There’s your dream world, and then there’s the world that you live in.
It is 9:30 p.m. The day people have gone home; even the once-a-week movie-class crowd has left. The third floor of the Language Building is dark except for one lone office. Under a buzzing fluorescent light, an argument is going on. The air crackles: why do human beings hurt one another? How can God be all-powerful and all good, and yet allow suffering? Who is to blame? What is to be done? Fyodor Mikhailovich rages, sputters, waves his arms in the air. I too sputter and rage. Excuse me, sir, but have you considered the idea that reading long books itself may cause suffering? If so, how can you justify writing them? I flip the pages, scribble notes on my legal pad. I scan the room, leap up, grab another book off the shelf. I google. The answers don’t come.
From his shelf, Anton Pavlovich observes indulgently. He says nothing. Ultimately, though, his patience gives way. He speaks. Guys, you’re not going to come up with an answer. It’s not about the answers anyway; it’s about the questions. Give it up. Go have something to eat.
It works, as it always does when Chekhov tells me something. Reluctantly I straighten up the items on my desk, which the struggle has thrown into disarray. I gather supplies for the night—crumpled yellow paper with the day’s notes, a new batch of quizzes, a set of purple pens, a couple of books, some chocolate for the road—and head for the door.
Sounds. I am not alone! Next door, in the seminar room, a light, a gentle fluorescent buzz. Voices are murmuring. I peek through the glass: on one side of the seminar table sits a nervous-looking girl in a cocktail dress, with tasteful jewelry and perfect hair. Opposite, two guys in full-on Wall Street suits and ties sit side-by-side, emanating authority. Students, yes, the age seems right, but definitely not classroom garb. Nor classroom demeanor: all three are intent and grim. The girl’s hands tremble. All this flashes by as I round the curve to the staircase. Doesn’t look like studying. Their world, not mine, though; it’s none of my business.
On the stairs, another impeccably dressed and coiffed young man passes on his way up. I notice his shoes: black, with a fresh gleam. There is a whiff of cologne in the air. Onward, downward. At ground level, two more students stand by the staircase similarly arrayed (a male and a female). Curiosity gets the better of me. “What’s going on up there?” And the answer is, “We’re interviewing for the STDWM [Something To Do With Money] club.”
Sometimes you get a glimpse into an alien world. Admittedly, just about anything is going to seem fresh after decades arguing with Russian writers. Faculty may romanticize our own student years: we stayed up all night debating the great ideas (no, honestly, we did!) It was fun! We think everybody wants to spend their entire life in a small room with Dostoevsky. And we like to think that that’s what our students do. They come to class, learn cool things, and then rush home to the dorm to ponder these exciting things and argue about them with their neighbors.
Recently, though, my assumptions have started to crumble. This is the application season. Ahead loom summer programs, internships, jobs, grants, research opportunities, graduate school. Some of this trickles across the divide: you apply, we write letters of recommendation. It’s our job, sort of; don’t feel guilty. I get that you have to study and excel and whatnot. I also get that you have to apply for internships and graduate school. Things get murkier, though, when you have to apply for things right here at your own university.
Obviously you’re good at it, having overcome considerable barriers to acceptance at Duke through sheer brilliance, energy, and mastery of the art of filling out applications. You guys have proven yourselves many times over. But you’re in now! Shouldn’t the application stage of life be over? Isn’t it time at last to plunge fully into the life of the mind? Or is student life, too, just more of the same—a sequence of efforts to get into things?
(At this point Dostoevsky interjects: Could it be that all of life is like this?)
For each program, you have to log in to a sequence of websites, type stuff into a series of little boxes, write a compelling essay, send in a transcript, and ask your professors (ahem) for recommendations.
Who is to blame?
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Duke is to blame.
Here’s a proposal, Duke. Tell students to email whatever program they want to join, throwing their name into a pool. The person (or matrix thing) in that particular office can just go down the list, accepting everyone until all the slots are filled.
Honestly, why is this a radical idea? How could any Duke student be unworthy for any Duke program? And think: if you didn’t have to spend your time applying for things, you’d have tons of free time that you could devote to conversations about Russian literature.
Jobs, OK. Graduate School, OK. But clubs? How is this even possible? Are all clubs this way? Aren’t clubs here for students to meet other students with common interests? Or not? One student told me that students wouldn’t be interested in participating in a club that didn’t require them to go through an application procedure. Meaning, only losers would join a club like that!
Eventually you reach the breaking point. Not too long ago I was invited to participate in a Duke program that brings students and faculty for conversation. Sounds great! Some committee does all the work. They recruit students, order food, arrange transportation, and manage all the funding and communications. All you do is bulldoze the junk out of your house, open the door at the appropriate time, a bright bunch of students piles in, and presto, food and conversation! I’m in. And thank you, committee; it was lots of fun. And the food was good too.
A couple of days before the big day, a student comes up to me in the hall. She goes, "I applied for your conversation, I filled out the form and did the essay, but haven’t heard whether I’ve been accepted or not, and..."
She had to apply to talk to me? Do they actually reject students? If they do, what are the criteria? And if they don’t reject students, then why do students have to apply at all? Who decides? Who even reads that application that they worked so hard to fill out?
Hello out there. If you want to come talk with me (aka traditional Duke professor), come to my office, 310 Language Building, at 5:00 any Tuesday evening. The door will be open and the light will be on. We’ll sit and talk, and if we’re lucky, some of the guys up on my bookshelf will join in the conversation.
Maybe the seminar room down the hall will be open too. If you want to go in there and talk about STDWM, or whatever, feel free. But you’ll have to apply.
Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “rants from the podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.