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Being a beginner in a beginning class

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Foundational lectures. Introductory seminars. Frosh-friendly courses. All these terms were thrown around during the frenzy of open enrollment. Upperclassmen, RAs and Carta were full of colorful opinions and recommendations for naive freshman like myself.

I, like many of my peers, spent the summer scouting for the “must take” courses like the infamous CS 106A or ARTHIST 1B. Lectures like these are all the rage for a good reason —  they don’t require any prior knowledge of the subject.

I was more than excited to attend classes that discussed topics that I was genuinely interested in. A seminar for freshmen to discuss the true definition of terrorism in global case studies? Sign me up! Writing instruction and seminars centered around philosophy and liberal education (known as ESF)? Definitely applying to that!

So on the first day of the fall quarter, I rode my bike to class in Main Quad with a backpack full of required readings and my laptop. I sat in between other eager freshmen in a small class of 15 students, all chattering with utter excitement while pulling out our array of decorative pens and freshly lined paper. Versions of “I wonder what this class is going to be like” and “I’m nervous about the academic rigor” flew around the room, which was actually incredibly soothing.

Here I was sitting among the brightest minds the world has to offer, and they too were anxious about the course. If they were also nervous, then my nerves had to be just as normal and just as expected. Before the professor arrived, we all engaged in bubbly conversations about how none of us really knew the material. This was supposed to be brand-new information that didn’t expect any single person to be exceptionally well-versed in the subject.

This was the perfect environment to learn and to ask questions. My classmates were also ready to be exposed to the inner workings of the tsars of Russia and the readings of Plato. True beginners in a beginning class.

And of course, things weren’t as easy as that. Over the span of seven weeks, I was supposed to know what the School of Stoics was, why the Iraq war began and who Machiavelli was. I knew next to nothing. I’d never taken a course in philosophy or even world history for that matter. My peers had claimed to have very limited knowledge on these subjects too, but it was evident that their exposure was much greater than mine.

Suddenly, we were not all true beginners in a beginning class. The discussions and debates that exploded in my seminars were evidence of years of careful, studied knowledge. The questions asked during lecture pulling from outside sources meant that knowing “The Republic” like the back of your hand was the norm. Watching documentaries on world crises was a common pastime. Feeling behind was a sentiment that surfaced quite often every day during seminar.

So what was I to do with being a “true” beginner? The only reasonable choice: load up on information. Sparknotes was a quick shortcut before class. Brushing my teeth while watching five minutes of “Democracy Now” became a morning routine. Spending hours online reading through Wikipedia and history websites became a new hobby.

As soon as I felt caught up in class, more and more knowledge spilled out. More talk about this and more talk about that. These classes definitely did not feel like beginning classes anymore. Frosh friendly? As in friendly for freshmen who probably took years worth of world literature and history? Probably the only explanation for why these classes could be labeled in such a way.

After mustering my courage and pushing back thoughts of embarrassment, I began to ask my classmates if they too had read all these readings before and heard all these things back in high school. To my surprise, many of them had not. Many had not read Sophocles religiously or watched political new outlets either. A flood of relief shortly followed this revelation.

These feelings of being behind and lost weren’t unique. They weren’t even rare. They were hiding behind passionate tangents and eloquent arguments. Walking into class wasn’t such a sense of anxiety anymore.

It was okay to feel like a beginner. It was okay to be one.

 

Contact Rachel Ochoa at racochoa ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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