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December 3, 2013

Myopic nooks

Engaging with the outside world is difficult but necessary for college students.

Every time I visit home for a holiday or break, that which I used to take for granted is remarkable to me—how warm it is in southern California, even in November; the fact that I can shower without wearing plastic flip-flops; the kitchen full of food just a short walk from my bed. During my most recent trip back for Thanksgiving, all of this was especially remarkable given that it marked the end of the longest period of time I’d ever spent without returning home since starting college last year. This also meant that my parents felt they had more of my life to catch up on than ever before. For my mother, “catching up” meant hounding me for stories about my friends and classes and insisting that I e-mail her every time one of my columns is published. For my father, who is less adept at keeping the various details of my life and names of my friends straight, it meant searching in vain for some common cultural touchstone that we could talk about. Had I watched Breaking Bad yet? Seen that new movie with Sandra Bullock? Heard that story on NPR?

Almost every time, my answer was no. I had to explain that it wasn’t because Chicago is a cultural wasteland—far from it. Rather, I’ve been so immersed in school and extracurriculars and work and trying to sleep on a semi-regular basis that keeping up with the current events, much less television and movies, is a challenge. As I found myself lost in conversation after conversation about everything from the Dancing With the Stars finale to the finer points of the healthcare.gov fiasco, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten to do some pleasure reading or sat down with a newspaper.

In high school I prided myself on the fact that I always followed the news, always knew what was going on in the world; now it’s difficult to remember sometimes that there is a world outside of campus at all. More disturbing is that I hadn’t realized how myopically absorbed in school I’d become until spending Thanksgiving with my family forced me to come up for air briefly. UChicago is infamously rigorous—seniors from my old high school applying here this year have repeatedly expressed to me their worries that the workload would be unmanageable. I’ve always assured them that wouldn’t be the case. After all, here I was, definitively lacking in the superhuman skills of dealing with a packed schedule that some people seem to have, and still, I was managing.

But I’m beginning to question that definition of managing. I previously thought that if I got all my work done, had time for a few extra things outside of class, and got to see my friends a bit, even if just for joint study sessions—surely that was managing, succeeding even. But now I’m not so sure how successful I can consider myself if I’m unable to take a step back sometimes and consider the bigger picture: the fact that outside this ivory tower of academia and college life there are other people doing other things, things that include making both news and excellent television that most other people seem to be aware of.

Part of my dilemma probably stems from the fact that I genuinely love almost everything I’m doing here. Burying myself in this work doesn’t feel unpleasant, because it’s challenging and engaging and it feels like what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I’m so lucky to be at an amazing university studying what I love, and I don’t want to feel like I’m squandering that opportunity by not devoting all my time and energy to doing just that. College is supposed to be time-consuming—people describe themselves as “full-time students”; my parents have told me that doing well in school is my “job” right now. It’s easy to forget, then, that we’re also full-time human beings living in the context of a world larger than Hyde Park, and that, at least on some level, our job is also to engage with that world.

After all, most of us won’t live in this academic bubble our whole lives. When our formal schooling is over, we’ll have no excuse for such cultural disengagement. But even now, and even for those who do plan on spending their lives in academia, we lose out by narrowing our focus so extensively. Especially at a school so notoriously theoretical, we stand only to benefit from considering our education in a broader context and searching for applicability to the “real world,” even in the most esoteric pursuits. I want to spend my time in college in a way that connects me to the world at large and that reverberates outside the classroom—and for now I’ll keep telling myself that includes both The New York Times as well as a finals-week Netflix marathon.

Clair Fuller is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.

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