There was this freshman girl in my section last semester. But she wasn’t just any girl. She decided to do what very few girls have dared to do in my 21 years of life so far: talk to me.
She asked me what my concentration was and why I was taking the class. She asked me about my house and my roommates. She asked me about my activities and my writing. And, after class and her flurry of questions, I opened up my laptop to find a Facebook friend request waiting…from her.
Now, at first glance, this encounter could be interpreted as a minor flirtation. But we must keep in mind that I haven’t really received any flirtations since the Great Day of Love: May 8, 2009. That day, at approximately 1:47 p.m., Milea picked up my pen after I dropped it and handed it back to me in Spanish class. Milea and I never really talked before or after that encounter, but I will never forget her slight smile as whispered the suggestive phrase, “I think you dropped your pen.”
It’s been a number of years since I’ve experienced anything like the Great Day of Love. In fact, it’s been so long that I’ve become naturally skeptical of the presence of romance in any encounter, especially at Harvard: the place where Google calendars get more facetime than lovers.
Plus, the freshman from section seemed to be having the same conversations with a lot of kids in the class. It was easy to tell it wasn’t personal.
I was confused. But then, a few weeks later, a very distant thought occurred to me: maybe, just maybe, she was trying to make friends in class.
Friends in class?
Sure, back in the day, the “AP kids” at my high school were pretty tight. We hung out a lot, and they were there to comfort me when the football jock shoved me into my locker, when the gym teacher shoved me into my locker, and when Milea shoved me into my locker.
But college is different. The classes don’t meet every day. The students are from differing class years. Class sizes, especially for freshmen, are big. And the unaccountable attendance makes it seems like there’s a new group of students at each lectures.
Even when these structural difficulties are reduced, it’s tough meeting people, especially in classes without “collaborative” problem sets. Freshman year, I took two freshman seminars. There’s potential in that setting: small class size, all freshmen, professors that care about campus life, regular debate, and sharing of ideas. One of the seminars was even held in the quad, forcing us to take the shuttle back to the Yard together. Perfect!
But, after class, we’d sit in the shuttle, on our phones, pretending everyone else smelled bad. Then, the bus would park and we’d part ways.
I don’t know exactly what’s going on here. But it’s concerning.
Pretty often, I’ll hear a comment to this effect: “It’s impossible to make friends unless you like who you live with or you join a club.” I don’t think that sentiment is true, but the fact that it gets said implies there’s a problem. And there’s another something else that’s even more troubling: Loneliness, the real loneliness of having many people around and many things to do but no one to really be with, is a well-documented phenomenon on this campus.
To create a more tight-knit and less lonely community, let’s start at the place where stress looms large and friends are lacking: our classrooms.
In medium and small-sized classes, professors can make a better effort to learn student names, to develop not-purely-academic relationships with students, and to hold gatherings where people can talk about their lives, rather than just 13th-century Siberian poetry.
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