1. Answers are not the point.
Imagine my surprise when Professor Lee Edelman began a semester-long course by telling his students, “I hope you leave this class every day knowing less than when you entered it.” I had spent the past fourteen years of my schooling looking for answers: sometimes they were clear and singular (the atomic symbol for Boron, how many circles Dante has in his Inferno) but even when the questions were more ambiguous (like the themes of some novels we read in English class) I was taught that asking good questions was a way to arrive at the answer, and once you had arrived, you stopped asking.
But Professor Edelman’s point was that he didn’t want us to find more answers, more rigid views of the world and its workings. He wanted us to cultivate an intellectual openness that would leave us always asking more questions and never shying away from confusion. Uncertainty is unavoidable, both inside the classroom and outside of it, but I am slowly learning that it isn’t something to solve—that it might even be something to strive for.
2. Details matter.
“Look around the room,” Professor Janis Bellow said. “What do you notice? Do you see that seven of you have something yellow on?” Before she pointed it out, I hadn’t seen the yellow speckling the room like wildflowers, or her rainbow-striped socks, or the tiny, pristine note-taking of the classmate beside me. We forget to notice things. But Professor Bellow taught my class that the details make the scene, in literature as much as in life.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, he doesn’t watch his childhood love get off of a train and disappear into the station below; he watches her “descending into the jasmine-scented, cricket-mad dusk.” Those words have rattled me for two whole years. Specificity is the most powerful way of conveying our experiences so that other people will not only understand them but feel them.
Professor Bellow’s memoir literature course was the first English class I had taken in which feelings were allowed to matter. She would begin each class by asking us which moments from the memoir we had loved and having someone read one aloud. The class would stay silent, letting each word descend into the shared space. Then Professor Bellow would allow the silence to linger for a moment longer before, with her probing blue eyes, she encouraged us to hone in on the small things. As we spoke about the authors’ lives, about literature and its mechanisms, we learned about each other’s lives and perspectives and fears. When it came to the experience of reading, Professor Bellow seemed to suggest, everything was personal, and every detail that was shared by author or by reader helped to shape the story.
3. I am not alone.
This is probably what attracted a lot of us to literature in the first place: the kinship with a well-crafted character, the resonance of a single passage, that moment when an author articulates something you’ve felt all along, making you think, “I’m not alone.”
As an English major at Tufts, I’ve read many a book that has given me that feeling. But I’ve had the same feeling while listening to classmates speak in round table discussions, while stumbling into the most unexpectedly deep conversations with professors during office hours, and while reading through feedback on my assignments. Before I came to Tufts, literature was my private retreat. I felt that books belonged to me. I also felt that they were a safer form of connection than talking to the cool people in my grade or the classmates who proclaimed that all poetry was stupid. Books offered the payoffs of human connection but without real vulnerability, mostly because they didn’t judge or disappoint. It wasn’t until I got to college that I understood that my love of reading could be the thing that bound me to other people, rather than separating me from them—that sharing books with people I didn’t know could make me braver, and smarter, and less alone.
My point is that you deserve to feel understood in your education: by a good book, by a professor, by that classmate who high-fives you after you present an analysis of a poem and says, “You slayed”—in that one gesture erasing all your middle school doubt.