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My Harvard Experience

Last night, I dreamed a dream.

In my dream, I was in a classroom with a bunch of people, one of whom was Genevieve Nnaji (hold on!). A series of weird things had happened in that dream but let’s fast forward to the part where an influential Igbo man in Nigeria committed an offence that had been condemned in previous scenes of the dream. My dream classmates were pretty pissed that he had done what he had done, and wanted the same measure of punishment to be met against him but they were hesitant. They spoke in low tones and whispered their displeasure. I watched them. Suddenly, someone called out to Genevieve who had, all this while, been sitting pretty in her classroom desk, pressing her phone and completely ignoring everything. The person asked, ‘Genevieve, what do you think we should do to this person?’ She looked up from her phone and said nonchalantly, ‘I don’t think he did anything wrong. It’s not that bad’.

 

In my dream, I could tell that my classmates were shocked at and displeased with that response but I could also tell that Genevieve was an authority figure in the class. And so everyone started nodding and saying, ‘Oh yeah’. I sat in my chair and watched my class transform itself into a pool of cowardice and as I watched, my dream mind was flashed with images from the classes I attended in Harvard two weeks ago. As I remembered my experience at Harvard, I spoke up and said, ‘I’m tired of this fakeness! Genevieve, you’re wrong. *Influential Man* has committed an offence and if no one else would say it, I will. I think you are being tribalistic -’

Alas, before Genevieve was able to retort, I was awoken by my flatmate to ‘hurry up and baff so that we can tag along with our neighbour who has a car’

All this to say that I learned so much in my few days at Harvard that I’m applying these lessons even in my dreams. Haha!

Anyway, I’d like to clear a few things because I realize that the title of this article may seem quite clickbaity when you’re done reading. First, I went for a visit to Harvard University where my brother is currently taking a Master’s course. Two, I was allowed to attend his classes for the few days I was there because he had taken permission from the lecturers and informed them aforehand that he’d be coming in with a guest. And three, yes, it was lit.

 

Now, down to my experience.

Out of the classes I attended, I will write on two, because they have left the most impression on my heart and in my life.

The first class is one called ‘Exercising Authority’. If you know my Christian background, you would perhaps, be able to imagine how fascinated I was by the title of this class. The class on Exercising Authority is taught out of the Harvard Kennedy School and it is essentially a (leadership) class that helps you understand your relationship with different authority dynamics in your life. That is, it helps you understand why you would view authority figures in a certain way slash why you would wield authority in a certain way. It’s a super interesting; almost psychologically-intrusive class. I attended two class sessions before I left for Nigeria.

There is something to be said, even, of this way the class is handled by the lecturers. It’s almost like a decentralized system of teaching where the students have more autonomy to determine the course of the lecture for the day. I’ll give an example. In one of the classes I attended, the lecturer had mentioned the topic for the day and it was being discussed by students. Few minutes into the class, the lecturer, drawing from one of the contributions made by a student, posed a question to the class, and the class went silent. At first, this silence was just a bit larger than a pause, but then it stretched into this uncomfortable stuffy quietness until someone finally raised his hands and said, ‘Today’s topic is about the ‘Muddled Middle’ and this here is an example. How that there are a number of people in this class who are consistently vocal in every class. And there are some members of this class whose opinion on topics, we don’t know because they never talk. I guess they are the muddled middle’

This comment then went ahead to evoke a looooooot of other interesting conversations, questions, rant, anger, confrontations, explanations, confessions, suggestions, in the class.

Some people agreed that they were speaking for the first time since the class started months ago because it always seems like they’d get ‘assasinated’ for making mistakes in their contribution.

Some said that they could never speak in class because they don’t trust their fellow classmates enough; that the classmates have not shown anything to be deserving of their openness.

Some suggested that the people who talk too much should hush for a bit and ‘allow others to speak’.

Others questioned the above suggestion and tagged it as unreasonable because people speak and don’t speak for their own personal reasons, and stopping or limiting expression is never a way to help expression in class.

My brother, in particular, contributed that this aforementioned suggestion could not work because some people who speak every day in class are not necessarily speaking because they feel like the ultimate custodians of knowledge and want to show it off, but simply because they are working on themselves and have given themselves the mandate to shun the fear and dread and speak up in class. After all, ‘you cannot get better at what you do not practice’.

This was a super interesting class for me because:

