If you’ve given Polaris a glance lately, you might have noticed a few things. There appear to be three new language departments. The philosophy department appears to be on a diet. Clayton Rose (Professor Rose?) has his own discipline. Professor Barker’s Projective and Non-Euclidean Geometries has the craziest course description: "Special focus will be placed on conic sections and projective embeddings.” In theory, you could take classical political philosophy and contemporary political philosophy at the same time. There are exactly two humanities seminars that examine relationships between humans and animals. You can fulfill your INS studying (and sipping?) wine. You definitely cannot take what you really want to take.

Polaris is another name for the North Star: a stable point of light and the original navigation tool for wandering seafarers. (It is also a part of the constellation Ursa Minor, or “smaller (she-)bear.”). But is Polaris a fitting name for our course selection system? 

Polaris is chaotic and essential to our Bowdoin educations. By Polaris, we mean not just the online system, but the entire course selection process. Neither benevolent nor unkind, it is both the arbiter and instigator of contentious scheduling politics. A range of disciplines, an endless lineup of professors, and arbitrary distribution requirements stare blankly at you through the screen. There’s no indication of where to go or what to do. Our need for intellectual discovery takes us through murky, pine-dark waters: how are we to steer?

Consider the deluge of 10:00-11:30 Tuesday/Thursday classes. No student will take more than one of: Introduction to Africana or Environmental Studies, Anthropology, Religion, Art History, Education. This might ruin some plans. Suppose some aspiring-to-be-well-rounded first years cannot get their introductory fill, and are forced elsewhere into some dark 2000-level unknown. A few other classes might over-register. We upperclassmen will obviously sell short on this 1101 bubble and register elsewhere, but next year’s in-comers might be trapped. We all deal with the frustration of time conflicts and sometimes end up places we don’t want to be, but those with the standing “first year, first semester” are most vulnerable. Polaris shipwrecks even the most prudent planners among us.

Amidst the wavy tumult are many tantalizing options. Look at Barker’s Math 3404. The class purports to cover the  “transformational viewpoint of Klein’s Erlanger Program” and, time permitting, “quaternions in three dimensional geometry.” Scrumptious. We’re not sure what these words mean, but this class promises to tickle any tummy hungry for abstraction and especially mathematical theory. For those of us with no math experience since high school (Ben), it’s a dream and nothing more; for those who have the prerequisites, but lack the schedule space (Michael), it gestures toward a more perfect semester that is just out of reach. There are not only storms, but also sirens in the curricular seascape.

We’re not sure we want to be tied to the mast. This is the fun of Polaris. Registration encourages us to dream about what we could be as scholars, if only we could explore the geometry of four-dimensional spacetime in special relativity. Though it’s a romantic ritual, and somewhat whimsical, it’s also an important occasion for self-reflection. Mistakes we’ve made in the past will inform the decisions we make this round. As we fine-tune our interests, our ogling changes too. To refine our tastes in The Science of Food and Wine! (We don’t actually want to take that class.) The new Polaris cycle comes with new dreams and new conflicts: dynamic and chaotic.

Polaris is better conceived of as something to navigate, than something to navigate by. At once, it encourages romantic intellectual wandering and curbs it. To an extent, it alienates us from the hard work and stresses that go with courses, allowing us to indulge in titles and descriptions, while we ignore the real work they entail. There’s also an element of chance (fate?): sometimes you end up on the waitlist, and too often the “right” courses meet at the same time. In the end, we always compromise. We wash up somewhere we didn’t expect to land. Robert Peary, class of 1877, and supposedly the first man to reach the North Pole, declared “I shall find a way or make one.” The Bowdoin opportunity is to find order in the chaos of intellectual possibility. What we make is never perfect, but it is truly our own. We are our own stars: imperfect, but reliable guides.

Michael Butler and Ben Bristol are members of the class of 2017.