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Bored at Harvard


By Courtney A. Fiske

It was Friday night, and I was bored. Epically, epochally, brain-numbingly bored. The semester had arrived at its predictable post-midterm lull—that moment where Mondays begin to bleed into Tuesdays and seep back into Sunday evenings. The week had passed without incident, marked by unmemorable meals and abortive afternoon naps: a tiresome blah blah blah of classes, caffeine, and computer screens. Nothing had happened, so to speak—and now that the weekend had come, that was what I desperately needed: something, anything, not beholden to tedious routine.

Boredom at Harvard comes in several varieties, ranging from the relatively benign to the intensely anxious. There is weekend-night boredom, fueled by Harvard’s oft—and, of late, much maligned—lack of enticing social options. This generally devolves into a late-night common-room-futon situation, involving several people sandwiched on a Pabst Blue Ribbon-scented surface, or ends early with resignation to Hulu. Next comes weekday-night boredom, inspired by a concatenation of too much work, too little will, and an absence of outlets for procrastination. These are the times one ventures to Lamont only to leave two-hours later, tepid beverage and scattered sentences of tomorrow’s assignment in tow. Freshman-fall boredom hits first and hardest: the consequence of vast swaths of unstructured time and few structured activities with which to fill it. Initial overzealous commitment yields to desubscribed Listservs and dropped comps—around the same time that free food stops accompanying every meeting.

Thanks to the Internet, and the advent of anonymous comment threads, the vagaries of boredom at Harvard have congealed into a veritable archive. Bored at Lamont began the litany in November 2007; five months later, it had amassed an incredible 170,000 posts. Now distinctly démodé, in its heyday, the site boasted an unrivaled ability to channel undergraduate angst—which veered, oddly enough, toward the kinky. A catalog of sexual privation on campus, Bored at Lamont inspired an outpouring of commentary–sometimes sardonic, but often desperate—on sex at Harvard, and the lack thereof. Contemporary incarnations, such as Harvard FML and I Saw You Harvard, provide less salacious (read: moderated) venues for listless students to meditate on unsated lust, generally in the form of an impossible crush or happenstance dining hall encounter. Boredom and its bedfellow, procrastination, again arc toward libidinal frustration and fantasizing.

This emotional amalgam—boredom, a penchant for putting-off, and a preoccupation with sex—seems to sum not only much of the Harvard undergraduate experience, but modern existence writ large. That the latter two attend modernity borders on truism, as five minutes spent online—that most modern of phenomena—readily proves. Facebook and YouTube (procrastination tools par excellence) are among the web’s top-three most visited sites, while porn constitutes 37 percent of all Internet content, according to a recent report.  If porn is considered a niche form of procrastination, it’s no wonder that the latter is on the rise: According to Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who professed to perpetually putting things off quadrupled between 1978 and 2002.

Boredom proves more difficult to parse. Derived from the Biblical acedia and the French ennui, the term appeared in the latter half of the 19th century to connote an abiding, all-over malaise. Its debut coincided with the Industrial Revolution: a technological effervescence that supplanted natural temporal rhythms with mechanized, clock-based time. Displaced from nature and the self to the automated object, time emptied of content. Distinct from work, leisure was something to be “filled” in advance, lest boredom—an unsettling encounter with time as vacant and void—ensue. The endless, discrete tickings of the clock became a sort of synecdochal tag for the unbearable homogeneity of modern existence.

This, admittedly, is a bleak picture. Boredom, however, is a bleak emotion—one that our constant-entertainment culture seems explicitly engineered to avoid. If being bored means not being interested, and being interested means simply not being bored, this ready reversibility raises a troubling existential question: is anything really worth doing, or is it all just an elaborate distraction designed to keep boredom at bay?

Friday nights at Harvard probably won’t get more exciting any time soon, UC Task Forces and anti-Final Club Campaigns notwithstanding. What, then, is the solution to being Bored at Harvard? Four Loko study breaks? January term programming? Orgies in Lamont of the actual, rather than merely digital, variety? Snarkiness aside, perhaps Harvard students simply need to endure the occasional eventless evening as part and parcel of life under the Crimson. If boredom is, after all, a symptom of modernity, we might as well accept that being bored is here to stay.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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