-11:20, I’m thrown an intellectual curve ball; I’m never in my element. After 13-plus years of schooling, that’s pretty exciting, if you ask me.

Bottom line: will I be majoring in Art and the History of Art? Unlikely. I’m still too attached to the angsty, melodramatic plots of French literature for that to be the case. But as I spend the next week preregistering for my third semester at Amherst, my eye is significantly more discerning than it was before. Who knows? Maybe a few lectures on Japanese tea ceremonies are exactly the thing my sophomore fall needs.