As my second year comes to a close, I can’t help but be grateful for UChicago’s cherished, yet ever-satirized, Core Curriculum. The Core sets UChicago apart—at least according to the 125 percent of students who made a passing reference to it in their essays while applying and then proceeded to complain about it, often with good reason, for the next four years. I’ve slogged through Core Bio, Calculus, and Global Warming, but the parts of the Core I’ve learned the most from are the seminar classes, namely Hum and Sosc, which all students complete during their time in the College. These courses have stood as hotbeds of UChicago discourse, and after completing both sequences, I’ve learned a lot. This op-ed isn’t just a collection of overindulgent takes on Weber or Marx that I absorbed during seminar sessions. Rather, it’s about what I learned in Hum and Sosc that can’t be found in any foundational text—lessons from my peers. Because all students take Core classes regardless of their major, these courses contain a fascinating collection of individuals with diverse interests, and they’ve all taught me something different. For that, I’d like to thank them.
First, there’s the fabled “That Kid.” The one who read Nietzsche in high school and obviously knows more about the texts than anyone in the room. They came to UChicago for the intellectualism and stayed for the opportunity to feel superior to everyone in their class and the chance to correct “classic misinterpretations” of Freud. If you played devil’s advocate as much as this kid, you should probably just ask for the full-time job. Thank you, “That Kids,” for thickening my skin and preparing me to deal with difficult people. Last but not least, thanks for teaching me that you did debate in high school and are a Very Big Deal.
For every That Kid, there’s also a student who doesn’t do any of the readings. Some get by using SparkNotes, while others don’t so much as glance over a page the entire quarter, praying they don’t get called on to speak. Surprisingly, these students have taught me something too. Thank you for teaching me both that improvisation can save you in tough situations and that it can ruin you—you’re one cold call away from devastation. To those who miss readings due to being tired, stressed, or overworked—I’ve been there. In fact, I often fall into this category myself; there are many days when, due to lack of sleep or being overworked, I am unable to complete my readings. Thank you for reminding me that just because a reading is on the syllabus doesn’t mean that it’s always manageable to complete.
Next, each seminar class has its share of participation point pursuers. Their unofficial motto—“speak once at the beginning, and once at the end”—may be less revolutionary than they think, but at least they’re contributing to the discussions. When these students make nonsensical points just to tick the boxes and get class credit for having spoken, at least there’s comedic value in the professor’s response—often a quizzical look, a one-word acknowledgment, and a question to the class that actually relates to the topic being discussed. Thank you, participation pursuers, for showing me how to secure (20 percent of) the bag in the most hilariously calculated manner.
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the quiet kids. Quietness is often punished in these classes, even though it shouldn’t be so harshly stigmatized, especially when being quiet doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t engaged or didn’t do the readings. These are the students who listen and observe, rarely chiming in—but when they do, their arguments are often the most measured and discerning, especially because they are not constantly clamoring to talk. Thank you for reminding me that it’s okay to sit back and listen sometimes, for vindicating the intimidation I’ve felt when trying to participate, and for reminding me to think before I speak. Most of all, thank you for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and sharing insights, even if you were scared to.
Of course, there are also those who are rude, interrupt often, and make borderline racist or sexist comments. I don’t have anything to thank you for—be better. But these aren’t the only students who can change the way they talk about race and gender in the classroom. There’s a certain type of student who feels the need to always center the conversation on their white guilt, male guilt, or white-male guilt. If you really care about intersectionality, you don’t have to bring it up every time you speak. There’s a way to talk about sensitive social issues in the classroom tactfully, without constantly prefacing your words. Skip the “As a…” and just say what you have to say—let your argument hold its own weight.
These identities are by no means exhaustive, and I don’t think that our classroom roles can always be so easily typified this way. However, I think there is a lot we can learn from the people around us at college. What we learn is sometimes frustrating, sometimes comforting, and sometimes plain strange—but it is never a waste. Even if we don't fall into all of these categories, we can still learn a lot about ourselves from them.
Soham Mall is a second-year in the College.