A History major, an Art major, and an English major all walk into a bar; they get ridiculed for pursuing what they love. *Ba-dum-tss*
I don’t think there was ever a question that I’d be an English major. I come from a family that is obsessed with books – both of my parents were English majors, both of my grandmothers were English teachers. Throughout school, I went overboard on any project for my English classes. Think: full costumes, musical numbers, iMovie documentaries. I was that girl. I have always been enamored with storytelling, and I fervently believe that the whole of human history is captured in literature. Books allow immersion into different perspectives and ideas, and engaging with writers that are unlike oneself inspires empathy and understanding. I’ve never had anything but the utmost respect for the subject of literature.
However, I am acutely aware that others don’t necessarily agree with me. English, along with the other humanities subjects, have become the laughing stock of higher education to many. Which, look, I get how the humanities’ bad reputation started. In the past fifty years, career options for STEM subjects have exploded. Computer science, Biomechanical engineering, molecular biology, and similar subjects have become buzzwords in the past decade. And for good reason: the tech and medical industries are booming, and are at the forefront of progress in our society. Higher education, and its subsequent trickle-down influence to high school education, has pushed STEM subjects because those fields have clear careers at the end of the white lab-coat path. I’m all for the expansion of STEM subjects (particularly the increase of women and people of color in STEM), but the emphasis on STEM subjects shouldn’t come at the expense of the humanities. The humanities have been devalued because they don’t create as clear a career path as other subjects. That sentiment, that the humanities are less important than STEM subjects, was made very clear to me a couple weeks ago.
Why am I talking about the pitting of humanities against STEM subjects in a DukeEngage blog post? I admit, it’s an awfully negative way to begin a discussion of what has been a truly wonderful experience so far in Boston. I bring up this debate, firstly, because it was brought up to me. Last week, my DukeEngage Boston cohort and I were graciously invited to attended a panel discussion hosted by Duke alumni entitled, “Science and the Service of Society.” The twelve of us journeyed to the Prudential Center, a hub of business and meeting spaces in Boston, to attend the discussion. Overall, it was a wonderful event. Great food (very important to the college student mind), thoughtful alumni, and an intriguing panel discussion. Prior to the discussion starting, however, the twelve of us were encouraged to chat with alumni. I sat down next to one alumna, who was cheerily sipping her seltzer water. I introduced myself, and we began to talk. She told me that she was a Physics major at Duke, one of the only female STEM majors in her graduating class (which was sometime during the 1960’s). She told me how she constantly faced opposition and blatant sexism while pursuing her degree. I told her how inspiring her story was, how I’m so grateful for her for breaking the glass ceiling in her field. I told her how my roommate was a Computer Science major and had spearheaded a camp for young girls in STEM the summer before. Our conversation was chugging along wonderfully, until she asked me what my major was.
“Oh,” I said, smiling the smile that I use when trying to impress older folks, “I’m an English major. Probably an Art History and Theater minor.” My smile slowly became sheepish as I realized my new friend’s reaction was going to be less positive than I wanted.
The woman’s mouth became a straight line. She took a sip of her seltzer water before replying, “Well, luckily there are women like me to lift up underachieving women like you.”
I didn’t reply. I just turned around and paid attention to the panel. But, truly, I was thinking about what the woman had said. I’m not insecure about being an English major. I love what I study, and feel confident in my ability to succeed in my field. I didn’t really care about that woman’s approval. But the comment stuck with me. For one, because it reinforced the idea that humanities subjects are less valuable than the hard sciences. Which I’d heard before. Plenty of Duke students have responded with a lukewarm, “oh, cool” when I tell them what I’m studying. I know some students immediately think I’m not as intelligent as others, or that I’m lazy because of my choice of major. But this woman was different. She didn’t just undervalue me – she resented me.
That interaction was a strange intersection of two experiences of being a female college student. This woman, likely a second-wave feminist, had to fight to have her voice heard in the STEM subjects. She was probably expected to have a pink-collar job, whereas she wanted to be a scientist. In her mind, she had fought for women like me to follow her footsteps and become a woman in STEM. She created space for me, and I rebuked her. To her, I was regressive in my choice of major.
In the end, we both want the same thing: for women to be respected in their academic fields. But instead of this alumna celebrating my choice to study the humanities, she saw it as an attack on the legacy she strived to create.
My dear alumna, I am not changing my major. Sorry (not sorry).
How can my perspective and that of the alumna be reconciled? Luckily, Boston has provided a good start on a solution. This summer, I am working with a nonprofit organization called 826 Boston. This organization encourages creative writing among underserved communities, empowering students to not only bolster their literacy skills, but to feel confident that their voices and their stories matter. Working at 826 has renewed my love for storytelling and confirmed my value as an English major. But, it has also shown me the importance of collaboration between the humanities, STEM, and the previously unmentioned, but equally important, social sciences. This lesson has come from learning about the practical side of running a nonprofit, like the business skills needed to manage fundraising and community partnerships, or the historical knowledge to understand the community we are working in and how to approach nonprofit work from an assets-based viewpoint. But, I’ve also learned about the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration from one of the projects 826 recently finished.
Part of 826’s mission is to make the students that work with them into published authors. 826 achieves this by getting students from their after-school tutoring program and students from their Writers’ Rooms, which are creative writing centers that are placed physically inside schools in Boston so that students have full-time access to writing help, to write pieces that center around a certain theme, and then turning those pieces into a published book, complete with its own ISBN number.
At the beginning of June, Brianna (the amazing other DukeEngage 826 intern) and I were able to attend the book release party for three books – all centered around STEM. Two of the books were cookbooks, wherein the students had to precisely measure their ingredients and study the chemistry behind their recipes. The other was a book about food justice, and the scientific and sociological factors that affect our perceptions of food. These books sought to prove a point: that creative writing about STEM was possible, and enriching (and delicious). The students, excuse me, authors, were able to synthesize their STEM skills and their humanities skills to create a finished product in which they could take pride.
The secret to abolishing the battle between STEM and the humanities? As 826 has taught me, it’s realizing that the subjects really aren’t that different. Both are uncovering what it means to be a person, and how to best interact with the world around us. There’s certainly nuance in determining what to study, such as the confluence of gender and time, as was made clear to me. But despite what the alumna might think, my English degree is just as valuable as her Physics degree. After all, without my English education I probably wouldn’t have been able to think deeply about her perspective in our interaction. And, without my English education, I sure wouldn’t have been able to write about it.