Before we were faced with the pandemic, many of us could not imagine that our responsibilities could become any more stressful. Ever since classes went online, I’ve felt that my sole goal has been to survive the classes I’m taking. In addition to being sleep-deprived and isolated, I’ve struggled to withstand the pressure of an already-hectic Princeton in the midst of the pandemic. As I longed for everything from easy access to peers to review material with to possessing a physical space as an outlet for my curiosity, I realized that I’d forgotten what it feels like to actually enjoy learning — and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
Zoom University has stripped the joy away from learning. We’ve been forced to decide between achieving academic success by interacting with class material beyond the surface level or finding the time, energy, and coping mechanisms for the obscene amount of stress and anxiety that awaits us in trying to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.
My recommendation is to pass/D/fail at least one class this semester: regardless of the grade at the end of the term, take the time to engage with what is actually being taught. Emerge in May being able to actively reflect on what you learned, and think about whether it changed your perspective, or even your desire, to pursue a subject even more or just abandon it.
After listening to a ridiculous amount of French pop music over the summer, I decided to take FRE 101: Introduction to French on an absolute whim. After 13 weeks of reading, writing, and speaking French — and watching a fair amount of English-subtitled French movies — I couldn’t be happier to have made that choice. However, I will admit there was a bit of an incentive for me to feel comfortable being as spontaneous as I was in deciding my class schedule, and that was the ability to PDF my classes.
Obviously, every student at Princeton has the ability to PDF a class here and there, but we are all painfully aware of the mere four PDF chances we get in our entire Princeton careers during normal circumstances. We are also usually only allowed to PDF classes that don’t fulfill a departmental requirement. While the pandemic has been devastating on a multitude of levels, I do think that having the unlimited PDF option has been greatly advantageous, an opportunity more people should seriously consider taking. Thus, I think there are two important things to think about as we approach midterms, and even with regard to fall semester next year.
First, learning is something that should be enjoyed. We’re students at Princeton due to our lifelong desire to learn. Given that a significant portion of our community actively chooses to pursue additional degrees, I believe it’s safe to conclude that this desire does not solely result from the idealism of having a successful career, but rather the inspiration we experience when allowed to expand our understanding beyond that of our current perception. We all share a continued drive to seek those feelings throughout our lifetimes.
Second, this is one of the only times in our lives in which we have the ability to pursue our interests without feeling as if we are wasting our time, energy, and money, or even feeling guilty for not pursuing something that would add to our resumes. College is intended to be an opportunity to explore beyond the expectations we have for our future careers. Don’t let your five-year plan dictate every minute of your life, especially during your undergraduate years.
In fact, many people have ended up changing their concentration after taking a class outside their planned career trajectory. I’m one of them. I entered into Princeton concentrating in molecular biology and am now concentrating in ecology and evolutionary biology. This semester, I’m PDF-ing ART 361: The Art & Archeology of Plague, purely based on my interest in paleo-epidemiology to ensure I can actually enjoy learning the material rather than be so invested in what it will reflect to potential graduate schools or future employers as a numerically based letter-grade.
Similarly, if the same PDF rules remain in the fall, consider taking a class purely out of interest or PDF-ing one of your current classes. We may be at Princeton to attain an undergraduate degree, but do not allow that to let you forget that there is an entire world of classes to choose from here that extend so far beyond your academic bubble.
At the end of the day, choosing to learn simply to learn is a form of self-respect and kindness. We have been through incredibly difficult circumstances in regard to having to adapt our academic and personal lives. Not only has the University maintained its reputation for academic rigor throughout this past year, but we too have done our best to uphold our own standards as scholars.
So seize the opportunity to take a break, remember what it’s like not to dread going to lecture or choose to sleep through it because you simply don’t care what is being covered, and send me a fun fact from a random class you took purely because the topic interested you.
Brigitte Harbers is a junior from New York, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.