Shimer College

October 04, 2012

Carefully Cultivated Confidence: An Introduction

Hello, internet. 

I suppose introductions are in order: my name is Ryan Taylor-Davis, and I’m a first-year transfer student at Shimer from Sebastopol, California.

Blogging is something fairly new to me; I haven’t really done it very often. Nevertheless, I saw an opportunity to learn how to do something new and grow as a person and I took it. In many ways, that’s what it’s is about: self-growth. Every time I hear stories of people rediscovering themselves at Shimer, completely changing their ideologies and life goals, I smile. Like these people, I’ve experienced my own sort of transformation, of total reconstruction and metamorphosis at this amazing place. And I’ve been here a month and a half.

Perhaps the beginning would be the best place to start. I was always a bookworm; many long hours were spent wandering the hills and fields of Sonoma County, my home, a book in hand and the sun on my face. It was nothing short of magical. School, however, was always a different matter. I enjoyed reading, but hate the textbooks and tedium infinitum of worksheets; it killed learning for me. Of all the subjects I hated, there was no greater villain than math and science. How horrible they were, no books and all practice problems. I struggled with them all throughout middle school, and high school got even worse: with failing confidence in my academic ability because of my slipping grades in math and science, I felt less and less confident in the liberal arts, and I watched those grades begin to slip as well. I began to show up late, or even not go at all, just because I was discouraged.

Come graduation, I went to Santa Rosa Junior College. It was infinitely better than high school, because I could choose what I wanted to take. I solved the problem of hating math and science by simply not taking them. This, however, did not solve my disgust with the subjects. Upon finding Shimer, I was determined to apply and wrote my admissions essays that night; I was confident that this had to be the place for me. I’d go to Shimer and study hard, participate in the B.A. to J.D. program, and the graduate and practice law. There, just like that, in a neat little box.

But life, in its infinite wisdom, is never that simple. It doesn’t appreciate being put into boxes like that. When I arrived at Shimer, the most peculiar thing happened. I started to appreciate the natural sciences. Reading The Presocratics, a collection of writings by natural philosophers before Socrates, and then reading Lucretius, the great Roman poet, write about atoms in the 1st Century B.C. really piqued my interest. I started asking questions, questions I had never considered before. We knew about atoms that long ago? How do atoms bond with one another? 

The readings continued to get more and more interesting, and every time I read a new author, a thousand new questions filled my mind. Sometimes, I would understand. I’d gloss over diagrams, with their overtly complex labeling system, or struggle with Aristotelian diction. But that’s the beauty of Shimer: every time I stepped into the classroom, no matter how bewildered I was when I started, I always left with a better understanding of the material. This understanding was usually sufficient to discuss, write about, or even explain the concepts to other students; the few times it wasn’t, others were always there to help me after class over food in the cafeteria. 

All of my classes are brilliant, but I guess Natural Sciences 1 with Jim Donovan really stands out because it evoked such a drastic change in me. I went from a kid who was routinely made fun of in science classes, who had to take biology twice because he did so poorly, to looking forward to my Laws and Models in Chemistry class every morning. Considering that the class starts at 8:30am, that’s a feat. It’s just so different from anything I’ve previously experienced; it makes me want to be there. Unlike the discouraged slump I fell into in high school, I’ve never missed a class.

I’m also enrolled in Humanities 1: Art and Poetry with Aron Dunlap, which is phenomenal - we’re reading Metamorphoses, a captivating book by Ovid. It’s quite remarkable how much art over the years has been based on the stories found in this book. And then, in the afternoons, I have Social Sciences 1: Society, Personality, and Culture with Ann Dolinko. We’ve had some really interesting discussions in that class, especially after reading William James’ Psychology: The Briefer Course.

Each semester at Shimer, students either take a composition exam (“comp”) testing their competency in a group of core classes or do a semester project that links up with their academics; considering students generally comp at the end of their first year, or midway through their second, I’m going to be doing a semester project this year. I haven’t decided exactly what yet, but I know I’m going to be doing something related to the diffusion speed of gases through a solid barrier. I’ve been pretty inspired to test the diffusion speeds ever since reading Pascal, who did the same, but with mercury. The most amazing part of all this, though, is that I could have chosen nearly anything (as long as it’s approved by the facilitators) to do my semester project on, but I’m choosing a science experiment. Now that’s certainly a transformation!

So I guess I really didn’t know what I was going to major in. Law seemed the obvious choice because, well, I thought that was the only thing I could do well. I didn’t really like rhetoric, but it’s what I could do unfailingly decent at. It seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to NOT doing well in so many other areas: just find one thing you’re decent at, and cling to it. But Shimer’s turned all that on it’s head: I’ve discovered I’m good at more than just talking pretty. I did well on my first sociological paper, and chemistry continues to fascinate and inspire me. 

Will I abandon my previous plans and major in natural sciences? I don’t know. And I’m okay with that. That’s a pretty big life decision to have made in a month and half. But I do know that I don’t feel like I have to choose law because it’s the only thing I’m good at. I have other interests, other areas of proficiency. This confidence in myself, this idea planted in my head and carefully cultivated over my short time here, will continue to grow and flower and bloom over the rest of my education. That is the true transformation Shimer has caused. 


    All the best,

        And see you at Shimer,