Two Fried Eggs

“Two fried eggs, toast, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice,” I said, looking around at the rest of my FroCo group. Their faces, blank at first, twisted into masks of confusion. After a pause, someone barked, “Really? That’s it? If you could have anything, it’d be. . . breakfast?” The question had been simple enough: If you could have just one more meal, what would you want to eat? Others had answered with descriptions of meals as detailed as they were extravagant — responses that made mine appear plain by comparison. Even so, my answer was anything but a dismissal. It was the truth, an answer I had considered many times over: Besides the fact that I do love breakfast, the reason I answered so plainly is that I know that sometimes it’s better to choose simply and decisively something that you know will make you happy rather than aspiring to attain what would make you happiest — a state whose very existence rests on a foundation of elusiveness, of unknowability. This notion holds true not only as an abstract principle, or as answer to an ice-breaker, but also as an approach to something we’ve all finally just finished: Shopping Period. I wish I could say I applied, or have ever applied, the same logic to shopping classes as I did to my hypothetical last meal. But I didn’t, and I still don’t: Instead of choosing four or five classes and sticking to them, I usually spend two weeks sitting in on every course I can, leaving myself with the simply impossible task of keeping up with the work for six, seven, even eight classes at once. I’m not alone. Advertised as a time for students to ease into the semester while finding the classes they like best, Shopping Period does just the opposite. It is a counterproductive system that generates more anxiety than confidence.

From zazzle.com

My delusion — a delusion shared by many of my classmates, not to mention also furthered by Yale, itself, as evinced by the very existence of Shopping Period — has been that the course schedule that leaves one most satisfied is also the one that comes from trying out the most possible classes. This false conclusion is informed by two assumptions: that the best decisions are made after considering the most options; and more specifically, that the first two or three meetings of a course allow one to make an educated assessment of its value.

Beginning with the first assumption, we may look to the writing of American psychologist Barry Schwartz for a dissection of the faulty truism that describes the consumer with the most choices as the one who will make the optimal decision. In short, Schwartz argues in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, that this assumption is a fallacy; that, for many, instead of leading to some satisfaction, the system in which one is encouraged to sample a multitude of options before settling on a decision can engender, “endless tangles of anxiety, regret, and second-guessing.” Here at Yale, the issue isn’t simply the fact that we have so many courses from which to choose, but that we’re able to dip our toes into each — a process that creates the illusion of rationality, but often just leaves the student feverishly pursuing some ideal schedule that doesn’t exist.

And even if this perfect schedule did exist, who’s to say that the first few meetings of a course constitute an accurate valuation of its place in this idealized semester? In fact, as students leave fifteen minutes into a two-hour seminar and others enter an hour late (all part of Shopping Period’s standard operating procedure) many professors have learned to dread the semester’s inaugural two weeks of hell, too — and plan accordingly. As one history professor begrudgingly told the thirty undergrads assembled for the first meeting of his seminar, “I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: We hate Shopping Period as much as you all do,” and proceeded to spend the rest of the class explaining why one may want to take the course rather than showing the students what they could expect from every other meeting: historical and textual analysis, discussion.

Built on such dubious assumptions, Shopping Period necessarily spawns controversy. Yet perhaps even more sinister than an overabundance of choices is our infatuation with describing our education in increasingly commercial terms. As one residential college dean wrote in a recent email to the entire college, “Shopping Period is ending, so get those final selections into your cart and make your way to the register.” To describe courses, as this residential college dean continues to do, as “shiny toys” is to suggest that the purpose of these very vehicles of education is not the broadening of the mind, nor the deepening of the intellect, but rather the fulfilling of requirements, the checking of boxes. The culture of shopping and the commodification of our time at Yale even extends to extracurriculars — even to campus activism: How many social justice groups have you or your friends signed up for, yet done next to nothing to support?

We take classes to fulfill our major, sing to round out our resumes; we even protest to feel more planted within our community. Yet four years later, with very few exceptions, we’re gone. This is no way to go through Yale, no way to engender reform in this beautiful city we are lucky to call home; and it is, really, no way to go through life at all. In the face of an institution that would tempt us into choosing breadth, not depth, it is then up to us to reject this system. And it all starts again next semester, so say it with me: Fuck shopping. Let’s just choose a few classes we love and forget about the seminar we missed. Let’s choose breakfast.

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