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Commentary: Welcome to the Moment of Discovery

By Jacqui Shine ’05

As she prepares for life after Smith, senior Jacqui Shine makes some sage observations about the value of a liberal arts education and recalls some of those ah-ha! moments she’s had in the past four years.

The first time it happened, I was a sophomore. I was in the 24-hour computer lab in the basement of King House (“The All-Nite,” I liked to call it), where I’d spent most of the exam period surrounded by piles of books and bags of snacks, listening to online episodes of This American Life while I struggled through my final papers. I would head down into the fluorescent-lit lab early each morning and stay for hours, emerging occasionally, disoriented, into blinding sunlight or pitch darkness for dinner or more coffee; a textbook I’d forgotten; a nap in my bed across the Quad. I was tired. But exams were almost over and I was moving closer to two weeks of total sloth with eager anticipation. There was just this one paper to finish…

…that I’d been working on all week. It was an assignment for a class on Holocaust literature, and I just couldn’t finish it. Not only did every word take serious effort, but I also kept finding that I had more and more to say. Ordinarily I’d sit right down and spit my ideas into a well-ordered five pages in no time, but here? Here I was thinking so hard I could almost hear the gears turning. I would write a sentence, fix the sentence before it, write another sentence, delete them both. But I was also getting more and more excited, more engaged. I couldn’t wait to see what would come next. I was thinking -- for what was maybe the first time since I’d been at Smith. It (almost) didn’t matter that the paper was taking so long to write. It (almost) didn’t matter what grade I got. There was satisfaction in the wrestling, in the learning.

I finished the paper with hours to spare and promptly collapsed on my mom’s couch until J-Term. I looked back on the experience with a weird kind of fondness -- you know, Oh, remember that week I spent in the computer lab? But I didn’t think much of, or expect much more from, that sensation of really working, really learning.

Until it happened again.

This time I wasn’t writing a paper, and I wasn’t in the all-night computer lab tearing my hair out during exam week. I was in the architecture studio in September of my junior year, taking my first studio art class at Smith and constantly second-guessing my abilities. But then one day I was sitting on a table in the back of the classroom, looking at slides and taking notes and all of a sudden -- I don’t know what it was, exactly: a slide I saw? something someone said? -- my mind opened up. Architectural design was a way of thinking physically, thinking with my hands, building an idea. I’d done it all before, just differently. And I could do it this way, too.

When taken together, these two moments -- learning, and then learning differently but seeing the same -- form the most vital part of my liberal arts education, my Smith education. At first I thought Smith’s rhetoric about the value of a liberal arts education was just that -- rhetoric. I believed it, sure, but in a half-hearted way. “It’s about breadth and depth,” I was told, and I told others, as I simultaneously pursued a double major in English and government, studiously avoiding math and natural science classes. I’m making my own choices but seeking a complete education. I said all this, but it didn’t really mean anything to me; I was doing things that were safe, that I’d always been good at. I had no idea what learning looked like when it happened outside of the confines of the work I’d always done.

But then, on a whim, I signed up for that architecture class in the fall of my junior year. I found myself working in the studio with the same sense of delight in rigor that I’d experienced in the computer lab. I’d spend hours -- whole afternoons -- bent over drafting vellum or tiny models, without even being aware of time passing. It (almost) didn’t matter that the work was so laborious. It (almost) didn’t matter what grade I got. There was satisfaction in the wrestling, in the learning. It was the same satisfaction I’d felt before, in other classrooms, other disciplines.

I realized that the moment of discovery -- that strange alchemy where effort transforms into knowledge, where work becomes serious play -- occurs across disciplines. I knew now what it felt like when I was really learning -- and, more important, I knew that the feeling was the same no matter what kind of work I was doing. And this, for me, is what my liberal arts education has ultimately been about. I know what learning is like, even when the tools are different. I know with any work, unfamiliar or habitual, what it is I’m working toward, what it will feel like when I’m getting it.

A lot has changed (I’ve changed a lot) since my first year at Smith. I’m leaving with a degree in American studies -- no double major, not even a minor. I’ve taken classes in typography and architecture, history and landscape studies. And those two years I spent as an English and government major? I look back now and think, with some regret, about all of the things I didn’t let myself learn, limited by my preconception of what learning was supposed to be like. But I also know that my academic life couldn’t have unfolded any differently than it did. As it happened, I stumbled into the moment of discovery -- and I know now how much more there is to find.

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