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Crises and Epiphanies

Jonathan Glater '93

The improvisational comedy troupe we enjoyed during my four years of college gave me an analogy for the Swarthmore experience, if not its meaning, of which I am not certain. At the close of one of their performances, members of Vertigo-Go listed some of the skits that they had not performed for us, skits with names but no details. One of them was called Epiphany Warehouse.

As far as I know, the skit never was presented, and we never learned what might happen in an epiphany warehouse. But I imagine an experience not unlike college, full of crises and corresponding epiphanies. Trying to finish massive amounts of reading in ridiculously short periods of time without enough sleep created a crisis; realizing that not every word of every assigned reading had to be analyzed for every class was an epiphany-and a critical one at that. This discovery saved me from death by lack of sleep during my first semester, the one that was graded pass/fail.

Crisis may be too strong a word, it seems to me now. When I was a student, though, every challenge, no matter how small, really was a crisis. Every solution really did seem to call for an epiphany. Everything was a mountainous molehill. Today, I know that it was a luxury to treat every minor problem, whether a messy laser-tag feud with a hallmate or an incomprehensible phrase by Shakespeare, with the gravity more appropriate to an earth-shattering concern. And at the same time, I had not only the time but also the obligation to ponder abstract ideas of great import, such as the future ideal structure of society or the nature of merit.

The social possibilities of college created a crisis of the less weighty category. How could I possibly make even a dent in my homework, if I also wanted to battle natural nerd tendencies? The epiphany there came in two stages. First, I came up with a disciplined system, allowing myself to attend many parties but to remain at one for hours and hours only if I spontaneously decided that it was fun; second, I would let that happen only once a semester. It was a good system, except when my one party fell the night before a seminar paper was due.

This sounds overly monastic, even if it did not feel so at the time. Possibly it was, though; I remember my junior year, living on the fourth floor of Parrish in an isolated corner room that had two windows, and two radiators that kept me too warm in the winter. Perhaps I remember that room because it captured, in many ways, how I thought of Swarthmore itself: wonderfully isolated, quiet, spacious. It provided me with the space to think and to learn.

In that junior year, I began to take seminars that met just once a week, and so I had the time to read volumes and volumes of articles, textbook chapters, novels. I would write seminar papers on my new computer, up there in my room, late at night, listening to music until all hours, because my schedule was under my control. That was a wonderful virtue of seminars.

When a seminar ran late into the night, draining my brain with arguments over the right interpretation of some abstract text, my friends and I would hold an informal detox session in someone's dormitory room, staying up hours more to dissect the classroom conversation. We came up with all the clever one-liners each of us should have had ready for the professor and developed all the criticisms of the readings that had eluded us earlier. Those postmortem conversations have stuck more firmly in my memory than many of the assigned readings themselves. In every campus or classroom crisis, friends were the one constant.

Alums I spoke with when I was thinking about this essay told me that the people they met in college were the lasting benefit Swarthmore provided for them. Friends were the allies in difficult classes, the sounding boards for ideas for papers and grandiose schemes to save the world-or, at least, the campus-and the folks who made sure that I did not lose myself entirely in books. The people who formed the core group I am sure to rely on for the rest of my life were the ones who weathered crises and epiphanies with me. Some courses were crises on a weekly basis. My classmates in economic theory helped me avoid spending extra months figuring out why it is that when prices decline, people consume more of what they want. Professor Saffran always tried to be kind to us, but his patience with a sloppy answer would go only so far, and then one of us would be sent to the blackboard to work out a problem alone, while everyone else watched. The resulting fear led us to set up our own study groups to rehearse. Sometimes, we succeeded in figuring out a homework problem on our own, but I remember all the times we failed. I remember having to go to the board. The epiphany was not eventually getting to the right answer; it was realizing that I was learning from the experience itself.

The crisis outside of my classes that has stayed with me resulted from the realization that not all professors knew how to teach effectively, and that I and my fellow students were paying the price. I took my concerns to faculty members I trusted; I talked them over with members of the Education Department, who knew more than I about how we learn. I finally wrote up some of my concerns and my proposed solutions and sent them to members of the College administration. We organized a meeting, and I learned how not to run a meeting. We came up with a plan, and I learned that plans require the support of the people critical to implementing them and should begin with easily managed small steps. A smaller group held a less ambitious meeting, and a few faculty members began to consider how certain classes might be taught more effectively.

It was a frustrating experience at the time, and it provoked a crisis of confidence for me. Not for months afterward, not until I was well into graduate school, did I realize that at most other schools, very few people-even friends but certainly faculty and staff-would have listened to my concerns, tolerated my memos, or considered the ideas I tried to outline in them. The surprise, in retrospect, was not that change was difficult, but that anyone was receptive to it at all. That may have been Swarthmore's last lesson, but it was not the end of the cycle of crises and epiphanies.

I work for The New York Times, and every day that I have to write a story presents a crisis of a sort. Hours-and sometimes days, even weeks-of reporting provide the facts that support an article, but ultimately there is, as an editor of mine at another newspaper once told me, a hole waiting in the newspaper. That hole can cause considerable stress, especially when the topic of the story becomes apparent very late in the day.

It took me years to realize that not every story would come easily, that not every opening sentence would be perfect, that not every attempt to explain a complicated subject in very little time, with very little space, would succeed. At times, writing a longer story that will not appear for days, I somehow stumble upon the exact words that I think I need to use, though I would not call that an epiphany. Perhaps searching for those words has something in common with the late-night struggle to find the best way to explain in a seminar paper the hundreds of pages of material assigned in a given week. Such college experiences certainly help me to cope with the unpredictable rhythms of the Times.

I need no epiphany to know that.

Jonathan Glater, a reporter for The New York Times, currently covers law firms, consulting firms, and accounting firms.