April 25, 2010

Eggheads Talking Shop

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During dinner last week, a few friends and I were having an enticingly fascinating conversation. We were discussing the differences between various majors at Cornell. More accurately, the conversation progressed with two chemical engineers and one mechanical engineer describing the lack of flexibility in their course enroll and the de facto policy that engineers do not (cannot) study abroad, in a somewhat defeated yet mildly proud tone. Though I chimed in that, as an ILR major, I must struggle to find an upper-level elective held on Friday or an off-campus internship I cannot receive credit for, my attempt at masked comic relief did little to brighten the conversation. As dinner turned into dessert, the discussed proceeded to talk of prelims and upcoming problem sets.

As the meal approached its completion, one of my friends said something that shocked and froze everyone mid-conversation: “Why is it that Cornell students are always talking about class?” As we all looked around trying to hide the combination of embarrassment and confusion, I wondered if the bold generalization was actually truthful. With a decent amount of pride and confidence, I told myself that although I surely fall victim to discussing class outside of class, it is not the topic of most of my daily conversations. Nevertheless, the assertion that conversation between Cornell students is dominated by talk of schoolwork seemed accurate and drove me to ponder possible explanations and examine whether this phenomenon is truly unique to Cornell students.

Is this truly a commonly occurring phenomenon or is it simply a fabricated trend? Some members of the Cornell community, possibly athletes, those in the Greek system or others, may claim that schoolwork and academically related issues do not dominate the topic of their conversations. While this may be true to an extent, having friends in both communities and in various different backgrounds around campus, I still find it reasonable to allege that schoolwork is the subject of the majority of conversation around campus. Do not take offense, I surely believe I talk about other things more than class (mainly women), but this phenomenon is seemingly a reality at Cornell nonetheless.

Possible explanation 1: When exploring what I have in common with most other Cornell students, regardless of year, major, gender, ethnicity, etc., I inevitably settle on academic challenges. Though all of us may participate in different social groups, almost everyone is here at Cornell to take classes and earn a degree. Essentially, academics, mainly class work and homework, serve as a common denominator between all students. This common denominator constitutes my first explanation, and admittedly the one I believe drives my tendency to discuss schoolwork outside the classroom as often as I do. Especially during conversation with people I am not close friends with, talking about class provides a relatively certain topic that we can all connect with.

Possible explanation 2: This explanation may hold true for some more than others, such as the engineers mentioned at the beginning of this article. Could it be that class and schoolwork simply dominate our lives and that is why it is seemingly always the topic of conversation? There are some students who spend the overwhelmingly majority of their days, weeks and semester studying or doing schoolwork. A simple glance into a library or stroll though Duffield Hall on a Friday night illustrates that some students truly dedicate themselves to academics. In terms of Cornell as a whole, however, I strongly deny that all students allow schoolwork to consume their existence. Nevertheless, the realistically overwhelming course load and continual pressure to succeed is a daily reality for us all. This likely contributes to the reason conversation is dominated by talk of academics for some students.

Possible explanation 3: This explanation is surely the most radical. Despite claims by the admissions council that Cornell seeks well-rounded individuals, what if Cornell students are actually rather dull, uninteresting and unexciting? Yes, we come from all 50 states and many different countries, but could there be an underlying blandness that drives us all to Ithaca?  In my opinion, it is highly unlikely. My main reason for including this possible explanation, despite its lack of universal application, is that I do think some students unfortunately fall into this distinction and are genuinely uninteresting. We can’t all be winners, right? Fortunately, I do consider most students at Cornell intriguing and believe that something else is driving our conversational habits.

Regardless of whether this phenomenon can be explained, the question remains whether it is unique to Cornell students. I believe, not really. As a transfer student, I can concede some evidence that not all schools share this same tendency as Cornell, at least not to the same degree. My previous university, however, was not as academically acclaimed or established as Cornell, which likely contributes to some of the difference. At other Ivy League universities, I assume conversational habits are very similar, if  not more dependent on academic discussion. Do I feel that our current situation is a problem or one that necessitates change? No, not really. Frankly, I never gave the issue much thought until it was raised during dinner. On the other hand, I will surely be making a greater effort to ensure my conversations avoid the subject of class work. Whether I will succeed, who knows … I’ve been thinking about my upcoming midterm the whole time I’ve been writing this article.

Original Author: Shaun Werbelow