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Caracotsios: Quarter system provides immense freedom for exploration

Julian Caracotsios, Assistant Opinion Editor

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We Northwestern students seem to be perpetually plagued by abnormally high levels of stress hormones in our bloodstreams. Maybe it’s the gray haze of clouds that never ceases to hang above our heads or maybe it’s something in the mysterious substances they call “food” in the dining halls, but a lot of the blame is heaped upon what is one of the defining aspects of our academic experience: the dearly beloved quarter system.

The complaints abound for good reason. It’s not a “midterm” if the professor gives three of them, nor is it “midterms week” if it’s for multiple weeks in a row. Even Reading Period — ostensibly the grace period for us Weinberg students – is routinely invaded and occupied by hostile academicians who feel the need to saturate our already-saturated brains with even more material. There never seems to be any breaks, and the stress of exams and papers drags on forever. Much better to face the slings and arrows in one go than suffer a slow and agonizing death by a thousand cuts.

These are all valid grievances. A lot could be done to give the quarter system a human face and make our lives a lot more manageable, but there is another phenomenon underlying our Wildcat woes that we can’t simply regulate away.

A priori, the quarter system does not necessitate a more stressful workload than the semester system. It does, however, give the individual much more optionality without much guidance. That is, it allows us to do more things, but says nothing about what those things are. And this is where the problems arise. Give NU students the chance to compete at something, and they will. You don’t have to double major, get a Kellogg certificate, cure AIDS, run your own start-up or casually get a Ph.D. in 18th-century French literature with all those extra courses you’re allowed to take. But how else are you going to beef up that resume of yours to impress Goldman Sachs/Harvard Medical School/(insert prestigious institution here)?

Actually, scratch the Ph.D., because even though it would supposedly indicate “diverse interests” — which employers, graduate schools and scholarship committees allegedly eat up like 6-year-olds eat entire buckets of Halloween candy — the humanities are often the first thing to go. Rather than broadening minds, for many of us, distribution requirements are grade point average inflators, which thankfully give us one less thing that we actually have to worry about.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

As a matter of fact, you can use many, if not every single one, of the extra classes the quarter system gives you to dabble in your random interests, not for any resume, employer or committee — just for you. I’m a math major, so I spend a lot of time taking classes that are heavy on time spent in the library writing obscure symbols on a sheet of paper with my face glued to a textbook. At the same time, however, I have a rule that I like to follow: I try to take one class every quarter that has nothing to do with my major or my career aspirations.

Quarters give you a lot more free space to do what you want. They give you the flexibility to experiment with classes and majors until you find the right one. What you make of this is up to you. You can use it to cram in as much as possible, or you can be satisfied with your one Weinberg major and take some classes for the heck of it. And yes, you can take only three courses when you know that the orgo professors give three midterms, weekly lab reports and a lab final each quarter.

Before we blame our environment, we should first look to ourselves. I’m finishing up writing this article after a hellish week, during which I scrambled to study for an exam at the last minute after spending hours completing what was probably the longest homework assignment I’ve ever had. I can empathize with those who bemoan the nonstop pressure that the quarter system can create. My schedule this fall has been all over the place, and more than once I’ve found myself bleeding money just to feed myself because I simply did not have time to go home and cook.

Fortunately, come winter, I’m switching up some classes and rearranging my schedule so that doesn’t happen anymore. Because we’re on quarters, it’s only 10 weeks until I get to press “reset” and start things over again.

And that’s the beauty of it.

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at juliancaracotsios2014@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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About the Writer
Julian Caracotsios, Opinion Editor

Julian Caracotsios was an Opinion editor for The Daily. He is from Naperville, Ill. He joined the Opinion desk in March 2013 and was an assistant Opinion...