OP-EDS

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January 15, 2010

Quarterly denial

With each new quarter naive academic resolutions are renewed

I hate New Year’s resolutions: the banality, the disingenuousness, or else—even worse—the earnestness. So, I never make promises to myself at the turn of the new year. A new quarter’s resolution, however, is an entirely different story.

Technically, such a resolution starts not at the beginning of the quarter in question, but rather at the end of the preceding one. It is finals week, and four o’clock in the morning; I am sitting in the eerily quiet Crerar, the obnoxiously boisterous A-level, or else my oppressively familiar room. I’m wearing sweatpants, an oversized U of C hoodie and glasses, as coffee cups and thick paperbacks—their Co-op price tags unremoved, their spines barely broken—surround me. Things are going well, relatively. My 10-page paper is due in eight hours, at noon, and I’m five pages in. I can do it. Easy. I’m fine.

Or else I’m not fine, not at all. I’m not going to finish; I’m going to fail. And then I’m not going to get a job or get into grad school. By the way, I ask myself slyly, how’s that job search going? Once you get started down this slippery path, it’s awfully easy to exaggerate your faults.

Another part of me watches with almost clinical interest the cyclical mood that inevitably goes hand-in-hand with late-night paper writing. I’m up and I’m down; I’m hot and I’m cold. I’m a Katy Perry song. Such a night at the Reg or Crerar is a lifetime: I die a thousand times, but achieve salvation a thousand and one times.

During the lows, though, I promise myself the world. Next quarter I will do all the reading, participate(!), make an outline a week before the paper is due, attend office hours religiously. And, most importantly, never leave a paper until the last minute like I am doing at that very moment.

I end up turning the paper in, of course—my dire predictions of my failed paper and failed life don’t pan out—and afterwards, removed from the early-morning haze—shower taken, sleep attained—I remember the promise I made to myself. To work harder, be more diligent, to take full advantage of my education. I’ve never genuinely kept such promises to myself, but even now, in my fourth year here, I buy into these resolutions. I really do believe that I can, that it’s possible, to turn the corner, and become the academic superstar I’ve always imagined. I’ve become more cynical over time, sure; the doubting voice in my head has become louder, more triumphant, as he’s accumulated victory after victory, quarter after quarter.

And yet here I am, writing this, vaguely self-aware of past failings, but nevertheless believing that this quarter will be different. I’m off to a good start, too! And maybe I can do it. Maybe not, though; maybe I’ve set expectations too high for myself. Maybe I’m selling myself short. It’s not like I never feel engaged with my classes. Maybe that’s enough: To take what you can, and do enough to get through where you need to. Yet if that’s really the best that I can muster, isn’t that truly depressing? But maybe the fact that I always have hope is a good sign, and not, as I had imagined, an indication of my inability to learn from the past. Perhaps I can take heart that I go to a school where banal existential crises like these are indulged, at least to some extent.

Anyway. At least, I think I’ve found a New Year’s resolution I can fully embrace: no more new quarter resolutions.

— Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology.