January 31, 2023

BEARD | Class in Session 

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Picture your run-of-the-mill introductory course in any major at Cornell. It could be engineering, it could be business or it may be a different major but the scene looks the same. An old lecture hall, a sea of faces and hundreds of laptops open without a single ear tuned into what the professor has to say. Many of you have experienced this almost like it’s a rite of passage of sorts for beleaguered underclassmen. In three years, I’ve been lucky to avoid this fate for the most part. This semester, however, the intro course death by powerpoint has found me at last. Its name: Economics 2300.

I must confess I spent the first two classes thoroughly unenthused, mimicking my disinterested peers head down in my computer. It was by no fault of the professor, either. You could have had an a-list celebrity teaching international trade but regardless, demand and supply curves will still be boring. In class three, though, something happened that gave me pause. It was simple, yet it was inspiring all the same.

From about a row back and two seats to the left of me, a kid asked a question. A hand goes up and words come out. We’ve all been asking questions in this manner since grade school. You must remember, however, we’re not talking about your third grade math class. This is an hour and fifteen minute snoozefest replete with graphs, symbols and about 300+ people as equally uninterested as economics is boring. 

Despite the inertia against engagement in this economics class, one brave soul fought back. They raised their hand, asked a question and demanded to understand the material rather than going the easy route. As for the rest of us, we all craned our necks and turned to gaze at this brave soul, on the hot seat in front of so many peers. Truth be told, even the professor seemed shocked. It wasn’t every day that he heard a voice other than his own in lecture. 

I heard someone near me say something along the lines of “I wish they’d just be quiet.” My classmates were perturbed by this obvious interruption of protocol. I was inspired. Here was someone making the most of their education. Intro class be damned, they were going to have their questions answered. I think, in this example, there’s a lesson for all of us: We could all stand to make like my classmate and take a little bit of ownership over our education.

There are over 4,000 classes offered to us students at Cornell. There are classes on wines, bee-keeping, political violence and every ancient civilization imaginable. Why on earth do we always seem to confine ourselves to classes that we wouldn’t even be interested enough to raise our hands and brave a question. Sure, in the case of my relationship with ECON 2300, the answer to my question is easy. It’s a requirement of my minor. In many cases, that answer is enough for why we take the classes that we do. After all, there needs to be a degree at the end of that four year tunnel. Cornell doesn’t give a fifth year discount. 

At the same time though, the cost of a degree could also be measured in time — 120 credit hours in total. Most majors take up about 40-60 hours. That leaves many students with 60-80 credit hours of academic freedom in their schedule. Time and space that you could squeeze in a class on bee-keeping, or philosophy or whatever your interests are. 4,000 classes and the odds are at least one of them will make you want to ask a question. 

So, from now on, I’ll face my classes akin to that nameless classmate —shameless, curious, and in tune with what they have to offer. I’m going to be proactive, search out classes I like and ask questions when I want to. We should all do that. Of course there will be classes you don’t like that you still have to take. Even then, though, do yourself the courtesy of putting your phone down — you’ll never know what you may find interesting if you pay attention. Four years for an education is four years you wouldn’t want to waste buried in your laptop in the midst of a class you couldn’t care less about. 

Brenner Beard ‘24 is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Agree to Disagree runs every other Tuesday this semester.