Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Let a Thousand Eye Rolls Bloom

I admit it: I have a multitude of pet peeves. They vary widely in degree of seriousness, from people listening to music on their iPods in the library with the volume turned up so high you can hear it three stacks over to people who think it's a really awesome idea to drive drunk and then whine and cry when they get busted and have to spend the weekend in jail. I know some of them are slightly more rational than others (see: my pathological hatred of those giant freaking flower headbands that people stick on their daughter's head, because heaven forbid someone mistake her for a boy. The damage might be terrible and permanent! vs. my opinion of people who don't spay and neuter their pets, who I personally think should have to spend a week living and working in the shelters for each unwanted animal their negligence produces), but they're all relatively important to me, and cause more or less equal amounts of irritation on my part. Some are worse than others, though.

One of the biggest (and most often-aggravated ones, given the company I keep), is the notion that people who study math and the hard scientist are by nature more intelligent than those inclined to the social sciences and the humanities. Much as I maintain that getting an English degree was not the wisest decision in terms of my income potential, that doesn't mean that the study of literature is worthless, nor is it any indication whatsoever of my intelligence level. People seem to think that because I didn't spend whole afternoons in labs or agonize over problem sets, I wasn't doing any work, "just sitting around and reading." Clearly, I couldn't hack it elsewhere, and was coasting my way through.

The hilarious thing is that I had zero time to lay about and read for fun. Apart from summer vacation, I read fewer than twenty books for fun over the course of my entire undergraduate career, and half of those I read when I was a freshman. My average workload in a given semester involved the equivalent of two Shakespeare plays (I also took classes on Chaucer and Dante) along with four to five hundred pages of prose (sometimes poetry) per week, and I averaged about ten pages of writing about what I was reading per week, as well. And that was just for my courses that counted towards my English major; I was also taking sociology, philosophy, and women's studies classes, and those tend to involve a lot of reading and writing, too. On top of that, English was one of the hardest programs at Vanderbilt; the professors seemed to delight in exceptionally strict grading standards (one would fail you if your papers had typographical errors even if the content was perfect), and the difference between a good grade and a mediocre one often hinged on how insightful you were in class discussions.

Easy major, my ass.

Also hilarious was the number of semi-literate individuals I met who were enrolled in the sciences side of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering. I lived in the philosophy/fine arts dorm (McGill: Where the Weird Kids Live), and it attracted both ultra-nerdy science types and the varying flavors of philosophizing humanities and social science students. I became the Resident Editor of Papers, and the number of highly intelligent math and science majors I knew who couldn't string a simple sentence together, much less formulate a cogent argument about the theme of a work of literature was astonishing on its own, and becomes even more so when one considers I was at a fairly prestigious university. Note that I don't say that these individuals were stupid because they couldn't write a paper extolling the relative merits of utilitarianism as depicted in Charles Dickens novels, nor do I say that they couldn't do it if they were willing to apply themselves. There's no doubt in my mind that they could have done better if they were interested in the subject matter, but they weren't.

I'm not interested in math at all, and my interest in the sciences begins and ends with biology and its practical applications. I don't care about how computers work as long as they do, and I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in building machines, bridges, or anything else not involving yarn. This does not indicate a lack of intelligence or a sign of personal, moral, or intellectual failure; I'm simply not interested in any of those things. And that's okay.

I also suspect that there's not a small amount of sexism tied up in this crap. The hard sciences, math, engineering, and computer-based fields are male-dominated, while the humanities and the social sciences (with the possible exceptions of economics and political science) are heavily skewed towards women. I can't help but feel an undercurrent of misogyny every time someone intimates that reading books is girly, or that sociology is a "fluffy" discipline, or, better yet, that women aren't in the male-dominated fields because they're incapable of performing well in them. I'm sure that has nothing to do with entrenched sexism in those fields (and the notoriously hostile environment they produce in schools and workplaces alike), or the fact that women are all but brainwashed from birth on to believe that they can't do math or science as well as men.

Every time this comes up, I have to force myself to not kick myself for choosing to go into disciplines and fields that I enjoyed rather than toughing it out in the sciences to prove a point. I shouldn't have to, and neither should anyone else.

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