Monday, April 26, 2010

Eight Things You Won't Hear During Cornell Days

Readers of this blog know that I truly love Cornell. To blog about the university, you have to either really love it or really hate it. And I fall into the first category.

That said, there are always ways in which our fine college can improve. Over these last few weeks, I'll be pointing out some of these areas and offering some suggestions.

In this post, I look at eight facts about life at Cornell which you wouldn't hear about if you attended Cornell Days over these last two weeks.

1. There really is no broad sense of the Cornell community. 'Community' is a buzz word these days, with the 'caring community' and all which is supposed to prevent suicides. But there are very few occasions on which the whole student body actually comes together. Slope Day might be the one exception, but the focus of the day is drinking, and the architects have final exams or presentations or something that day which prevents them from having too much fun. Aside from that, your choice of major, religion/ethnicity, and Greek (or not) affiliation are the factors which dictate what you do. There are always exceptions, but if you're a Hotelie, you'll be living in and around the Statler. An engineer, and you'll be stuck in labs and up late finishing problem sets. An architect, and you'll be in studio.

2. Many of Cornell's teaching assistants are sub-par. This hasn't affected me too much, since the humanities TAs are generally Ph.D candidates who are highly qualified to grade papers and lead a discussion section. The situation at Cornell is still better than at Harvard, where professors do very little to interact with students and teach courses. But you don't have to stop too many Cornell students before you find someone with a TA horror story. Simply put, many TAs for engineering and science courses are not proficient in English and speak with very heavy accents. They may be some of the smartest graduate students in the university, but their undergraduates cannot understand what they say and feel uncomfortable about asking them to repeat things or approaching them for help. In my four years of taking mostly Arts courses, I had only one TA with an English problem. But even in a history course, I suffered for a semester with a 19th Century specialist who had been assigned to TA a course on classical Greece and Rome.

3. Town-gown relations are not strong. There isn't really a strong sense of a Cornell community, and there is even less of a sense of an inclusive Ithaca community. With so much to offer on campus, and the relative isolation of North Campus, most freshmen hardly ever venture more than a couple of blocks off-campus, much less to the more economically and racially diverse sections of Ithaca. Perhaps they'll go to the Ithaca Mall, or to the Commons a handful of times, but that's about it. Cornell upperclassmen necessarily interact with Townies to sign leases and things like that, but they're not forming any sort of relationships with the typical Ithaca resident.

4. The Greek community exercises tremendous influence over most aspects of life at Cornell. It's not just that the entire campus social scene revolves around alcohol-centric fraternity parties. The most influential campus leaders are almost exclusively Greek. Most troubling, Greek politics makes its way into areas of Cornell life like the tour guide selection process. Greeks will choose members of their own houses for these types of jobs over more qualified members of other houses or (gasp) non Greeks. Similar trends can be seen for new student orientation, with Greeks choosing members of their own houses to serve as orientation supervisors. And don't get me started about the types of things the most prominent and wealthy fraternities can get away with.

5. The specialty majors which make Cornell a unique university have become hijacked by students who use them as springboards to popular and generally unethical jobs. More and more Hotelies want to go to law school or work on Wall Street. ILRies also want to go to law school or work on Wall Street. Liberal arts majors want to go to law school. PAM majors want to go to law school or work on Wall Street. Majors like Biology and Society and Human Biology, Health and Society are used as easier pre-med majors.

6. Cornell students are generally ill informed and don't care about what goes on around them. Just look at the embarrassingly low turnout for things like SA elections. Hell, voting for SA takes about 90 seconds of reading and clicking. And only a small fraction of students take the time to do that. Although the Sun does a fantastic and diligent job of putting together a handy daily report for students about what's happening on campus and in the community, few students actually peruse the newsy sections of the paper.

7. Yes, budget cuts are affecting academics. You can't cut hundreds of millions of dollars by buying fewer paper clips and letting the grass grow on Libe Slope. Whole academic programs have been cut, and departments like Theatre are facing crippling budget cuts. Smaller, upper-level classes, which are often the most rewarding academically, have been cut because departments have difficulty justifying the cost of holding these classes.

8. The weather here really sucks sometimes. Not much can really be done about this, but it should be said. Try walking out of your 2:55-4:10 class during the winter as it's already nearing darkness, the icy wind whips your face, and you have a prelim in three hours. Think the weather doesn't affect students' moods? I came to Ithaca from New England, where the weather isn't much better. But at least in high school, when the weather was bad, I wouldn't have to trudge 15 minutes uphill through ice and snow to get to class. I know tour guides are supposed to talk about the "four seasons" in Ithaca, but the Cornell winter seems to last forever. Unlike some other schools which have underground tunnels or glassed-in walking areas, Cornell lets us experience Mother Nature at her best and worst.


  1. Great observations! I agree with all of these but "fact" 4 - the one about Greek influence.

    While there are many members of the Greek community that exert a tremendous amount of influence over campus life, I would argue that just as many non-Greeks are in such influential positions. In addition, the Greek affiliations of those campus-movers do not necessarily help them become leaders. While it is certainly an advantage to know other Greeks and get them on your side during an electoral campaign, many rely on their peers and their personal contacts to become successful.

    That being said, there are instances where Greek affiliation does give one an advantage over others. The numerous blogs you've posted in the past about certain frats getting away with IFC violations certainly proves that point. In addition, the election of certain prominent positions around campus also seem to have Greek biases. The intention of my comment is to not pressure people to join Greek life just because they want to be leaders on campus.

  2. Regarding #7 - which academic programs have been cut? You indicated that entire programs have been cut. This is news. Can you name any?

  3. See, for example, this:

  4. well, Theoretical and Applied Mechanics is cut

  5. Ithaca has the nicest summers of any place I've ever been. Complaining about the weather here is cliche and passe. It may be less predictable, but if you wanted 80 degrees and sunny everyday, go to school in the south or pollute the environment more.