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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Dear Freshman

<rleton’s high retention rate (97%), it’s pretty evident that Carls are satisfied with their school.”

“35% of students have seriously considered leaving Carleton College.”
-Carleton Campus Climate Survey, 2008

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Hello, freshman. Welcome to Carleton. Unless you are a sociopath, you’re probably a little anxious.

I want to tell you what I wish someone had told me, because after four terms at Carleton, I got so frustrated that I essentially stopped doing work. When this manifested on my transcript, they gave me a two-term suspension.

As an applicant, you had impressive grades, extracurriculars and/or SATs. But you’re a Carleton student because underneath that, you genuinely enjoy intellectual freedom.

In theory, this lets us keep each other, and the institution, as honest as possible. In practice, it doesn’t always show. Class discussions are stagnant, circular or one-sided. Student government can’t seem to change worthless school policy. Many of us do half-assed work. Worst of all, we feign happiness. We settle into cliques, and before long, the rest of Carleton starts to look nauseatingly homogenous, but we keep on smiling because this is the Midwest and angst is for cowards.

If you ever encounter this, here are some things to remember.

1. Class discussions are up to you.

Even when you’re unprepared, or chemically inconvenienced (tired, hungry, horny, hungover, high, etc), your ideas matter (remember that shitty work-study job.)

Carleton does not hire faculty primarily for their people skills. I think our professors still deserve their #1 ranking – they’re generally brilliant, accessible, and caring – but they can’t really understand you. Of course, this is not their fault. I don’t even understand you. You were six years old when the Internet happened. You’ve probably been sexting since middle school. The important thing is that you understand each other, and you can keep each other in check.

In class, someone will often dominate discussion. It will be tempting to hate this person, but do not be intimidated by his vocabulary (face it boys, it’s usually you); your silence is the only reason he thinks it’s cool to spend ten minutes on the latest opinion The Huffington Post has given him license to abuse.

It’s not as easy as it sounds – most of us are awkward – but if you have a valid insight, another smart, awkward person will probably respond to it.

2. You are what you write.

This is why Carleton pesters us with writing requirements, but unfortunately, ugly hurdles like portfolios can obscure a much uglier truth: Every paper you bullshit is a tiny act of suicide.

If you’re lazy (like me) or busy (like most people), it will often seem necessary to shut off your conscience the night before a deadline and defile “Politics and the English Language” for six hours straight. It’s not. If you don’t have enough time, swallow your pride and ask for an extension. Most professors would rather wait an extra day than read five pages of nonsense, and besides, this behavior will hurt you in the long run. As a self-respecting liberal arts student, you probably don’t have a major picked out yet. How can you expect to do this without giving any subject real attention?

One of my biggest mistakes was majoring in science, and I did it partly because I hated the insincerity I was getting away with in social science and humanities. (It earned me B’s; you might get A’s or C’s – it doesn’t matter. It’s not worth it.)

3. The right major will feel the least like work.

I truly hope you don’t get suspended, but it forced me to discover what my real passions were, and who my real friends were. Carleton has some incredibly genuine students (for starters, get to know the people at Dacie Moses and Crack House); one of them gave me some of the best advice I can give you: Forget about your diploma and do what you love.

I had avoided CAMS entirely because a lot of people called it a joke; it’s become the only department where I’m able to work shamelessly hard.

4. Carleton politics are more accessible than you think.

When school policies seem hypocritical, talk to CSA, or go straight to administration. If you don’t get answers, write a Viewpoint for the Carletonian, a blog post for the Daily Knight, or yes, a CLAP article. People read this shit. President Oden used to, and if Poskanzer wants our respect, he’ll be doing the same.

Finally, I invite you to participate in this column. If you have a gripe, a concern, or a joy to share about Carleton – or about my writing – I would love to publish it. Talk to me, email me, or drop a note anonymously in my mailbox (#122).

In 1975, my parents stepped onto campus. They had a storybook liberal arts experience, and still claim that Carleton taught them how to think.

For me, this was a massive personal inconvenience. By the time I was born, they’d become committed to social justice. My mom dragged me along to do community organizing in Chicago, live with a commune in New York, protest US weapons testing in Puerto Rico, and visit political prisoners across the country.

She worked for the United Church of Christ, which is a lot like Carleton – white, liberal, and susceptible to poor business ethics. In high school, I watched them fire her for speaking out against institutional racism.

Carleton tried to do something like this in 1974.

My parents heard about Professor Wellstone, but during their time here, they never bothered to meet him. My mom was invested in Chapel functions and studying; Dad was content with Biology/football/rugby/the Rueb.

You can do your best to enjoy the Northfield bubble. But the world is far messier than academia. No matter what classes you take, one of the most important things you can learn here is to question authority.

If you see something wrong with Carleton, chances are you’re not alone. Thirty years ago, 94% of the student body stood up for Paul Wellstone because the admissions office knew what it was doing.

This hasn’t changed.

When I saw Carleton bragging about diversity and sustainability without being honest about the economics behind them, I gave in to cynicism. No one seemed to care that the school was preaching intellectual curiosity while condoning intellectual laziness. But in reality, Carleton students rarely reject an opportunity to think. That’s why our most fiercely beloved campus publication is the only one that never censors, and it’s probably why our Quiz Bowl team beats Harvard, which brings me to my parting advice.

Never stop giving people chances to impress you. When they seem disingenuous – and at some point, they will – cut them a break. That Chinese kid who never talks to anyone is a long way from home. That hipster who won’t shut up about his radio show just left behind a cherished music scene. That cocky freshman suspects that he only got in on football, and that angry CLAP writer might be a dirty legacy kid. It takes some effort, but I already sense that you can do it.

The truth is, you have everything in common with the person sitting next to you in class. If you were alive in Poland in 1940, or Pakistan in 1971, or Cambodia, 1976, you might have died together.

You’re an intellectual. Be proud. Don’t reduce yourself, or your peers, to what clothes you wear, what bands you hate, or what substances you ingest. You have too much to lose.

-Hannah Watson is a Carletonian Columnist

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