Humanities Majors Can Like Science Too

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Molly Rideout '10

 

I arrived at Grinnell my first year as a wannabe physicist and a wannabe writer, and I had no idea which of these subjects I wanted to follow. If I had been stuck with such diverse interests at any other college, I might have been in trouble, but at Grinnell this dilemma was not as serious as it might have originally seemed. By pure luck, I got the perfect first-year adviser to help me work through my science-humanities schizophrenia: Professor Paula Smith, an English professor who teaches creative writing. Her husband, Professor Paul Tjossem, teaches physics.

Professor Smith did her best to cultivate both of my interests in my academic plan. I ended my first year in a good position to double major in English and physics, with at least two very excited professors to help guide me through any conflicts.

But then I had an epiphany, an epiphany that had absolutely nothing to do with challenges of double majoring or balancing schedules. The epiphany was very simple and concrete: for me, math sucked. Like really really boring sucked, and any career path that included me spending the rest of my life with equations was not a career path I wanted.

So heigh-ho, heigh-ho, off to English I go, never to set foot in a physics room again.

Not that my adviser didn’t try. She pushed and she pushed to get me to continue my studies in physics, but my interests had changed to gender and women’s studies. Plus, I had found an even better way to satisfy that inner geek in me. I made friends.

Science friends are awesome. Physics, biology, computer science — they all understood and appreciated the necklace I made out of circuit resistors. They get the dweeby jokes I make. Well, maybe not when they’re about Charlotte Brontë, but they do when they’re about indefinite integrals. By observing as my friends learned and synthesized knowledge and repeated it back to me, I in a way got exactly what I had been looking for in physics: the science community. And I didn’t have to do a single problem set to get there! I got to write my postcolonial, my poststructural, my postfeminist papers for all the lit classes I wanted — something I actually could see myself spending the rest of my life doing — without having to give up that attachment to science.

And yes, I was a bit of a phony, a science groupie, if you will. I made T-shirts and traveled everywhere with the science band during their semester tour without ever actually picking up an instrument myself. But that’s what I wanted, and had I wanted to double major I could have done that as well. By virtue of its close community, Grinnell allows students with such diverse majors to interact all the time. It doesn’t trap you within your area of study. I like being around science people even if I don’t want to be a science person myself.

When I officially declared English as my major and asked Professor Smith to stay on as my adviser, I received an e-mail consisting only of one line: “Do you promise to take Modern Physics your senior year?” I balked. I could promise I would hear from my friends all about the awesome experiments they were doing, so by osmosis, yes …

A few minutes later, I got a second e-mail:

“Just kidding. Of course I will.”

Molly Rideout '10 is an English major and Gender and Women's Studies concentrator from Madison, Wisconsin.