The limits of intellectual fearlessness – The Bowdoin Orient | #students | #parents

September 25, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Imagine, for fun, that a meteor is hurtling towards Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. As it inches closer and closer to our stratosphere, the human race mere hours from obliteration, you prepare for an afternoon Zoom class. At what point does the professor make the readings optional?

OK, so the meteor analogy may be a little far-fetched, but in any case, the current state of the world is completely unrecognizable from the Bowdoin falls we once knew. And the more that the administration insists that this semester is capable of mimicking an on-campus one, the clearer it becomes that the quality seen as most distinctly “Bowdoin” is the overworking of its students.

President Rose prefaced his email outlining the fall grading policy with a note on terminating the Credit/No Credit policy: “This temporary, one-semester policy expired at the end of the spring semester.” This sentiment seems to be widely held among Bowdoin administrators and professors alike—that lenience in the apocalyptic age has an expiration date, that it really shouldn’t take more than a couple of months to acclimate to life during a pandemic. Bowdoin students are expected to be fully morphed into a new type of student by this point, and professors are expected to have adapted to working with an infuriating method of teaching, both of which are insurmountable asks of people who are busy navigating life during a pandemic.

I am somewhat dreading re-enrolling at Bowdoin after my leave of absence, mostly because I was barely able to stay afloat this spring. While the pandemic raged on and I came to terms with my college experience as I knew it coming to an abrupt halt, I was also dealing with another disaster, this one intensely personal: I had suddenly assumed the position of being the main caretaker for my sister, who was battling leukemia. Attempting to balance school with something that was occupying my entire mind was, in a word, impossible. When she hit what can only be described as a colossal rough patch, I decided to ask for help for the very first time at Bowdoin. I’m not exaggerating—before last spring, I had never so much as asked for an extension on a paper. Like most Bowdoin students, I joked about drowning in work only insofar as to make it clear that I can technically handle myself. So it was kind of a big deal for me to swallow my pride and send my dean the following email on May 8:

“Hi Dean *redacted*, I was wondering if you could be the liaison between me and my professors again. My sister is currently in a medically-induced coma and is fighting for her life. I am living with her in the hospital and aside from constantly being busy talking to her doctors about her condition, I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on my final papers and assignments right now. Could you please let my professors know? You can disclose whatever you see fit. Thanks, K”

He called me a couple days later to deliver the news—three of my four professors had agreed to excuse me from my finals and pass me. The fourth had refused.

This incident, however isolated it may be, exemplifies a major issue with the way Bowdoin determines what constitutes a worthy hardship; we are expected to bear all traumas in return for small acts of mercy, and are so often refused accommodation even so. In turn, the resilience we are forced to find within ourselves during these times becomes the hallmark of our Bowdoin experiences, when we could just as easily remember the moments of rest we were given when we needed them most. I took my leave of absence for many reasons, but a pretty notable one was that I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head that I spent the last couple weeks of my spring semester by my sister’s comatose side, trying to fight the exhaustion and write a six-page final paper on a theorist/photographer from the eighties.

I don’t mean to imply that students need to be coddled through this period in history, nor am I suggesting we lose ourselves in general tragedies rather than try to salvage what we can of our college experiences. I just think it needs to be recognized that Bowdoin students are exhibiting fearlessness in so many facets of our lives right now, and sometimes it feels as if intellectual fearlessness should come second to all of that.

K Irving is a member of the Class of 2021. 

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