Even worse than these minor money-wasters, however, is a neatly gift-wrapped reminder of having disappointed your parents. My mom presented me with such a gift in the summer of 2001. It was a book. A book called Making the Most of College and she did not actually gift wrap it.
It’s not that the book is bad. It’s just that my mother gave it to me after my first year of college, after I had clearly, in her eyes, failed to make the most of anything. Unless you count the fact that I made the most of the number of 9 a.m. French A classes I could sleep through without the teacher forgetting my name.
Needless to say, I was less than enticed to read it. But now, in the bizarre introspection that spring semester of one’s senior year engenders, I picked the book up for the first time.
The author is a genial man named Richard J. Light, the Walter H. Gale Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education. He is a cheerleader masquerading as a statistician, and the tone of his book began to convince me that maybe all was not lost. I could still Make the Most of something. But of what? And what does that even mean? According to Light it’s somewhere between getting your money’s worth out of the academic experience and being personally happy. In his surveys he asks people to rate both academic and personal happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Making the Most, it would seem, means to score a 20.
The book itself scored pretty highly for Light and Harvard University Press (HUP). It has sold more than 90,000 copies since it was published in March of 2001—strong figures for an academic press, according to Kathy Duffy, a sales representative at Harvard University Press. I mentioned the book to at least a dozen people and everyone who graduated from high school after it was published had heard of it. Many had received it as a graduation gift from their mother/father/high school forensics coach. Several had picked it up on their own per the recommendation of Harvard orientation materials. It was unclear how many people had actually read it.
Which is where this little venture comes in.
Richard Light is perhaps the best possible person you could meet your first week in college. Constantly smiling, deferential without actually ceding the floor, he has more concern about the happiness of the chronically unhappy college student than perhaps anyone who is not running for a leadership position in a student council. He is complimentary about the most basic things—as if tying one’s shoelaces were something to be quite proud of. One of his first tips to students was that it’s very important to make an appointment before going to see a professor. I had made an appointment to see him. And my shoes were tied. I was on the right track here.
I explained my idea to him—I would take the recommendations in his book and try to apply them in a very short period of time. He did not take offense or say it was ridiculous. Instead, he helped me solidify my plans, which basically entailed him agreeing with the fact that everything he had written in his book was good advice.
The book weaves extensive testimony from surveys of Harvard students (all anonymous) with overall statistical analysis. Light’s intention is to situate his policy suggestions within candid accounts of student experience. He explores three major themes: academic success, how extra-curricular involvement affects happiness and the often-confusing way diversity works in both academic and extra-curricular contexts. College is not paint-by-numbers, of course, and Light’s book doesn’t pretend to prescribe a singular path to success. It does, however, include enough specific examples from student interviews that I could cobble together a roster of activities from the book for my two-week blitz. I would try and do everything specifically mentioned in the book and then improvise when only broad categories (i.e. athletics=happiness) were listed.
That was my plan. I was ready to optimize.
The (not quite) 10,000 happiest men (and women) of Harvard?
One of the most vivid examples of extra-curricular success in the book is used to illustrate the suggestion that “advisors should encourage students from their very first days on campus to find a group to join.” Light tells the story of a student who felt overwhelmed by the adjustment to college. Her adviser told his young charge that even though she couldn’t play an instrument, she should try out for the Harvard Band. “Just tell them you want to hold the drum,” he said.
So, true to heartwarming form of most of the anecdotes included in the text, the girl did sign up to hold the drum. She reported that joining the Harvard Band was the “single event critical for keeping her here.”
After reading the particular pro-Harvard Band passage in Light’s book, I decided I wanted to hold the drum too. I e-mailed Matthew H. Katcher ’05, the manager of the band. Unfortunately, he told me, Bertha—the 6-foot tall drum I’d been hoping for—would not be making an appearance until commencement. Instead, Katcher graciously invited me to play percussion with the band in an upcoming performance. He said I could play a bass drum, but Mindy E. Snitow ’06, the percussion section leader, suggested the cymbals. I think she called them “safer.”
