Since I wrote my last post on campus novels, I’ve read some more of them – mostly from the student perspective: Starter for Ten, I am Charlotte Simmons, and, most recently, Noughties. All were good in very different ways (and extremely different stylistically). It’s interesting to note that while the differences between academic life in the British and American campus novel are significant (again, as discussed previously), there are far more commonalities for the students themselves. Most notably, too much drinking!
But all of them also dealt with a fear that one of my students voiced at the end of term last week. My student, very interested in the topic we were covering that week (Africa in the Cold War), had decided last minute to change her essay topic to this more interesting one. But she was finding the reading so interesting (and upsetting) that she felt overwhelmed. When she came to my office hour, she explained that there were fundamentally too many options at university! She wanted to do all the things offered: play a sport, attend research seminars that looked interesting, go to film screenings, make friends, do all the reading that she found interesting, take all the classes….. and she was feeling overwhelmed with guilt for not being able to do it all.
I completely sympathized, and maybe I should have recommended one of these campus lit books, because they certainly laid out the sentiment more eloquently than I. I think that for many students, especially those attending prestigious universities, the first year is something that they, their parents, their school mentors, and their home friends have built up in their minds. They attend with these grand ideas about what university life will be like. And then they get completely overwhelmed. Everything that they miss in that first year (whether it’s a night out because they’re in the library, or doing the reading for seminar because they’re on a night out) feels like a missed opportunity. And friends’ lives at other universities seem so much easier (and more fun)!
Every one of the main characters in these three books goes through this, and through the especially traumatic first visit home. When confronted by all the expectations they had at the beginning of the year (their own and their family’s and friends’), they all struggle to explain, most opting not to try. But then they feel doubly guilty for allowing those at ‘home’ to think that everything is great. This is especially painful for Charlotte Simmons (or, more accurately, for the reader of I Am Charlotte Simmons, who has to wade through PAGE after PAGE of Charlotte being mopey and guilty and bitter). For the characters in Noughties and I Am Charlotte Simmons, this is also tinged with a growing sense of snobbery, since they feel like people back home just ‘don’t get it’. Elliot Lamb, in Noughties, is particularly and increasingly rude to his girlfriend from home, at one point telling her to ‘stop being so small-minded’. Yikes.
Luckily by the end of the first year (or the beginning of the second), most of the characters have begun to figure out what they want. In most cases, that’s love of some sort or another, these being plot driven novels. But since all of these characters (to a greater or lesser extent) are all about academic drive when they arrive at university, this is a clear demonstration that they have changed. That they’ve moved from a setting in which they were defined by their academic-ness in contrast to their peers, to a setting where everyone is smart and/or driven and so another trait, another way of defining themselves, or of fitting in, becomes more pressing.
So what did I tell my student? I told her that university is about learning to prioritize and learning that you do have to make choices. But I also told her that the ‘further reading’ list is something that I provide so that if she wants to or if, in the future, she needs to she knows where to begin reading. I told her that while we expect a minimum amount of work, it’s up to her how she prioritizes the rest of her time. Would I love it if she did all the extra reading? Yes, of course! But I also told her something my parents and countless violin teachers always told me growing up: it’s not about the amount of time you spend, it’s about the quality of that time. That advice was in relation to practicing, but I told this student that it applies to reading/taking notes for history as well.
Maybe this was the wrong advice. Maybe I should have told her that her history work should always come first and she should do 100% of that before thinking about anything else. ‘Do as I say, not as I did’. But then she’d only think that she was disappointing another person, when really, I believe what I said: university is about learning what’s important to you. And if she feels super guilty about not doing all the reading, maybe she’ll end up in graduate school. Worked for me!