the art of the book
or, a defense of non-essential coursework
Who knows anything about necessity? Not me.
Imagine this: It’s last semester, and this campus is your oyster. You feel like you’ve really figured some stuff out since freshman year—what you want to concentrate in, who your friends are, how to manage time, and so on. You’re abundantly ready for—scare quotes—the rest of your life. Yet, before you settle down, get on LinkedIn, and really thrust yourself into pre-professional floundering, you realize that you’re so set in your life path that you can take a whole semester to just “do whatever!” How incredible!
I, for one, don’t have to imagine it: Last semester, I decided I was going to take courses purely because they interested me, without allowing the constraints of what might be practical to my education define my experience. I ended up with the impressively ridiculous enrollment of Art of the Book, Photography Foundations, Artist in the Archives, and Beginning German. Needless to say, my mom was thrilled to see the important practical skills my tuition money was paying for. She was even more thrilled with the cost of my triple digit, online German textbook.
I distinctly remember speaking on the phone with her last shopping period as I hesitantly discussed the idea of these classes with her, trying my best to answer questions about why any of these courses were “necessary” to my education and why buying these resources was advantageous. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain to her that they weren’t necessary at all. I didn’t have the words to convince her that things that were pleasurable and new deserved as much space as the necessities.
I think I have those words now, or I hope I do. If I didn’t know what mattered beyond necessity at this point, I would consider last semester a legitimate waste. Luckily, though, I believe I was able to discover the ways in which art and cultural skills deserve respect and footing within a University-sized lake of requirements and academic expectations. Moving forward, my LinkedIn page might grow a bit scattered, but I know that I am better equipped to navigate the world because of the new ways I engaged with courses last semester.
After all, my decision to take these courses was based entirely on sparks of interest I had while shopping them. These were the classes that made me feel like I was actually reaching into worlds of knowledge I had never interacted with before. I didn’t know German, or film photography, or how to make paper, or any of the other niche things I found myself looking into. All I knew was that I wanted to know. For some reason that my mom would never agree with, that felt like enough.
And it was enough. Every day, I walked into classrooms to be educated on things in their simplest, foundational forms. With the knowledge level of a middle schooler, I had to learn how to load film into the camera I was given for class. Perhaps more like an elementary schooler, I learned to fold pieces of paper into books. I learned the foundations of how to tell stories, how to spread them across pages.
All of these experiences sound silly, and to some extent they were. My classes were filled with humor and community: groups of people collectively knowing they probably should have learned these things by now. As a community, we would spend late nights in the studio, working on our specific visions and watching each other grow as artists. Were these relationships conventionally necessary to my education? Absolutely not. Did I leave filled with inspiration, new friendships, and more encouraged creativity? Of course. You tell me if the lack of necessity made those experiences useless.
Ultimately, these relationships weren’t even the most satisfying part of my more artistic and whimsical classes. The most gratifying element was my ability to alter my foundational knowledge in a way I often struggled to in my “necessary” classes. I wasn’t learning the most advanced concepts or reading the hardest texts. I was expanding the simplest base of what I knew how to do in ways that, still, are not “necessary,” but are endlessly helpful and productive.
In my Art of the Book class, for example, I was able to fundamentally change the way I interact with the medium of the book; I was able to take a form of art I see and interact with all the time and learn how to engage with it more deeply. By doing that, I not only had an enjoyable and engaging experience, but was also able to apply that niche knowledge in other unexpected areas. I ended up using my bookmaking knowledge toward my final project in a separate class because, let’s be real—once you know how to sew a book by hand, why wouldn’t you put that to use?
In my photography class, I developed a portfolio that I’m now able to put out into the world if I so please. In Artist in the Archives, I learned real skills about how to apply for grants and fellowships that no theoretical class had ever taught me. Needless to say, my German class made me feel equipped to communicate and survive in another country. Ultimately, these lessons felt more important to me than the “necessary,” pointed knowledge I’m used to receiving in classes for my concentration. I might have been able to graduate Brown without them, but I would never have had the chance to expand my narrow educational experience.
Now, terrifyingly, my college game plan is a bit off track, and my resume is only getting odder. I’m starting to think about what would happen if I explored more visual art or took my German into a study abroad program. I’m starting to think about all the new ways I could exist in the world, all the new forms of knowledge that I could keep acquiring to bring me there. The thought of going back to required courses is looking a lot bleaker, but on this semester’s phone call with my mom, I think I have a better idea of how I’ll justify my waning academic course load. These aren’t skills that are necessary to one path. They’re skills that open up opportunities to choose between many paths while also exploring new ones. Perhaps more radically, they are the classes that have brought me joy and reminded me what it feels like to learn subjects—artistic and creative subjects—that most colleges don’t bother giving a shot and that most students don’t have a chance to explore. If you haven’t leapt out of your pool of prerequisites yet, now might be the time to try before the real world, shockingly, sweeps away so many of our possibilities for exploration. Don’t hold back because they don’t seem essential; college is all about expanding your cultural knowledge, and those strange courses—the ones that allow you to explore—might be the ones you end up remembering most.