In the band room, the world’s largest playable tuba stands guard in a corner behind the foosball table, taking up the entire height of the room. Katcher explains that there’s a larger tuba somewhere in Eastern Europe, but it’s in a museum, so this tuba gets the “largest playable” title. They play it every five years or so at band reunions. The band room, like many other student organizations, is decorated with aging, inside-joke ephemera and pilfered street signs. There’s a television and a soda machine (“the cheapest coke machine on campus,” Katcher notes—a soda costs $.50).
One of the most important things that the band room underscores—and that Light’s book sort of ignores—is the idea of a physical space as important to reporting a feeling of happiness (or a high grade on the 1-10 personal happiness scale).
Band members say they often just come down to the room to hang out. When percussion sectional rehearsal ends on Wednesday night, a small crowd trickles in to say hello. Within about 10 seconds people are playing foosball.
It’s fairly obvious that the feeling of community that students report as so important in “making the most” of college has something to do with, quite literally, having a communal space to call one’s own.
The news that Light’s book contains a glowing anecdote about band does not surprise anyone milling around in the band room in the basement of the Office of the Arts building on Mt. Auburn St. a few minutes before noon on a Saturday. It is pre-frosh weekend and a modest number of “bandies”—member of the band—have showed up to play in front of Byerly Hall in the hopes of getting some new blood.
Matthew C. Dewitz ’05, currently the drum major, explains that he joined the band after talking with a fellow flautist during his freshman week. “When you come and audition they just grab you because you get a jacket right away,” he says. “The social machine starts working immediately.” I look admiringly at the maroon band jacket that I am wearing.
Dewitz comped the Crimson briefly, but left it for the band room. On hearing that I’m writing this story for FM, he says: “We have a sympathy in spirit—like the over the topness.”
The bandies have a brief discussion of Guys and Dolls, the Cabot House musical. Someone points out that they dressed the missionaries in band jackets and everyone laughs. Band members talk a lot about how social the experience is—and being social seems to involve many activities contrary to what the Guys and Dolls missionaries were preaching. “We’re missionaries of music,” someone offers.
The only setback to playing the cymbals is that it takes two hands. I can’t take notes. And I’m so nervous that I can’t fully absorb the experience. I could be missing some crucial togetherness and community that making a unified sound creates, unity that transcends the loneliness and competition of college. But I am not unified. I am a beat behind and I keep missing notes. A bass drum player arrives late and squeezes in next to me in the concert shell (technical term for the vague semi-circle we are standing in). He was not at the sectional rehearsal I attended earlier that week and may or may not know what I am doing there. At one point I stand too close to him and his mallet hits my cymbal. He scowls a bit. I move back, sideways in the shell. All I can look at are the cymbals that first cymbalist Alisha Creel ’02, a local alum, is playing. They are, unfortunately, crashing just before mine do.
On the Garden Street side lawn of Byerly Hall the hordes of eager pre-frosh that Katcher and his companions were hoping for don’t arrive. There are a few young families, some little girls spinning around to “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” and it occurs to me, happily, that they can’t tell that this is the first time I’ve ever warn this spiffy maroon jacket and tie.
At one point Joshua H. Rissmiller ’06, the student conductor, leaves his perch on a bench to warn me to be careful with the big cymbal crashes on a song called “Veritas.” I sit out the first round and then, feeling confident, go for a big crash when I see Creel ready to lean forward into one. I stop to congratulate myself on this triumphant sound—and promptly miss several more crashes. At this point, even the sundress-clad toddlers may suspect I am faking it.
After the Byerly Hall show someone decides that we should march through the Yard. Some bandies start to grouse. I guess not everyone is as totally, freakishly elated to be in a band uniform as I am. They, after all, probably wore theirs all football season. But the point was to play for pre-frosh, to recruit for next year, and so a Yard-jaunt seems reasonable. I have a stupid grin on my face the whole time. We play “10,000 Men of Harvard” which involves singing in both Latin and English. I am singing in Latin while banging cymbals while marching past the John Harvard statue while wearing a maroon blazer.
I give the day a 10.