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Carlina Duan: The syllabus isn't enough

By Carlina Duan, Columnist
Published June 11, 2014

A couple bikes past my window, lollipops jangling in their mouths. It’s summer-gray in Michigan, and the wind carries tiny puffs of dandelion past fluorescent lights, past baskets of cherries, past the blue recycle bins hunkered on East Washington Street. I feel as if it’s going to rain. The air is tight, and the wind — tighter, brushing my lip dry. Cars flip past. Dogs shout. A man holds another man’s hand. I press my wrist to the glass, willing everything to stay.

Recently, everything has been reminding me of departure. I’m graduating in one year, and as each day pumps by, I want to get out of this city, with its plastic packages of tea and women in thick wedge heels. I lift my face and clouds roll, mosquitoes spark. Friends I love graduate, go away for the summers, don’t come back. Friends I love get sick. My family sleeps in their green-shuttered house. My mother plants gardenias on the back porch, and their petals light up in the heat — shy, white muscles lifting their frills to meet grass. I get restless, caught up in a sleeve of undergraduate worry and panic. I eat grapefruit and spend my money on cheap comics and sticks of mint gum.

I feel like an imminent flunk.

Recently, at work, I was asked why I chose to study English in college. “What do you want to do with that?” a co-worker asked politely, biting the square of her lip. It’s a question most of us have been asked repeatedly, regardless of our field.

Yet despite three years of intensive study in literature and language, I still have no idea. I want to do handstands. I want to make postcards. I want to touch diamonds of cheddar from the overpriced supermarket down my street; I want to hold other people’s massive hands, bite the basil plant, wear red lipstick. I want, so badly, for me to graduate from this University in one year and believe that a degree in English is enough. That I will feel confident and capable enough to plug the world into my body, that I’ll have the skills and service and experience needed to carve out space for myself.

But perhaps the truth of the matter is: The classroom doesn’t prepare you for anything other than a few intellectual growth spurts. You read books. You raise your hand shyly in class, you get wet in the rain.

When I started at this University three years ago, school was about stretching the brain to its brightest shapes. I’ve always felt that as a student, it’s my own responsibility to actively seek out thrill, curiosity, discomfort — whether in punching numbers into a database, or in piling my tray with dining hall cookies. But during college, I’ve also found that it’s become increasingly important for me to understand and come face-to-face with moments of shiny fear, rage. To slam sparks through the brain. To make eye contact. To craft assignments for myself. At times, the syllabus is not enough.

If anything, I’ve found that my classes in English have raised me to question what is — and isn’t — within the textbook. As an incoming senior, I’m hyper-aware of what I’m unsettled by within the classroom: what gets left out, or talked around, or pushed over. As students, it becomes increasingly important to not shy away. We need to take initiative for ourselves and unearth the classroom vocabulary. This doesn’t mean that what we learn in our classrooms is unimportant. On the contrary, the syllabus becomes even more important in the context that we’re building upon and beyond it, seeking more. As students of the classroom and of the planet, we have to raise the stakes.

As an English major, I want to read about Chaucer, but also about sassy Chinese women. I want to read about daughters of immigrants. I want to talk about shame, and inheritance, and the black hairs on my legs. I haven’t necessarily found that I’ve been able to read or discuss these issues in my classes. So I read outside of school. So I write poems. So I build. When I graduate in a year, it won’t necessarily be about all the papers I’ve written, or the medieval English I’ve read. It’ll be about pushing out beyond the curriculum — which takes courage, muscle. Going beyond the syllabus means that we do not become stuck within it. It means we challenge ourselves, continuously, to lift and look and ask.

I still have no idea what I want to “do” with my English degree. But I know in one year, I want to still be digging. I don’t want to constantly nod my head. I want to ask questions. I want to remain restless. I want my brain to whir at high speeds. I want to learn, I want to celebrate. I want to create.

Carlina Duan can be reached at linaduan@umich.edu.