Core from transfer student’s perspective: It could be worse

Ami Tian

When I first came to Whitman, I was sort of looking forward to Encounters, also known as Core: really, I was. Even though I was a sophomore. Even though I was sick of requirements. Even though I believed that I already knew how to read and write at a college level: I had been doing it for a year, after all.  But still I was looking forward to Core, partially because I had no alternative, and partially out of genuine excitement. I was curious. I wanted to learn what Core had to teach me.

I had taken a required writing course at Carnegie Mellon University called Interpretation and Argument, which had been pretty much the bane of my existence. I had started out that course, too, with high hopes. First-years were able to choose their own sections from a variety of sections, each of which had its own specific topic. Examples included “Defining Terrorism,” “Punk and the Politics of Subculture” and “Frankenstein: Technology and Dystopia.”

My section was called “Hamlet and Contemporary Consciousness.” I had asked for it.

Most of my problems with that course were not with the content itself, but with the instructor, who was a pretentious graduate student whose passions included mumbling, staring at the corner when he talked and sending indecipherable e-mails. His favorite words were “mimesis,” “cogent” and “fuck.” ¬†Needless to say, it was difficult to communicate with him, which made class discussion excruciating.

I’d like to think that despite all of that, my writing had somewhat improved by the end of the semester, that I hadn’t suffered for nothing. I figured that Encounters couldn’t possibly be as bad as Interpretation and Argument, and that even if it was, at least I’d be able to get something out of it. Besides, they didn’t let graduate students teach at Whitman.

From what I could gather during the first few weeks of the semester, the purpose of Core seemed to be twofold: 1. to bring incoming students’ compositional and analytical skills up to par on a college level and 2. to make students familiar with canonical cultural texts. Although I felt that the first part didn’t really apply to me, the second part seemed important and useful.

As the semester went on, however, I felt increasingly frustrated by the lack of relevance to contemporary society that these texts seemed to hold, and by the pace of class discussion, which was painfully slow.

I heard similar sentiments expressed by the other transfer students I knew. I heard about and envied transfer students who petitioned out of Core by arguing that they’d taken an equivalent course at their old school.

Transfer students inhabit the strange middle ground between sophomores and first-years; they’re new to Whitman, but by no means new to college. One reason that I, as a transfer student, felt frustrated by Core is that it placed me in the category of those new to college. In my mind, I was past that. I’d taken a required first-year course. I’d paid my dues. So what was I doing here, sitting in a course full of first-years, with a book in front of me telling me how to cite sources in MLA format?

Ostensibly, there is something about the Encounters curriculum that is unique to Whitman.

One person I talked to said that maybe the purpose of Core was to provide a common, unifying experience for all incoming students.

“It gives students a foundation, a chance to discuss the same readings,” he said. “And to whine together a lot.”

Maybe that’s it. But there are rare moments when I’m glad that I’m taking Core, when I read something particularly resonant in a text dating back to 500 BC, when someone says something unexpectedly insightful about the reading or when I hear my professor say something and I think, “It could be worse: at least he didn’t say ‘mimesis.'”