Author's Note: I was a low-profile senior when I wrote this article as the final piece for a journalism course. After the quarter ended, my prof told the Index (our campus paper) about my article, and they asked for it. The day it was published—on the front page, and with a whole additional page devoted to it inside—indignant cries of "fluff major?!" rang from all corners of the cafeteria, and a sign later appeared on the Index office door reading, "Fluff majors unite!" Meanwhile, I found myself declared the new patron saint of the English department pending probable martyrdom at the hands of angry science majors, while kids I didn't even realize knew my name came up to me in the cafeteria and thanked me for writing it. In her keynote speech at the English majors' thesis symposium at the end of the year, my mentor professor referred to me as their own muckracking journalist. Ah, college—good times!

Now you too can read the article that took a campus by storm! Please note that some names in this article have been changed out of courtesy to those who may not want the ghost of a college newspaper article following them through the Google archives for the rest of their days.

The 'K' College gulf: humanities and sciences collide
Mutual respect needed for all disciplines

Spring, Second Week: April 8, 2004

With a prospective student in tow, a tour leader approaches Dow Science Hall.

"The only time I ever come in this building is when I'm giving a tour," says the leader with a laugh.

With this comment, the tour leader has just revealed something significant: there is an academic gulf that divides Kalamazoo College. The comments of K students and faculty from many different departments suggest that it runs most deeply across the parking lot in front of Dow. What is it that separates the natural sciences from the humanities, the arts, or the social sciences? Whichever side of the gulf students find themselves on, does a K education lead them to an appreciation of all disciplines, or encourage them cling to stereotypes of the academic "other"?

Sarah Turnbull, a senior double major in Chemistry and Physics, has a strong opinion regarding the value of her majors. As far back as she can remember, Turnbull has never thought of doing anything but science. As she sits in her dorm room, she gestures toward two plastic bags sitting in the corner. "I look at those bags and see why one is translucent and one is transparent. It's just that interesting to me," she says.

Homework for her 400-level quantum mechanics class alone takes her 12 hours per week. Required laboratory sessions add three and a half extra hours of class each week, as well as ten pages or so each week in lab reports. "This makes it, coursework-wise, harder than other majors," she says.

She suggests that this workload doesn't hold true for non-majors' science courses. "I'm unsure of how taking Chemistry in Society or Environmental Science is any different than what we had to do in high school," she says. She suggests that doing actual scientific laboratory work would make these courses more worthwhile, or that perhaps the department could offer more 100-level courses that would count toward a science major. (Courses like Astronomy or Chemistry and Society do not count toward the major.)

Turnbull says she thinks of disciplines like sociology or psychology as being closer to humanities, not sciences. She is concerned about the number of female students she sees in these disciplines. "Girls take majors that are fluff—English, Soc/Anth, Psych—then get married right after school," she says. "It frustrates me that someone could just waddle through their major."

Senior English major Katie Curtis is familiar with this kind of perception. She says she sometimes senses bitterness from non-humanities majors, and finds this discouraging. "I'm deeply saddened when students tear other departments down to feel better about their course work," she says. "I'm taking English because I love it. The expectations are extremely high. I don't think the kind of students who attend K are looking for blow-offs. Every student works equally hard if they care about their major. They may have different work—essays, labs, research—but everyone works hard on it."

After graduation, Curtis says she plans to seek a job in publishing. She hopes to find an internship for a year, then to go to graduate school. "My major helps prepare me for post-grad work," she says. "Critical analysis skills, reading and writing, and presenting yourself well are part of any job."

Senior Alison Dault says she knows many people see her major, Sociology & Anthropology, as a "pseudo-science," but she describes her work as scientific in its nature and process: the only difference is that she studies people, not particles or ecosystems.

The core of her discipline is fieldwork, which she says takes at least six or seven hours each week, not including travel time. She says fieldwork is to her major what labs are to natural science majors.

"To measure people's beliefs and ideas and how they act, you have to use yourself as the instrument," she says. "You have to get up the courage to interact with people. It's tough the first time."

