I came to UChicago for the thrill of learning. With interdisciplinary classes and innovative majors, UChicago offered me a vast intellectual frontier to explore. But before I could take my first steps into this frontier, I had to face the long-trodden Core Curriculum. There’s something stifling about requirements, especially ones that stretch across quarters. While my friends from high school started their majors and personal intellectual journeys right off the bat in college, I found myself trudging through calculus and dreading the impending doom of mandatory lab sciences. I came for the thrill of learning, but because of the long laundry list of requirements I was met with, this thrill seemed further and further away. Realizing that I had to continue taking these mandatory Core classes into winter quarter didn’t exactly help. My winter promised not the adventure I wanted, but the boredom of walking down a well-beaten path.
But hungry to learn, I hunted through the course registration portal until I stumbled upon a class titled “Mediterranean Islands: Odd and Insular Histories.” Immediately, I was enthralled by the quirky, yet immersive description of the class. With an interdisciplinary focus on islands, the class offered me a chance to engage with history, anthropology, geography, and biology all at the same time. While I was already enrolled in four classes, I could not resist the draw of this course, and so I sat in on the first class.
UChicago challenges us to take on the daunting. Arriving to the Mediterranean Islands class, I sat eager to hear more about the course and meet others interested in its unique material. This anticipation turned to terror as my classmates introduced themselves one by one. Out of the 14 students in the room, nine were graduate students on the path to masters degrees and Ph.D.s. The rest of the class consisted of a fourth-year, a third-year, two second-years, and myself, a first-year. My stomach churned as my classmates stared at me in surprise when I said, “Hi, I’m Brinda. I’m a first-year undeclared in the College and I’m excited to learn more about the ancient world.”
UChicago gives us the tools to do the impossible. Intimidated by the class, I decided to throw in the towel and stick to my usual schedule, filled with Core classes. However, I could not stop thinking about the fascinating texts we discussed in just the first class of Mediterranean Islands and the nuanced insights from grad students. This environment excited the philomath in me with a childlike sense of wonder. I met with professor Catherine Kearns, the intimidating and insightful instructor of the course, explaining that my schedule was locked in, but I wanted to take the class. She offered to let me audit the class and I knew it was the perfect solution to my dilemma.
The coursework requirements for auditing classes at UChicago are usually dependent on a case-by-case basis. An audit is an arrangement between a professor and a student that allows the student to sit in on the class and do some of the associated work. However, the class is not recorded on the student’s official transcript. The work expected to be done is usually established between the professor and student, as both sides work to find a comfort level that both gives the student an understanding of the material while still excluding some kind of large-scale graded assignment. In my situation, I was expected to attend classes, complete the associated readings for the class, post on discussion threads and do a project for the class. However, I was exempt from the main assignment of the class, a 10-page research paper.
Ultimately, the value a student gets from auditing depends on the effort they want to put into the class. Students can create an arrangement to sit in on lectures and seminars, while exempt from a majority of assignments and readings. However, auditing a class is a self-selecting process that usually entails an unconscious drive for immersion in the class. At the same time, auditing pretty much means adding an additional class to an already trying schedule. It’s definitely daunting in theory and in practice. While I’ve never thought twice about my decision to audit the Islands class, I did have to plan out my readings for it weeks in advance to keep up with it and all my other work.
UChicago encourages us to learn for the sake of learning. In fact, a passion for knowledge is what drew me here. When I was a kid, I tore through volumes on Greek mythology just for the adventure of it. Auditing the Islands class gave me the opportunity to extend this adventure into my college experience. Auditing meant that while I was not officially registered for the class, I could still access the Canvas page, complete the readings, and attend classes. This gave me the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning without the enormous fear of papers or midterms. It also meant that I was driven to participate in the class out of my interest and passion alone.
It’s easy to say that learning excites, but the reality is that learning and grades are so intertwined at elite institutions like ours that learning with the constant pressure of getting good grades can lose its charm. At UChicago it’s practically the norm to choose to take some classes just because they will boost your GPA. The highly competitive environment only encourages this, so it’s no surprise that many of us would opt for the less engaging path if it means less work and better grades. Auditing, on the other hand, relieves us of this constant pressure to make the most intelligent claims in class or frantically labor over long research papers. It allows us to explore new topics and find new passions without the nagging pressure of grades.
At UChicago it is easy to forget that we’re here for the journey and not for the destination. This atmosphere, often pre-professional, makes students stress over not declaring a major and finding the perfect summer internship. Succeeding at UChicago, a school notorious for its quarter system, often feels more like a sprint, causing us to forget that the best journeys to be had in college are ones with stops at places like Mediterranean Islands: Odd and Insular Histories. Reflecting on my experience, auditing added additional work to my already full four-class schedule. It certainly takes special circumstances and a lot of time management to fit four classes and an audit into a schedule. My experience in Mediterranean Islands has really excited me about the possibilities and atmosphere of UChicago’s Classics department. It also showed me that with a very mindful attitude, it’s completely possible to balance the life of the mind with Core requirements. Auditing lets you step off the beaten road and forge your own exciting path.
Brinda Rao is a first-year in the College.