Courtesy of Penguin Press

April 13, 2023

CHARI | “The Idiot,” “Campus” and Writing About the College Experience

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Over my spring break, I flew to visit my sister in Tempe, Arizona. While I knew my spring break wouldn’t be like those of many people I saw on Instagram, who all seemed to be vacationing in Cancun or Portugal, I was still excited to see a person I hadn’t seen in a long time. Plus, I had never been to that part of the country before. Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, had dry heat that was a welcome break from cold, wet Ithaca, and the landscapes were like nothing I’ve ever seen before: flat, arid sand dotted with cacti and palm trees. My sister is a grad student at Arizona State University, and she was still in school when I was on break. During her classes, I spent a lot of time wandering around ASU’s campus and pretending to be a student there. In many ways, ASU and Cornell are very different schools. But as I walked through the campus and listened to the students talk, I was struck by the similarity in the content and emotional tenor of conversations among the students.

It was the same feeling I felt when touring colleges back in high school. “When I saw [x college]’s campus, I just knew I had to go there,” someone would exclaim to me, to my utter confusion. To me, all colleges sort of looked the same. There were students walking around: some carefree, some visibly stressed. There were greedy squirrels, tour guides walking backwards and a quad of grass with some trees where students would sit with their friends. There was an amalgamation of buildings with seemingly no coherent architectural style. It was not the beauty of Ithaca that made me choose Cornell, at least in a love-at-first-sight way. I equally would’ve chosen Cornell if it looked like ASU. 

This is an art column, so let me get to my main point: Visiting ASU made me think of the universality of the college experience, which made me think about art and literature that featured the college campus. During my downtime last week, I read my sister’s copy of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which follows a Harvard freshman named Selin as she navigates college and her first experience with love. My sister first mentioned that The Idiot was really good back in 2019, but I had avoided it. I usually looked at novels and movies for escapism: It hit a little too close to home to be reading a saga about an indecisive, insecure Ivy League student stuck in the friendzone. Yet, reading it now, I was still struck by how rare it was for a coming-of-age story to be set in college and to perfectly encapsulate the ties to setting that are so specific to that period of one’s life. There is a perfect relatability to certain scenes in The Idiot, like when you’re starving after an exhausting day and the dining hall isn’t open, forcing you to buy overpriced food from the student store, or when you don’t prepare once for a language class you have every day and you are called on that day and embarrass yourself. None of these problems are life and death, of course, but they are things that deserve to be written about and related to.

I think there is a huge demand for realistic media set in college and a discussion of college themes in general. A few years ago, Vampire Weekend’s 2008 deep cut “Campus” blew up on Tik Tok. Students showed off their university campuses to the song’s audio. “Campus,” with the chorus “How am I supposed to pretend/ I never want to see you again?” is about a relationship with a person, but in the context of the Tiktoks, it could also be about yearning for the college itself. 

There has been lots of criticism leveled against shows like HBO’s Euphoria for gratuitous and potentially harmful depictions of high school and its underage students. However, I do think there is one thing about Euphoria that makes it quintessentially high school: It is a show about being stuck in old habits and wanting to escape and feeling claustrophobic when you can’t. It is a show about falling for the ex of your best friend, because there are no other options and you are forced to be around them. Meanwhile, the anxieties of The Idiot and other good college media are about its expansiveness: how you feel you must do everything and transform into a new person, how you feel guilty for being unhappy in what is supposed to be the best time of your life and how you feel that the people close to you may just disappear at any moment and be absorbed into other friend groups or other relationships. Of course, Harvard and Cornell are not most universities in the country, and they are overrepresented in most writing about college that there is. That is why it is even more important that a diverse range of college experiences are represented in the media. College is a time of self-actualization, mixed emotions and important relationships, and I hope to see these experiences written (and sung) about more in the future.

Ayesha Chari is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Column of One’s Own runs alternate weeks.