April 4, 2014

Give auditing some credit

Auditing separates learning from the preprofessional context and perhaps reminds us why we came here in the first place.

This time last quarter I was blissfully unaware of both how freezing and hectic winter quarter would be. After a generally sunny fall quarter, ample free time to just hang out in Bartlett, and the opportunity to sign up for too many RSOs, I was naively optimistic about the next three months. In the first quarter of college, I had learned way more than I ever had in high school and had met some of the most interesting people I’d ever met. I couldn’t wait to take, if not hundreds, at least 30-ish more classes at UChicago. Inspired and excited by the new prospect of taking pretty much whatever courses I wanted in college, I dreamed of throwing caution to the gale-force winds when class registration opened.

And then I remembered the Core.

And graduating with, you know, a major.

So I signed up for Hum and Sosc, and resigned myself to a quarter of laboring through problem sets for Math 152. The arrival of my tuition bill prompted my quarterly existential crisis—was I putting the resources of the University to full use? Was I really getting my money’s worth? The fear that I wasn’t, combined with an opportune moment of extreme optimism, led to my signing up for a fifth class—chamber music.

The easiest part was e-mailing the professor before the quarter started, basically asking her to grade my papers and read my practice logs even though I a) wasn’t actually taking the class for a grade or credit, b) wasn’t majoring in music, and c) didn’t actually know anything about music theory. Surprisingly, she agreed. The hard part was actually lasting the quarter, making the trek to class each day through the polar vortices, writing essays for a class that would never end up on my transcript while trying to pass my finals in classes that would actually have a loud say in my success after college. I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider skipping class every week when I began the 1.2-mile trek from Stony Island to Logan for rehearsal in the dead of winter with my violin, which somehow turned into some sort of wind conductor whenever I tried crossing the Midway.

These days there is so much pressure  to choose a major that is “marketable” and start preprofessional training as early as possible, spending summers on intensive internships and joining whatever consulting groups will get you ahead after graduation. In this economy and job market with millions of qualified graduates, this emphasis makes a lot of sense. But it’s not unrealistic to dream of a situation in which you can take all the classes that will prepare you for your future and still try your hand at courses unrelated to your supremely employable triple major. That’s where auditing comes in. At literally no additional cost, you can learn about modern chamber music, or the traditionalist theory of human rights, or really anything.

That fact that I was “musically illiterate” (my high school violin teacher’s way of putting it) due to my lack of training in music theory didn’t matter. I wasn’t getting graded. And if I turned in a less than stellar final paper because I had a mock trial competition that weekend? That was OK, too—it would never show in my GPA. And on top of that, the class was actually a lot of fun. Whether we were listening to cool modern music or learning that the phrase “pass the goddamn butter” was a magic trick for handling polyrhythms, it wasn’t all 8 a.m. rehearsals and complex readings.

Auditing a class isn’t some sort of magical solution to all of your Core-related angst. It’s a lot of hard work. In my case, once I was in, there was no backing out without really letting my assigned Beethoven trio down. And even then, it was hard doing the readings knowing that there were no academic repercussions for not doing so. Many Friday mornings I talked myself in and out of sleeping in at the cost of submitting my weekly practice log. But even if quitting had been easier, I would have regretted it. I got myself up Friday mornings by telling myself why I signed up: to learn about music. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t getting credit—that wasn’t why I was doing this.

Getting good grades is important. Really important. But what’s more important is using the four short years of college to become the most multifaceted and learned version of yourself that you want to be. Though I can’t talk about mixed meter and atonality in any job interview, whenever I go to a concert I know how to better appreciate the orchestral cohesiveness. I also now know how to calm my own pre-performance nerves and put emotion into a work through physical movement. And those are skills which are important and valuable to me, and which I’m glad I have.

So if you feel stifled by the cold and the Core, and the warmer weather has made you opportunely optimistic, try enrolling in a Korean class, or one in feminist theory. It might even end up being a lot of fun.

Kiran Misra is a first-year in the College.