  1. I saw that HARVARD students had the same fear that students of… say, UNILAG have. I marvelled at the fact that someone who got into Harvard could still be scared of speaking up in class. And after marvelling, I realized why I was wrong for marvelling. I was wrong because up until then, I had seen getting into Harvard as a  validation of your intelligence and not an affirmation of something you should already know – that you’re intelligent enough and worthy enough to be in any room. And so, it would not matter whether you’re in UNILAG or Harvard, if you have not accepted the fact that the intelligence of another person is not necessarily your dullness; or that the fact that you do not know the answer to a question is not enough reason to be looked down on, then no university admission or degree can automagically make you a confident person.
  2. I also learned that one must be confident – even Harvard students give the most ridiculous suggestions. The question is, ‘are you saying it with your chest?’.  I know this is almost a repetition of the previous point but it’s worth the iteration. I heard a suggestion in that class that almost popped my eyes out of their sockets. I  remember turning to my brother and we just started chuckling. But does that mean the person who made the suggestion is dull and should have his admission revoked? No. Absolutely not. Because even intelligent people have unintelligent thoughts. I have learned that no one is above mistakes; not even you. See, I just typed a powerful statement, so I’ll type it again. ‘NO ONE IS ABOVE MISTAKES; NOT EVEN YOU’. So cut yourself some slack and truly allow yourself make mistakes.
  3. Culture is defo important. Guess what guys, many of the people who were tagged as the ‘non-speakers’ in the class were largely from traditional non-American backgrounds. Essentially from countries where respect, humility, politeness and reverence for authority are prized. As an Asian student in the class noted, ‘I don’t speak in class, not because I don’t have anything to say but because I grew up learning to defer to authority in structured environments. In a class like this, the authority figure for me would be the lecturer and I would expect that she does most of the talking. It gets very shocking and confusing for me when the class turns into a big conversation; sometimes about topics that are not even slated for the day’. And I felt that. I realized that most of the more vocal people in the class were from the West and had grown up in a culture that gave them so much room to express themselves and never to shy from conversing with anyone – irrespective of age or status. Now, imagine a class with a blend of both cultures. Of course in such a class, some will seem like the ‘muddled middle’ whose voices are never heard.

 

The second class I attended is what my brother would call a ‘cruise’. And indeed it was. It’s called ‘Critical Theory’ and I had never been emotionally invested in a class like I was in this class. When I spoke to the lecturer after the class, he made a joke about it being weird for guests to attend his class when something like what happened, happened. And I was like, ‘NO! Your class is awesome.’ I kidded him not.

 

The class setting and management was/is essentially like that of Exercising Authority, but the class discussions were a little deeper. The class had, obviously, been given readings – in this particular case, Howl by Allen Ginsberg. An interesting poem. Now, students were required to discuss/mention parts of the poem that touched them or caught their attention. This was the innocent way the class commenced. But a few minutes into the class, there was a spiralling of events that led to a ‘civilly intense’ conversation on racism. And not racism as in, racism discussed in the poem, or racism practised in some faraway history, or even racism practised by external persons in the present. But racism right there in the class. My, my. It was messy. But it was honest.

Truthfully, I do not agree with every assertion made by the blacks in the class; I did not align myself with all of their accusations and that’s a conversation I’d rather have one on one with anyone who wants an explanation. But one big takeaway for me was the raw honesty in the class. I do not believe I have ever spectated at that type of difficult uncomfortable conversation in all my life. I found it even more interesting when the lecturer interrupted a student mid-speech and shouted ‘STOP! JUST STOP!’ He went on to note that there were currently things unsaid hanging in the (already uncomfortable) air and that the students should stop ‘trying’, ‘attempting’ or ‘hinting’ at something but should just say what’s on their damn minds (I added the ‘damn’). Then the confrontations started. “I think you are…”, ‘I believe that you are…” “You did this because….”, “You should definitely….”

A. Very. Hot. Class.

A very interesting class.

 

But while I learned the benefits and beauty of honesty, I also saw its consequences. In that same class, someone had been strong and true enough to himself to open up to the class about a selfish and hypocritical thought he had at the previous class session, and he had noted that upon thinking this thought, he was highly disappointed in himself. But while he barely punctuated his confession with a full stop, he was attacked. He was met with a retort so painful and so discouraging that I almost started crying for him. I mean, it was really bad. It was like beating up an already wounded vulnerable disabled person. I could not look. And it made me realize that as I learn to speak as honestly as I can, I must understand also that I cannot guarantee the response or reaction to my honesty.

 

While this young man’s selfish and hypocritical thoughts were thoughts that every single person on this earth has, at some point, experienced or entertained, he was still met with a self-righteous, judgmental and sanctimonious response. And I thought that was unfair. I thought that that in itself- that response to a purely human thought – was a highly hypocritical thing to have been done.

 

Since I left Harvard (and I use ‘leave’ in its most literal sense), the dream I narrated in my opening paragraphs has not been my first. I have had dreams of this model of brutally honest, real, raw and painful conversation. I have had dreams – real midnight dreams – of unhindered and yet carefully thought out conversations. I have seen many people in my dreams – old friends, old teachers, family members, boyfriend, casual friends. And with these people, I have had conversations that I would not have in my conscious state,  perhaps for the same fears that plague the muddled middle. And I keep wondering what it means for me – in reality, that is.

 

But while I’m figuring that out, I’m also generally thinking “Well, don’t I want to be like Harvard?’ or perhaps ‘..like the environment Harvard fosters’. How so? I want, just like Harvard, to be able to leave people with a positively dramatic transformational awareness and a self-awakening change within just a short interaction with me.

 

I reckon that this is probably the only way to live.

 

_____

Here’s a picture of my amazing brother and I.

cool kidsssss

cool kidsssss

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“My Harvard Experience”

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