October 29, 2013

Great expectations

Students should shift their focus from existing prejudices to open-minded exploration to get the most out of their four years.

It doesn’t take a jaded fourth-year to tell you that UChicago isn’t what it looks like in brochures, nor does it take a shell-shocked first year to tell you that UChicago isn’t what she expected. We form, almost accidentally, expectations for our time here—expectations that are rarely more than partially correct.

I started out with an image of this school that was contradictory in its definition and unrealistic in its execution. The University of Chicago was an ideal in every sense: It was where fun might or might not go to die, where discussions of Marx usurped frat parties and students strode along cobbled paths between neo-Gothic buildings covered with ivy. Populated by mature, engaging, welcoming, and peculiar individuals who somehow had both stellar grades and free time, it was just about perfect.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the wisest thing anyone said to me in the college lead-up came from my elderly French horn teacher. After actually recognizing the school name and offering his congratulations, he said, “College is a lot of fun. But there are going to be days when you’re miserable, and you’ll want to quit. That’s part of it.” I don’t believe he meant that college is miserable—far from it. But he recognized the depth and variety of emotion I would experience as I adjusted to campus life—a recognition that my expectations lacked.

Acclimating to the true nuances of campus life was something of a jolt. Already struggling to cope with new social bonds and academic goals, I found that my expectations were tethering me to a vision of a school that didn’t really exist. Fixated on that image, I was missing the actual school going on all around me.

Now, as the year has really gotten started, I’ve realized that my initial expectations weren’t completely wrong. Sure, my former naïveté is bewildering in hindsight, but with the dizzying amount of lead-up in the last months and years, I’m not surprised that my perceptions were so incomplete.

The admissions office employs a staff of over three dozen individuals to find and recruit the incoming class of students. They send out, as anyone who’s ever applied to college knows, a colossal amount of mail touting the advantages of this particular school. The image they create is a top-down version of the University of Chicago as it would like to be, Gothic font and all. Add to this the masses of opinionated people on the Internet, actual students, and anyone even indirectly affiliated with the College, and you have more definitions of the school than anyone can process.

So then, if incorrect expectations are unavoidable, how can the jolt of starting over in a place that wasn’t what you expected be minimized? How can tethering yourself to a set outlook be avoided? The answer, I think, lies in something that is both intrinsic and opposite to the UChicago spirit: suspension of judgment.

For the sake of intellectual inquiry, we’re asked to put aside our prejudices and look directly at the information in front of us, whether that’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses or a new advanced calculus proof. We are expected, essentially, to approach our education like a scientific experiment, forming judgments from observation instead of the other way around.

On the other hand, or perhaps further on the same one, it’s not hard to find a prominent vein of cynicism amongst the student body. Asked by an older student during second week what I thought of the school, I responded that I liked it so far. The third-year laughed and replied darkly, “That’s what I thought too.” There’s no denying that the Chicago academic system is rigorous, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but when we build from an assumption of dissatisfaction, we interpret our experiences more negatively than is necessary.

Expectations, ultimately, can never be wholly correct, and maybe we’re better off not defining the future at all. Unless we want to limit our experience to the narrow confines of our own minds, we need to suspend judgment and take things as they come. Even with O-Week over and midterms already fading, that reminder still holds value. I can’t deny that I’ve already formed expectations for my remaining 11 quarters. But at least I’ve given up on pretending that my expectations have any bearing on what shape the future will take.

Ellen Wiese is a first-year in the College.