Looking Back on Moments of “Wild and Untethered” Curiosity

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Daniel D’Addario ’10 is the chief TV critic at Variety; he produces reviews, features, interviews and segments of the TV Take podcast for the magazine. He was previously the TV critic at Time. D’Addario is a two-time winner of the Los Angeles Press Club award for political commentary and profile writing. He lives in Brooklyn.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

Eager for college to begin! I graduated from a very small high school in a small town and had felt like the proverbial big fish. Suddenly, I was living in a room in New York City, with the bustle of life just outside my window each night and vivid conversation waiting for me in the classroom every morning. Both those elements, city life and student life, were welcome but at times bracing, too: In the latter case, I was surrounded by people far more driven, more accomplished, better-read and readier for the cut and thrust of Lit Hum than I! This was motivating and startling at once, as were all the possibilities available to someone who’d only fantasized about getting to live in New York. I wanted to be a part of everything and made a valiant attempt to embrace all parts of the experience at once: my studies, new friends, seeing the city. The great sacrifice, as I’m sure is a common refrain in these questionnaires, was sleep; that came later, once I’d gotten over just how novel it all was.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

It felt very luxurious to have a room to myself in John Jay, even if I sometimes think I might have missed out on what seems in retrospect like the manageable raucousness of Carman. My most positive memory was padding up and down the elevator, often with friends, to cap off the night’s studies (or revels) with fried food from JJ’s — a treat that felt all the more luxurious for being so close at hand, and open so rebelliously late.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I have fond memories of Lit Hum and CC, to be sure, but perhaps my most memorable Core class for academic reasons was “Introduction to MEALAC” (now referred to as MESAAS — Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies), that I took my first semester. I popped it into my schedule with an eye on fulfilling the major cultures requirement, but I found the subject matter — the history of the Muslim world — to be mind-expanding: So much of what I’d read about in the news over the course of my life had a rich, deep context that I had not had the time or guidance to learn on my own. For a flickering moment, I considered majoring in Middle Eastern studies, before returning my attention to my love of the critical study of films and novels. But I think of that decision often — it was one of those moments of wild and untethered curiosity that happens too rarely in life outside the four years when you’re just precisely too young to appreciate them, but looking back, I can still feel the eagerness I did as I sat in Philosophy Hall twice a week.

My most memorable Core class on a personal level was Art Hum, because I had it at the same time and in the same hallway as the guy I had a crush on. He worked on Spectator and at that time I did not, so if we walked into the building at the same time, I’d try to grab a copy to show him we had shared interests. Jacob Schneider ’10 and I have now been married for four years and welcomed our first child, Cleo, in 2020.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

The Starr East Asian Library in Kent — I don’t know how I discovered it, but it became the most calming and reflective space for writing essays as college went on. The level of demonstrative angst in Butler Library was unbearable to me (I preferred to write, and did, on the Lerner Hall ramps as college went on), and working in my room was impossible. The walk to Kent bypassed the miasma of bad vibes pouring out of Butler, and the walk back allowed me to clear my head a bit and reemerge from the world of ideas. A runner-up: the Butler Media lab, where I watched movies like Dogville and Eyes Wide Shut with rapt, sustained attention on rainy Saturday afternoons.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Where to begin? I will always be happy and proud to have been an American studies major, but I wish I’d found space and time in my coursework for more purely elective studies, more serendipity and oddity and unexpected connections between disciplines for which I didn’t make time. I wish I’d more consistently chosen to spend time with friends (whom I count as friends to this day) rather than peeling off into the city to explore. And I really wish I’d more seriously pursued learning a language — I eked out my language requirement in Spanish, but now, with a less agile brain and without a gifted faculty at my disposal, I am envious of the opportunities my former self had.

But I’m also at a kind of peace knowing that it would have been impossible to take advantage of everything Columbia had to offer: From my college years, I took both a great deal of knowledge and a better understanding of what it means to be fair-minded and curious. I also took with me relationships with my peers that will last my whole life, as well as an amped-up desire to be a part of the world of ideas for just as long. It’s easy to get down on not taking enough advantage, but, in my case, what I was able to grasp outweighs any doubt.