Failing the Art of Freshman Year

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At college orientation, I did the only thing an incoming first year with no friends, knowledge or certainty knows how to do: I called my mom. I was panicking as I tried to decide among the hundreds of classes at UVa. After talking to her for an hour, she told me she supported me, but was falling asleep. Left to my own devices, I decided to sign up for “History of Art I,” figuring it would be a simple introduction to the world of Art History. Worst choice ever. What ensued was a semester of stressful soul searching, study struggling and self-doubt.

My first clue of my mistake came in an email we got before the class had met. It outlined the syllabus, which included no modern art. I love modern art. This class didn’t even go up through the Renaissance. But it’s okay, I convinced myself, this would make me “worldly” and “college”.

Then on the first day of class, I wound up running halfway across grounds because I misread the name of the building. I stood in the hallway outside a random office for maybe five minutes until I worked up the nerve to walk inside and ask why this room wasn’t a classroom. I had already messed up on reading, which by college… well, I thought that was a skill I had mastered. I should’ve taken this as an omen that bad things were about to happen, but I persevered nonetheless.

After running to the mysterious section of UVa called “arts grounds,” I found a seat in the back of class and settled in for the most fantastic lecture ever. Our teacher was the stereotypical nerdy professor — AKA an old dude who totally loved his subject. We spent the class talking about one art piece and unlocking the symbolism of all the different details. It felt amazing. I was sold.

But my joy was short-lived. Every class from there went downhill. What was initially 20 minutes focused on one piece of pottery became three to five minutes on 20 different works each class. I felt completely out of my depth with art I had never heard of, Ancient Greek artist’s names, hundreds of slide IDs and seemingly irrelevant facts to memorize for a grade composed almost entirely of only two tests. It didn’t help that the T.A. who graded these tests was a perfect intellectual Barbie (blond with cute glasses and always put together) who seemed to treat our exams like Elle from Legally Blonde. “What, like it’s hard?”

My GPA and my enthusiasm for art history dwindled. The night before the final I fell asleep in a chair in our dorms study lounge, book open on my lap, before giving up and getting four hours of “real sleep.” I came home from the test and cried, knowing that I hadn’t done well and wondered how I could ever be an Art History major if the lowest level art history class had completely kicked my ass.

I still think back and wish I’d taken the Modern Art class I had been considering. The higher level class would’ve been easier and I would’ve been able to confidently and enthusiastically declare my major. This class was overwhelming and didn’t allow me to get a handle on how to study for Art History exams because of the quantity of information. It wasn’t on art that I was passionate about.

Although I did stick with it and eventually declared an Art History major, I still haven’t quite gotten down the art to picking classes that are interesting, fill requirements and suit my learning style. Sometimes my favorite classes are the ones I signed up for on a whim, and other times I think back on my semester (and look at my transcript) with sorrow. I’ll never fully recover from wasting so much stress and tears on “History of Art I,” but I have started to move on. I realized that, while everyone always says most students change their major several times in college, it’s also possible to stick with your major, despite major doubts.

Kristen is a Senior (or fourth year, as we call them!) at the University of Virginia, studying Art History and Media Studies. She loves modern art, walking around New York and fancy cheese.

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