It was not some lack of interest or skill in the natural sciences that lead Dault to major in Soc/Anth. She says she enjoys science so much that she wanted to take a "real" science course to fill her natural science requirement. Her advisor was shocked. "I didn't fit the science profile: I'm not competitive," she says. She sees natural science courses as extremely competitive and "achievement oriented." This perception led her to decide against taking the course.

"If I could be sure that the environment would be welcoming, in a spirit of the pure joy of learning, and if I could be sure I'd get the help I'd need to succeed even as a non-major, I would definitely have taken Evolution," she says. "I don't care about grades, really. It's an environmental thing."

One thing Dault loves about her major is that it's so cooperative. "We're not in a competition," she says. "All classmates add new insights and strengths—everyone helps."

Senior English major Mike Gosack had a similar perception of science courses. "I think there is more of a spirit of cooperation among the humanities," he says. "My experience with the sciences indicates that most of the stress seems to come from competition."

Dr. Gail Griffin, English professor and chair of the Humanities Division, sees a cultural reason why some students find it easier to respect scholarship in the sciences than the arts and humanities. "We live in a culture that valorizes and values science and technology very highly," she says. U.S. culture is characterized by its value for "the kind of 'progress' represented by science and technology rather than the arts, literature, philosophy."

"My personal belief is that certain people—women and men—move toward the humanities because of the kinds of discussions our classrooms generate," she says. "Students feel that their humanities classrooms bring them close to what they want to understand about life and about the difficult project of being human. I think the science majors who are not career-driven but are rather drawn to the sciences because they love science are after the same thing: the kind of learning that brings them close to what they want to know about life."

Senior Mathematics major Aileen Murphy says that she believes people of all majors are necessary for a properly functioning society. "We need math to accompany the words we use to communicate the ideas behind the sciences. We need English because communication is so important. We need philosophy or religion to keep our society moral and just," she says.

Biology professor Dr. Binney Girdler says she does see a gulf between the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities at K. She sees it among students as well as among faculty and administration, and finds that very discouraging.

Addressing the common perception that non-major science courses are "Science Lite," she says she strives to make sure her Environmental Science course deserves no such label. "On my course evaluations, there are always a few who say the course is not challenging enough," she says. "But there are also some who say it was extremely difficult for them. If I could teach classes designed for each individual student, I would, but that's not possible."

Even in the 100-level courses for majors, she says, there will be some students who feel the course is too easy; the problem isn't limited to courses for non-majors. "You can't tell how difficult the 100-level non-major courses are if you've never taken one," she says.

Dr. Girdler shares the concern that non-major science courses do not have a lab component. "The time commitment is a major issue for both faculty and students," she says. "I think that's a shame. General studies shouldn't be satisfied without a lab." Still, this does not cripple her class: she says she tries to make up for the lack of a lab by including field trips and other analytical work in her course.

Describing herself as a sworn generalist, Dr. Girdler says that the best scientists realize their work's place in society, and that it's necessary to study things like literature, art, music, sociology, and economics in order to do so. Similarly, non-scientists need a background in science to understand environmental issues, medicine, and many other things that affect all of us. This is why she finds the divide between the sciences and the arts and humanities so disheartening.

It is Dr. Girdler who describes the tour guides she has seen bringing prospective students to Dow Science Hall with the proud announcement that they otherwise never set foot in the building. "It's denigrating, showing the science students as 'otherly,'" she says. "It's a problem, laying that gulf out there for prospective students. We should all work on campus to combat this notion that there is a gulf between [academic disciplines]."

Though most students at K develop a respect for the whole spectrum of academic disciplines, the gulf still persists. Ultimately, all members of the Kalamazoo College community, no matter what their disciplines, may be surprised by what they will discover if they reexamine their perceptions of the academic "other." When all students, faculty, and administrators have mutual respect for all disciplines, only then will K be able to bridge the academic gulf.

© 2004 JLM

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