November 5, 2013

ELIOT: Facing Your Own Mortality on Student Center

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A few nights ago, I was ice climbing in Austria (bear with me for a minute). Everything seemed to being going pretty well, but then, as in most ice climbing stories that you read about in the Cornell Daily Sun, something went wrong. My partner and I were scaling the face of the ice wall simultaneously using a team belay system. Unfortunately, because of climate change, the ice was softer than we anticipated and one of the bolts that we used to secure our ropes dislodged itself from the ice face, and we began to fall.

Probably the most relieving part of this story is that it was a dream. I fell, but it was out of my bed. Embarassing? Yeah, but at least I didn’t have to plummet to my death in the icy alps along the Tyrolean-Italian border to face my own mortality. I really like the Buddhist approach of “living in the present,” so I try and face my mortality at least once every few months (side note: riding a shopping cart down Williams might sound like a really good idea, but it actually isn’t). This particular instance comes at a very good time – pre-enroll. A time when you take stock of what is important in your (academic) life and choose what you are doing with your (academic) future.

Everyone has been told at least once in their lives that they are not their GPA, yet many students (myself included) are guilty of not just projecting what their GPA for the semester will be but also electing to take or not take a class because it has a reputation for being easy. Students, particularly at Cornell, seem to be drawn to higher grades than they are to the actual learning that those grades may represent — this is an issue.

An analogy outlined by Ahmed Afzaal, a comparative religion professor at Concordia College, eloquently illustrates the problem. He says that grades should be looked at as a tool similar to the speedometer of a car. A speedometer measures the speed of a car and communicates it to the driver. Similarly, grades measure academic performance and then communicate the level of performance to the student. When you drive a car, you glance at the speedometer regularly and adjust how much pressure you are putting on the accelerator or brake — you do not stare at the speedometer the whole time. Additionally, the point of driving a car is to arrive at a destination. It isn’t achieving and maintaining some high speed — just like your primary goal in education is to be educated, not to earn high grades.

During pre-enroll every student gets to choose what classes he or she will take in the coming semester and has to take stock of what interests him or her and what other courses he or she will be taking. A lot of students, however, add a third factor to the mix: what grade will he or she get in the course.

When selecting your courses this pre-enroll try to think like you would during high school. Maybe don’t ruthlessly make fun of everyone around you, but approach the process with that terrific sense of entitlement that teenagers have. What do you want to do? That’s what matters. If a class on nuclear fusion or art history of the modern era looks interesting to you, take it. I won’t say that grades don’t matter — they do — but what grade you get in a course is secondary to your actual learning. Are you going to leave the class with knowledge that you wouldn’t have had before?

Actually falling while ice climbing and surviving would undoubtedly change the way I approach the world. I once heard someone who survived a plane crash say, “I only save bad wine.” That is to say, if the opportunity for something presents itself, and there is nothing standing in your way, there is no reason at all to put it off. It goes beyond the normal bucket list stuff like skydiving, learning German or going to a cock fight in Puerto Rico. Sure, I’m obviously going to go to a cock fight if the opportunity presents itself because my distaste for animal cruelty is outweighed by my affinity for gambling in other languages. But the bucket list and slamming bottles of nice wine are simply examples of taking full advantage of what you are presented with.

At Cornell you are presented with incredible opportunities to learn from incredibly accomplished instructors in great facilities surrounded by (hopefully) intelligent and motivated peers. I’m not saying that Cornell is all about learning; we all know that a large part of the experience comes from … other outlets. And I’m not saying that taking easy classes is a cop-out. I simply think that it is important to take classes because you want to take them rather than because you think you can succeed in them. So please stop posting in the Cornell Class of 2015 group about easy classes to fill out your distribution or liberal arts requirements. I promise there are classes out there that you’ll actually enjoy.

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