Was in the first week of this semester, three weeks ago, when my history of sexuality professor mentioned in passing that Jane Addams, the influential 20th-century reformer famous for her work in the settlement house movement, had a long-term female romantic partner. I’d had a decent high-school American history education; we’d learned who Jane Addams was. But to learn that she was in—gasp!—a same-sex relationship, and to have the professor mention it so nonchalantly, so usually? That was when things changed.
I’m still struggling to learn the modes of thought that go with real academic study. The transition to analysis, from the fact-based modes of learning and regurgitating that I learned in high school, is proving astonishingly difficult. And so it’s these little pieces of trivia that still fascinate me, almost more than the almost unbelievably higher level that all my classes operate on, and how blindingly intelligent my professors are. And so this fact stuck with me—not because it was a gay-themed fact, or a “liberal” fact, but because we as students are no longer accepting the facts as they are fed us. We are no longer accepting the spoon-fed narrative of American history that goes Pilgrims—Revolution—frontier—Civil War—Gilded Age—progressives—some more wars—freedom and democracy! I’m taking three classes this semester on American history and society, and they overlap a ton, which is fantastic, because between the three of them I’m filling in these gaping holes created by the omission of everything wrong that America has done, or social categories and questions considered too complex or controversial for treatment by a high-school classroom or an Advanced Placement curriculum.
And I almost don’t regret it being 1am and exhausted and not having finished my reading, or how soul-sapping working hard is, or not having a social life really (not that I ever had one to begin with). This shit is just so incredible that I’m in awe every single day of something I read or something one of my professors said or something that came up in a conversation with my friends at mealtime. It makes me think, too, that even if analytical and critical thinking isn’t coming so instantaneously to me, that this passion for the subjects I’m studying is enough that I can learn those modes of breaking down the facts. That graduate school and academia is a possibility. What my 19 years as the brattiest academic brat I’ve ever met have taught me are that more than anything else for getting along in academia, you need utmost passion about a subject. Well, I think I’ve got the passion—I just need to, a few years from now, figure out what to direct it at.
On a semi-related note, it’s validating to know that I can create my own little ivory tower within an ivory tower, and not be constrained to a “typical” Princeton undergraduate experience. I don’t want to prescribe what that typical experience is, but I think we’ve all got a pretty good idea what I’m getting at. Another “big idea” I’ve been learning this year is that Princeton can be all things to all people, and that there are other undergraduates who are essentially going to a completely different university from mine. I’m not happy 24/7 with the university I’m “building,” and I think I’m still adjusting to collegiate life, but it just keeps getting better and better. And I’m so grateful every day for the people who reinforce my desire to give in to my inner nerd, to talk about things I haven’t mentioned since I started socialization five years ago. In the past couple months, I’ve gone back to movies and books and music I haven’t touched since I was fourteen because I suddenly realized again what it was like to be passionate about these academic trivia. When I decided to start learning about Old English over intersession, I had a flash of memory of the time my family went to Powell’s Books in Portland, my dad said I could get one book, and I picked a 700-page academic tract about the 1745-6 Jacobite rebellion. I think I was twelve or thirteen, and I read the book all the way through, too, though the picture inserts were my favorite part—and I think they probably still are, of any book like that.
I still can’t control my book-buying habit; I still can’t resist reading aloud to my roommates every single passage in my school books that I think is cool. And although I’ll go to Terrace of an evening, and although I’m trying out this very new idea of training at my journalistic craft, the utter joy I’ve felt of being able to reclaim the almost carnal joy that comes from trivia and facts and as much scholarship as a college freshman can muster—this, this is amazing and validating and so utterly beautiful.