Thursday, February 7, 2008

Quarked: Seeing the World Beyond Your Major

This week's "Quarked" was inspired by a discussion I had this weekend with a friend and focuses on the odd fact that Case students like to take a supercilious position when it comes to how much work they have. I've no idea how prevalent it is at other schools but suspect ours is a bit more excessive than the average. Article text in full-

One thing that fascinates me most about Case student culture is the masochistic tendency to compare workloads with others to see whose is the most difficult. "You're only taking 24 credit hours and didn't sign up for differential sadistical mechanics this semester?" I heard one friend ask another on the quad just recently.

"Not exactly," the friend bragged in a loud voice, lest anyone mistake his academic valor. "After all, I'm playing first tuba now for four music ensembles that I'm not counting as credits, and I'm pass-failing Advanced Sanskrit so it evens out." At this the friend gave a nod and proceeded to point out why his schedule was more difficult, and the pair continued down this line in a tone typically reserved for gardeners discussing prize orchids.

While there's certainly nothing wrong with a little work ethic, sometimes things can get a little out of hand. For example, earlier this week I was talking to a fellow physics major and the conversation turned to what he wanted to do later in life. I thought his plans to go into nuclear engineering sounded pretty cool, but upon hearing that sentiment he was a touch surprised.

"Lots of other physics majors call me a 'sell-out' for not wanting to do physics after graduation," he explained, and I gave an incredulous glance. The last I checked, being a nuclear engineer is quite impressive and respectable, and due to the versatile nature of a physics degree, only one in 20 students who graduate with one end up becoming physicists in the "sit in Rockefeller and discuss angular momentum" sort of way. Calling someone a sell-out for deciding against the traditional physicist path, particularly when the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of you doing the same thing someday, does not make much sense.

Things can get even worse if two people engaged in the bragging-about-workload duel have different majors because, as everyone knows, all majors which are not your own are "easy." This rule applies to humanities majors in particular, who are thought by many to have slacker tendencies that will undoubtedly result in their landing a job at a place like Wackadon'ts after graduation.

I confess I've committed a fair amount of ribbing in this general area myself, and my old English major roommate probably got bored with the What Do You Do With a B.A. in English? song around the 32nd time I played it. But silly songs aside I do have a sizeable amount of respect for English majors: they know what dangling modifiers are, can figure out how to get paid for writing stuff, and know well enough not do a major where the class average can be 50% on an exam.

Case students can approach their classes with an incredibly admirable amount of passion, and it's easy to use this passion to convince yourself of your own superiority. But what would happen if we were all passionate about the same thing? That's right, it would be boring! So what if a humanities major doesn't have to as many problem sets as an engineer, or if someone's dream calls them down a path different from your own? It is these differences that make others the wonderful individuals they are, and make the world beyond our own horizons a fascinating place to explore.

And as a final note to everyone, I recommend knocking off the bragging or at least taking a break from it on occasion to see what will happen. I promise, people will be a lot more impressed by your accomplishments and passions if they hear about them from someone else instead of you.


Linda said...

This was standard at Haverford too. Plus, you also had to brag about all the volunteering and saving the world you were doing when you weren't writing three 20 page papers in a week.

This would get especially bad on exam week since we did self-scheduled exams/papers. For some reason people would brag about how many exams and papers they had to write in the 24 hours remaining in exam week. Why people would brag about their lack of time management skills I never understood.