The beginning of a new semester is always something like New Year’s: a clean slate and the promise of betterment. In that vein, it is inevitably full of optimistic, well-intended resolutions: “No more Netflix/Hulu/HBO GO!” “I’m going to actually use my dorm kitchen!” “No drinking on school nights!”
Heading into my final year, I’ve set a deceptively simple goal for myself: to read all of my assigned readings. To those of you who are perplexed, thinking, “Goal? Isn’t reading all of the texts for a class required?” I say: You must be the fucking saints of this university.
In my time at Columbia, I could count on my fingers the syllabi I have actually completed from start to finish. There are always the readings you skip because they’re boring, or long, or “recommended.” There are the ones you forget when you pulled an all-nighter for a different class and never got around to later. And if you’re particularly crafty, you figure you can skip a book altogether when the midterm lets you choose a text.
This is where the chemistry or math majors launch their great critiques of us social science or literature students: It’s often too easy—and so tempting—to walk into a classroom wholly unprepared. Quickly skimming a few paragraphs of a 50-page reading assignment will yield at least one vague comment for that 20 percent participation credit. Or you can always just be that asshole in the class constantly linking every discussion to an article in the New York Times.
Those skipped pages may come back to haunt you when your midterm or final rolls around. Either you cram a semester’s worth of reading in the 10 hours before the exam, or, if you’re lucky, you can write an essay on the one book that you did actually read.
But ever the overachieving Ivy Leaguers, we’re competitive even in our procrastination. Around campus, from friends—even from my own lips—I hear Columbia students in a back-and-forth battle of Who Did the Least:
“I only went to half the lectures, but the final was take-home so I just bullshitted it from the readings on CourseWorks.”
“Yeah, I pulled an all-nighter reading the book before I could even start that essay. But it only took a few hours to write.”
To be clear: I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Maybe it’s because I’m a senior panicking about the impending end to my undergraduate career, but I can’t help but feel what a waste that pretension is.
In her seminal text “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan described the strange exodus of male presidents, scholars, and professors from women’s colleges in the 1950s, frustrated by students’ seeming lack of interest in academic pursuits and scholarship compared to their women’s rights-era predecessors.
One frustrated Smith psychology professor explained, “They’re bright enough. They have to be, to get here at all now. But they just won’t let themselves get interested ... I couldn’t schedule the final seminar for my senior honor students. Too many kitchen showers interfered. None of them considered the seminar sufficiently important to postpone their kitchen showers.”
That certainly isn’t common practice at Columbia or Barnard today. But something that one such senior admitted to Freidan did strike a chord with me: “You learn freshman year to turn up your nose at the library. Lately though—well, it hits you that you won’t be at college next year. Suddenly you wish you’d read more, talked more, taken more hard courses you’d skipped. So you’d know what you’re interested in.”
When you wear lack of interest and the ability to get by without studying as badges of honor, you forget one important thing: For most of us, college is the single largest investment in our lives to date.
Let me play your parents for a second. A single year at Columbia—and with it the privilege of taking these classes—is currently valued at $64,144. Those books you aren’t reading come to an estimated cost of $3,028 a year. For some students the financial burden of college is remote, and for others it’s constantly at the forefront.
Whatever the case may be, we’re all just cheating ourselves when we don’t prepare and pay attention. Not only are we wasting money, but also squandering the great opportunity that college affords: “discovering what you’re passionate about.”
As with any New Year’s resolution, the odds are not in my favor.
In a 2007 study at Bristol University, researchers surveyed over 3,000 people about their New Year’s resolutions and found that 88 percent ended up failing. Beyond that, the fact of the matter is that college—and certainly senior year—isn’t all about classes. It’s only natural that the occasional assignment falls to the wayside when there are extracurriculars to join, friends to see, and all of New York City at your fingertips. But it’s probably worth a try.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Tuesdays.
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