September 27, 2020

LIM | Learning Distance

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Like others I know, I arrived in Ithaca without definite housing plans beyond quarantine at a friend’s apartment. In those two weeks, my obsession with scrolling through Craigslist and Cornell University Housing for sublets and roommates grew to the extent that, after I’d already found a place, I invited a friend on a parallel search in New York City to send me pictures of what he was looking at to ease my withdrawal symptoms.

Even during (and perhaps especially because of) pandemic restrictions, constant possibility and endless choice deeply attract me. I get constant email reminders for time-conflicting book clubs and webinars I forgot I signed up for, with every newly advertised event still managing to seem impossibly enticing. One would assume that the changelessness of my four-walled life would teach me to be more selective about each new input I introduce into it.

This, to me, initially took the form of holding “all of Cornell” under militant scrutiny upon returning. I emerged from quarantine horrified by everything – people are small-minded, friendships are performative, how the heck did I subsist so entirely off those cardboard energy bars – as if the myopic frenzy that characterized my previous semesters could be entirely explained by Cornell’s campus environment. All of this, to be extinguished the moment I sat down with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in months to watch the haze-orange sun set on the slope. I changed my mind completely. I love everyone here. I miss everything and am so grateful to be back.

This unusual semester presents us many invitations to pick between familiarity and change. Superficially speaking, add-period is over and club recruitment offers us our next new set of decisions. But independent of these are personal and interpersonal options to replicate former semesters as closely as possible or to opportunistically design something intentionally different. My most immediate example of the latter is my freshman roommate, who opted to enroll in classes back home in Singapore and spend her spare time producing local nature-related documentaries. Another friend of mine is skipping out on this semester entirely to teach in a pod.

As much as I realize that being upperclassmen might incline us more readily toward distance from the institution we have already gained so much from, I think some combination of observing their arrangements and these new circumstances makes me realize that the way I would make the most of being in university is not the same as the way I had been making the most of being at Cornell.

One of the biggest differences relevant to decision-making is the incredible focus on identity in the latter, that doesn’t feel as salient in the former. It’s very hard to argue against being socially networked in a time like this – the more digestible version is that behavior really shifts when no one’s looking. The prevalence of social media usage gives me the sense that “no one looking” isn’t a universally attractive idea, but I think that in itself is proof. It suggests that over-participation in wide, semi-anonymous circles of people encourages a self-advertisement that, in an attempt to make ourselves knowable to others, translates, practices and soon solely recognizes a more concentrated, narrowed form of who we otherwise would be. This is a great resume skill. But siphoning out alternate ways of being is socially harmful in ways our economy doesn’t explicitly punish. With the intersection of shared experiences between people narrowing, empathy becomes understood more as a rehearsed, trainable ability and less of a natural, experience-based recognition of somebody else in us.

Perhaps a good balance between receptivity and selectivity is capitalizing on these unusual circumstances to make choices typically unusual to our conceptions of ourselves. This bodes well in a time when people outside of our Covid-selected circles grow more and more incomprehensible to us. I say this also noting that these cannot truly substitute chance encounters, conversations that open us to alternate worlds with an unpredictability I miss. Proximate reincarnations, like outgoing classmates filling technical downtime with sincere conversation, or breakout room discussions whose academic aims find more personal means, are sweet. But these are also necessarily structured in a way that restricts how unpredictable or expansive these pockets of conversation can truly become.

So perhaps the lack of true substitutes, both in this domain and elsewhere, points us again toward change. An unprecedented breadth of opportunities and resources have become virtually accessible in this pandemic season, possibilities we create barriers of entry to by over-involvement in what remains of campus life, in attempts to recreate a normal semester. I concede that some attempts by club leaderships have been impressive, and likely go a long way for those newer to Cornell. Past a certain point, nonetheless, this cannot be a normal semester, and I think that that is something to keep finding new ways to exploit.


Kristi Lim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Riskit Kristi runs every other Thursday this semester.