Until I reached Stanford I was under the impression that “nerdy” implied sitting behind a computer all day and using words that had just been added to the English language. But come last September I suddenly found myself in an alternate universe where the humanities kids were the ones whose social skills were presumed to be questionable. I spent last year immersed in the SLE bubble, and when I would tell people I was in SLE the responses would range from sympathetic, as if I had just said I had been condemned to cleaning every bathroom on campus, to suspicious and almost nervous, as if my initially normal social patterns would break down momentarily and I would start pacing and muttering incomprehensibly. It seemed like to the outside world FloMo was a black hole and was approached the same way one would approach a takeout container of unknown origin in in the back of the fridge (the infamous virus that ravaged FloMo last year and prompted a plague-esque reaction in the dining hall definitely did not help matters). People just could not comprehend why I would voluntarily sign up to have my nose immersed in books for dozens of hours a week. But once in a while I would tell someone I was in SLE and instead of a snarky response there would be a pause and then a confession, “I kinda wish I had done SLE.” And eventually I realized there was a significant subset of the student body that might otherwise have done SLE but had been warned that it would be equivalent to social suicide.
It is no secret that Stanford is a Silicon Valley breeding ground and a Stanford success story always begins with a start up. So it is no surprise that a group of kids who want to slave over 34 melodramatic cantos of a 13th century Italian’s escapade through the depths of hell might seem absurd. After all it is not most people’s idea of a comedy. Yes, there might be a couple more ancient Greek names thrown around over dinner at FloMo, but other than that SLE kids seem to average the same amount of quirkiness as the rest of the student population.
So why the SLE stigma? It could be SLE’s insularity that allows the rumor mill to run wild; and, in all fairness, when kids in Wilbur or Stern begin to muse about what could possibly be going on in FloMo there is rarely a SLE kid around to refute them. But SLE is widely loved by the students who take part in it and it’s not hard to understand why. For starters, SLE allows students to go through freshman year without knowing what a PSET looks like. Yes, there are papers, but the nice thing about papers is there is no right or wrong answer as long as the argument is convincing. In fact the most controversial arguments are the most attractive. It would be much harder to convince the math department that two plus two equals five no matter how great of a debater you are.
There is also the matter of the SLE community. Maybe it is because there is a shared feeling of misunderstanding, but there is an automatic camaraderie between present and previous SLE students. SLE kids don’t have to worry about their learning material becoming outdated by the time they are out of college. The techies might be having their moment in the sun now but SLE kids can wait patiently gripping their aggressively highlighted and annotated Homeric epics knowing that if this stuff lasted this long it probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So lets be honest. We are all nerds. That is why we are here. But nerds come in all different shapes and sizes and as any SLE kid will tell you there is no ideal form, at least not in the material universe. So next Sunday when you are on line for Indian food at FloMo, try striking up a conversation with the SLE kid in front of you. It might be the most existential bowl of curry you have ever eaten.