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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.

About Gabrielle Mayer

Still trying to figure out this whole "college" enigma – for now, I'll just take it one blogpost at a time.

10 comments on “Closed Mind, Open Curriculum

  1. ytauma
    March 28, 2013

    Although you’re at Amherst want to major what you like. Consider the job market! What skills can you learn that will help you. Unless you’re going into fine arts, I’ll dump art & any humanities.

    • Bitter humanities major
      March 29, 2013

      Art and humanities courses do have the benefit of teaching students basic writing, syntax, and grammar skills; something it seems you could have benefited from in college. It’s hard to get a job if your cover letter is unreadable.

  2. mordeezy
    March 28, 2013

    rockin’ article. the title made me think of something even more pressing than the issue of expanding your academic horizons–in terms of understanding social dynamics even at amherst, not taking certain classes is a huge hindrance. i took democracy in latin america with corrales as my freshman seminar, and we did a unit at the end of the class on LGBT issues–which i had no prior knowledge about nor had any interest in studying. i came from an extremely heteronormative high school environment where anything LGBT related was sort of like, “okay, yeah, being a homophobe is bad. i agree. who cares?” without people critically thinking about the issues. for a long time, i was one of the people who responded that way because i hadn’t been exposed to what was really going on. but when i heard about the flaws of the gender/sexual binary for the first time (i don’t think i had even once thought about what it’s like to grow up intersex in america), it was a sort of “holy cow!” moment, and it fundamentally changed my views on gender and sexual identities. if we hadn’t had that one random unit in the class, i never would have been exposed to the material, realistically. i wouldn’t have sought out any sociology, WAGS, or black studies classes, and i would have left amherst 100% ignorant about critical issues in our society. i feel incredibly lucky to have had that unexpected experience in the classroom, because i understand the world so much better now and have so much more compassion and understanding for others as well as myself. if i hadn’t studied that one unit, i’d probably still be prowling the socials looking for a “nice one-night stand”. how disgusting is that thought? i would have been trapped in the uber-macho, disrespectful-of-women culture that is so prevalent at amherst. i’m a huge proponent of making at least one sociology, WAGS, or black studies course mandatory for students. a lot of us need to break out of our closed-minded paradigms, and i think that inadvertently, the open curriculum sometimes prevents us from doing so.

    • o
      March 28, 2013

      dude, yes! thank you! i would love to see amherst make a soc/wags/BS class mandatory for students. so many people pass those over thinking “this isn’t for me,” but in my experience, those who take the risk are really, really glad they did.

    • Gabrielle Mayer
      March 28, 2013

      I think you’re completely right, Michael. There’s some weird stigma when it comes to certain…I’m not sure whether it’s an Amherst-specific issue or a larger one (I suspect the latter). Regardless, my point is the same: a large advantage of a liberal arts education is that we gain diversity, tolerance and understanding VIA the varied courses we take – WAGS, BS, and Soc among them. When we limit our academic offerings, we directly limit the exposure we gain to different viewpoints, perspectives and ideologies.

      Perhaps more importantly still, I feel like some could argue that they *are* taking varied courseloads, simply because they’re throwing in an occasional 100-level English or history or (as in my case) calc class into the mix. These are important, and they certainly expand our intellectual horizons, simply by virtue of being something different FROM the courses we take on the regular. But I think that more important than variety itself, we need to consider intellectual discomfort when we choose classes. That is to say: what will lead us to think in new, potentially uncomfortable ways? Where can we stretch ourselves academically? The answers to these questions are, in my book, far more important than the perennial question that many Amherst kids seem to ask themselves: namely, “how many humanities vs. science classes am I taking?” Bottom line: if all 4 of your courses are Physics courses but they’re teaching you to think and grow in 4 distinct ways, then that’s totally fine with me.

      • zm91
        March 30, 2013

        “if all 4 of your courses are Physics courses but they’re teaching you to think and grow in 4 distinct ways, then that’s totally fine with me.”

        Why is there a seeming phobia of the sciences in American culture (or perhaps Amherst culture), to the point that the “science-minded student” taking 4 physics courses has to justify him/herself? I’ve never heard the reverse implication that students who take 4 humanities courses (granted, they’re from 4 different departments perhaps) are close-minded. Why don’t the humanities majors follow their own standards and take at least one “hardcore” (as opposed to the “science for non-majors” variety) science class every semester?

    • zm91
      March 30, 2013

      i’m a huge proponent of making at least one sociology, WAGS, or black studies course mandatory for students. a lot of us need to break out of our closed-minded paradigms, and i think that inadvertently, the open curriculum sometimes prevents us from doing so.

      Why are you attempting to take your own experience, which worked out well for yourself, and forcing it on others? Some students in Amherst avoid some departments not because they’re closed-minded, but rather because the classroom setting is uncomfortable and intimidating towards their own privately held views. Views other than the dominant left-liberal paradigm are often openly ridiculed.

      As a non-liberal, I’m actually fine with the majority of students and professors around me being leftist. I can simply freely avoid some departments which seem more antagonizing towards my viewpoints, and take humanities courses where the subject matter is less politically charged and more “neutral” – like perhaps Classics, Philosophy, or Music (compared to WAGS and Black Studies). But if you force me against my will to take such politically charged-courses, it will be difficult for me to achieve a good grade without repressing my own personal views and pretending to be a liberal for a semester. (Just try writing an essay against a professor’s views and see if you can get an A or A- with the same amount of quality). Is it ethical to force non-liberal students to indoctrinate themselves in such a way for a semester?

      • deaner
        March 30, 2013

        It seems to me that professors rarely assign “opinion” pieces. Rather, they ask you to analyze material, and write cogently with supporting evidence and argument. Can’t you do that no matter what your political identification? And wouldn’t your own arguments be strengthened by exposing them to the scrutiny of others?

  3. Pingback: Junior Year Blues | AC VOICE

  4. zm91
    March 31, 2013

    @deaner
    It’s not as simple as that. The differences between political viewpoints often boil down to different perceptions of reality itself. To take a crude example, let’s say we are presented with the life story of a homeless man from a racial minority. A liberal’s perception of the situation might be that he is a victim of structural injustices, perhaps including racism. A liberal analysis would focus a lot on elaborating on these structural social injustices, with perhaps possible remedies to the situation. In contrast, a conservative libertarian might still agree to some limited extent that structural injustices did affect the man’s condition, but the analysis would not focus too much on them, because libertarians do not believe in extensive top-down efforts to change societal structures. The homeless man is simply an unfortunate but necessary result of losing in the free market. I would be willing to bet that a liberal-minded professor would tend to give better grades to the typical, liberal analysis as opposed to the conservative one.

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