In my time at Northwestern, I’ve walked into a 400-level EECS class by mistake, interviewed unwilling strangers for 201-1 and slept in an armchair in PARC, but nothing has made me more uncomfortable than dropping a class. Using Caesar is never enjoyable, but the degree to which I felt ashamed and doubted myself was far more unpleasant.
I’ve been confident I was going to drop my political science class long before the upcoming Winter Quarter drop deadline this Friday, Feb. 13. While the class was a minor requirement and I enjoyed the subject matter thoroughly, I knew dropping it was best for me given my other commitments. I decided to audit the class. When talking to my professor about it, he very considerately asked me if I still wanted him to hand me a quiz so my classmates wouldn’t know.
That was the first time I considered what other people thought, and I found myself requesting he give me a quiz anyway. I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t handle my workload and balance my time, or to know that my scheduling had failed me and I was worried about burning out. Though it was that particular conversation that made these fears salient, I think many prior incidents had already made me concerned what other people would think if I dropped.
I thought back to people asking me which four classes I was taking, everyone else citing their filled calendars. I hadn’t paid much mind to interactions like that, but they stayed with me all the same. I think these incidents are indicative of a larger culture to do with the perception of dropping a class, or “failure” of any sort on this campus.
Alison May, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of AccessibleNU said she thinks dropping a class is viewed negatively.
“Many students, especially before the first time they’re considering dropping a class, view it as just a sign that they’re a failure.” May said. This perception has a lot to do with the kinds of students Northwestern attracts. “Many students have had past successful records and such high standards for themselves that they feel like it’s admitting weakness.”
May’s words resonated with me since the pressure I felt wasn’t coming from my peers or parents, but stemmed from my own feelings regarding my place at this university. I was doubtful of it freshman year and struggled to feel like I had a place on this campus. Now, it seemed I was falling short of academic criteria instead. Did I deserve to be here if I couldn’t handle four classes?
While interviewing Austin Romero, ASG’s Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, I briefly described my “self-judgment” to him. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting him to say but I wanted to further the conversation.
“I think it comes from the fact that we’re supposed to uphold this ‘Northwestern standard,’” he said. “We’re supposed to be perfect, and when we realize that we don't have that, that we’re struggling with something… that’s when we start questioning ourselves.”
Romero’s analysis showed me that while my story is by no means everyone else’s, it is a common narrative.
May doesn’t blame students for the competitive culture. Instead, she suggested it’s been here so long that it has subtly taken over.
“I don't think students are actively trying to shame each other or even aware that’s what they’re doing most of the time, May said. “I don't think they’re aware of the competition that they’re kind of a part of.”
A few years ago, Romero and Serene Darwish, Vice President of Student Activities, created a Tumblr for individuals to share their narratives and challenge the idea of perfection.
Darwish was inspired by mentoring freshmen she met through her student organizations. Many of them felt pressure from their families and communities to avoid dropping a class, and Darwish tried to help them navigate the challenge. She knew not all underclassmen were lucky enough to have older, more experienced students to talk to, and wanted to create a platform that the entire student body at Northwestern had access to.
The Tumblr drew submissions from all corners of campus, creating a mosaic of different class-dropping stories. The reasons ranged from difficulty to interests, reminding readers how nuanced situations are, while at the same time letting people know that dropping a class isn’t uncommon or embarrassing.
“We heard from different freshman like this is really helpful and its nice to know other students are going through.” Romero said, noting that the message on campus should be that there’s no shame in dropping a class.
But both Romero and Darwish noted that the initiative received criticism for not addressing systemic problems.
“For example, maybe Northwestern has a problem with how many requirements it has or unreasonable standards of excellence.” Darwish said, adding that while the Tumblr didn’t directly address those issues, it was still a step in the right direction.
May said she thinks the relatively high number of requirements students need to take to graduate adds to the registration stress.
“There is no room for error – you can’t get sick, you can't get a concussion, you can’t have more than a few classes not go well unless you bring in a ton of AP classes or something like that.” May said.
This tight schedule could solidify arguments against dropping a class. Dropping a class this quarter means not messing up in subsequent quarters and maybe even taking five classes at some point.
Beyond the culture on campus and tight requirements, there are other reasons students could worry about dropping classes. May mentioned financial aid concerns, pointing out that possibly having to take an extra quarter or not getting as many credits as possible could have a monetary impact. She also noted that some arrangements might only hold if the student is considered full time (enrolled in three credits). International students on F-1 Visas face similar restrictions as they have to be considered full time for their Visas to be valid.
While those challenges seem difficult to sort through, especially with all the legalese, there’s no shortage of resources on campus. That is, of course, if students know about them.
“I think the students that are most likely to be informed are those who are connecting with their adviser and are connected with at least one other campus resource.” May said, mentioning the Center for Student Involvement, Student Financial Services and the Dean of Students Office.
If I learned anything from going through the process and talking to other people about their experiences, it’s that everyone’s class-dropping experience is different. Behind the schedule, there’s a lot going on that we can’t see. Everyone handles their lives and priorities differently. My ideal philosophy in regard to others is “you do you,” but I still catch myself being complicit in our high-pressure culture and unintentionally placing expectations on my peers. I think it’s up to each of us to notice the small things and foster a more supportive environment for people and their decisions.
I personally found that we don't pay certain non-academic things enough attention. Introspection, filling out applications and participating in extracurricular activities may not show up on your transcript or make your Caesar-generated calendar green but they still take up time. In the same vein, I think we often view classes primarily as credits. I’m getting much more out of the classes I care about now that I have a lighter workload.
Despite how difficult it was to reach this conclusion, I’m glad I dropped the class. It has given me time to love what I’m doing, time to report better and write more, time to reflect on the things that make me uncomfortable at Northwestern and time to write this piece. This quarter, drop what you need. But let’s drop the stigma for good.