UMass: better than it seems
The University of Massachusetts has never really been good enough for me. It is hard to explain. Since high school, I thought this random, giant collection of ugly concrete buildings in the middle of a valley – surrounded by farms and so far from Boston it might as well be New York State – was just some school I had to get through for four years. I planned on transferring not once, but close to three times. Once a false stereotype gets implanted, it is near impossible to develop a different impression. Still, after three and a half years, things assuredly changed.
As UMass was last on the list of schools I wanted to attend – I was sent here because of financial considerations instead of any desire to go to UMass – I was reluctant to accept the University for what it is. Now, I see it as a gem of a public university that deserves more praise, appreciation and funding than it currently gets. There are certainly many things that can be improved, but overall UMass has been the perfect fit – and I know I am not the only one whose college decision worked out in such a fashion.
My misconceptions about packed lectures, mean professors and TA-run classes were eventually all disproved. My political science professors, particularly Dean Robinson and Tatishe Nteta, were engaging and involved in incredibly interesting research. The general education requirements, though certainly tedious, have a worse reputation than they really deserve. Nothing can be taken away from the quality of the student body, and class discussions are almost always inspired. In fact, I have come to view UMass as everything I hoped a college could be; comprised of engaged students, taught by exciting professors and offering a diverse course load.
Then, I took two classes at Amherst College.
Suddenly, UMass professors did not look so great. None of them were like one Amherst professor whose feedback would match the length of his students’ papers. Hand in a three pager? Get back three pages of criticism, argument and congratulations. For both courses, the first day of class was spent as an advertisement. This is what we are going to cover; this is why I think it is important; this is why I think you should take my class. Both times, I was sold.
A history class in which I am currently enrolled is all of 100 students and will maybe fill to be 130 students. To make up for the “out of hand class size,” which must be of epic proportions for Amherst College, the class is going to be taught by three professors, each of whom will be responsible for a few discussion sections. I quickly arrived at the logical conclusion: all Amherst professors must be this good and all their classes must be this awesome.
David Foster Wallace describes this kind of feeling with uncanny skill in a piece about a luxurious trip aboard a cruise ship. After spending 18 pages going into minute detail about absurd levels of pampering available on his ship, the Nadir, he throws it all away when another, newer, bigger ship pulls up next to his. Suddenly, this new ship, the Dreamward, puts everything about the Nadir to shame. It looks whiter than his impossibly bleached Nadir; there must be more pools; the towel guys must be more professional. He imagines the Dreamward’s food being even more varied and punctiliously prepared, its casino less depressing, its stage entertainment less cheesy…its pillow mints bigger. Standing in the Caribbean, Wallace could not help but feel this surge of envy. All of a sudden, nothing on his cruise liner is good enough, most shockingly because “they don’t even have Mr. Pibb; they foist Dr. Pepper on you with a maddeningly unapologetic shrug when any fool knows that Dr. Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it’s an absolute goddamned travesty, or – at best – extremely dissatisfying indeed.”
It is this comparison that is so striking and true. He had everything he needed on the Nadir, but once he saw the Dreamward, it all became inadequate. This is what it is like to sit in a class at Amherst College. In an instant, every single positive facet of UMass gets thrown out the window. It was not until – as the bored nerd I am – I reread David Foster Wallace’s Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise when I placed my newfound misgivings about UMass in the trashcan where they belonged. I had come full circle: entered UMass with silly stereotypes about the school and then reformed them senior year. After rereading, the absurdity of it all became apparent. For all its faults, UMass ain’t that bad. I have been to the “promised land” of a liberal arts college and made it back alive. If nothing else, it beats being tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Nick Milano is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.