January 31, 2014

In defense of That Kid

Don't conflate That Kids with assholes.

At this school, people freak out over the prospect of being That Kid. To be one is a complete condemnation of one’s character and worth as a human being. That Kids are obnoxious, arrogant, and usually wrong. They pretty much are the scum of the earth.

I know people who always have something to say, but never end up raising their hands. So many students are unwilling to participate more than required for their participation grade out of fear of the label. At the end of last quarter, one of my friends almost broke down after I told her she was considered the That Kid of our class. She kept asking why I hadn’t told her sooner. Over and over she told me that, had she known, she would have stopped talking so much in class.

I didn’t tell her to shut up during class because I liked hearing what she had to say. Classes are less rewarding and are, quite frankly, boring when everyone refuses to speak, instead staring at their laptops and waiting for the professor to hand out knowledge. But my friend didn’t see her active participation as a contribution to our class: There is an active stigmatizing of That Kids throughout this campus, a sort of shame in seeming too eager or expressing too much enthusiasm.

But I like being a That Kid. I have gotten so much more out of the classes in which I have done all the reading, gone to office hours, and been quick to respond to questions in class. By participating heavily in class, I have formed sincere relationships with my professors and been able to actively work through the material in a meaningful way. I came here to learn and assumed everyone else did too—after all, isn’t this the place where all the nerdy That Kids from high school go?

We as a University pride ourselves on being a safe haven for intellectuals. It is embedded in our structures and policies: Unlike many universities, the center of campus is not the student union, but our library. Unlike most Chicago schools, we did not close due to weather this week (and unlike many schools, students are willing to brave through negative temperatures to go to class). And unlike most schools, the libraries are open almost 24/7—longer than the gym or any other hangout spot. As students, we promote our That Kid image through self-deprecating humor—often in the form of t-shirts (because this is the school where fun comes to die, where hell really does freeze over, where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA).

We are obsessed with our own intensity, yet on an individual basis there seems to be a perpetuated fear of standing out as “too UChicago.”

The fixation with That Kids points to larger insecurities surrounding what it means to be a UChicago student. Our self-deprecating humor simultaneously celebrates our UChicago identity while creating a culture of crippling self-loathing and fear of judgment. References to our academic focus are only acceptable when accompanied with a high dose of hyper-aware irony.

That Kids and Reg-dwellers don’t sound like particularly pleasant people to be around. It is nearly impossible to imagine a nice, humble That Kid who showers on a regular basis and just wants to get all he can out of these four blessed years. So rather than embracing the culture of intense academic curiosity, we focus on the most negative aspects of what it means to “be UChicago.” But the constant anxiety surrounding the That Kid label is self-defeating. It removes the very freedom of academic expression upon which we pride ourselves.

We must recognize the distinction between those who just want to be the smartest person in the room and those who actually care deeply about the material. I am just as sick of intellectual circle-jerking as the next person. But not all That Kids are Asshole That Kids. The Asshole breed of That Kids are so freaking annoying because they aren’t trying to learn, they’re trying to show off how much they already know—which is (often) not that much. They just say a bunch of things that sound really smart but don’t mean anything, and are uninterested in hearing anyone else’s perspective. Although actively engaging in class discussions, these That Kids aren’t really invested in learning. Instead, they are caught up in their egos, merely using class time to get off on their own intelligence.

The problem is that we often conflate the two types of That Kids, labeling engagement and arrogance as the same repulsive thing. We need to stop confusing passion with pretension. We are here to learn. Guys, it’s okay to raise your hand in class. It’s okay to be absorbed in the process, to ask and respond to questions in class. That’s what we’re here for. We’re paying a lot of money to have that opportunity, and we should take advantage of it. And as long as you’re not an asshole about it, you’ll be fine.

Zelda Mayer is a second-year in the College.