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ISSUE 121 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/18/2008

Academic totem crumbles

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sometimes I feel like there's an intellectual totem pole at this school. Physics majors roll their eyes at biology majors, who then rip into English majors, who scoff at psychology majors and everyone then unites in their desire to poke fun at sociology/anthropology majors. I'm definitely guilty of it. You're probably guilty of it, and it's getting a more than a little ridiculous.

As an English and biology major, I spend a lot of time in a variety of departments, taking classes that I hate in the name of getting into graduate school. And as I get more experience between departments, I've realized one simple truth: any major is as hard as you make it.

When I work on biology, it doesn't feel like work. I love it. However, to get into graduate school, I need chemistry and physics, both of which are an exercise in frustration and panic for me. I could skate by and graduate with nothing more than my bio credits, my general education credits and a single year of chemistry, but pushing myself further is necessary to get where I want to be. I have to do it, but it makes me miserable.

And that's the source of major trash talk. A lot of people don't like physics. When studying for a physics test with friends, I hear more "God, I should have been a dance/sociology/art/underwater basket weaving major" than at any other time during my studies. It has nothing to do with how hard dance is or how hard the aforementioned majors work, and everything to do with how unsatisfied we are with our personal lot in life.

When we face our academic struggles, it's important not to project them onto other people as if we work so much harder than them. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. I have many friends who breeze through math-intensive courses and then fall flat on their faces trying to write a religion paper.

I have friends whose theses on "The Yellow Wallpaper" can actually make me want to read the story again, but they can scarcely grasp the idea of mitosis -- not to mention their struggles with Gateways to Mathematics homework. An 'A' in French doesn't guarantee success in art any more than an 'A' in computer science makes a brilliant writer. It's important to remember that each major has a unique way of approaching learning, and not everyone can be good at all of them.

Further, to be truly excellent within any major involves a great deal of dedication, persistance and hard work. A 100-level course is easy enough to do average in, but average is just that. Most people can say that they got a 'B' in an introductory course because introductory courses are designed to give students a skill set that can be used in future courses. But how many average students walk away from an intro course with a deep understanding of the material that would allow them to excel with higher-level material?

Hearing someone say that they got a B+ in First-Year Writing while barely breaking a sweat, but they got a D in Advanced Derived Mathology while studying 45 hours a week, and therefore English must be a really easy major for slackers bothers me to no end. Congratulations; you're not only bad at math, but also at realizing when two things are designed for different functions. Stop taking it out on everyone else.

Of course, I don't mean to say that everyone at Olaf works equally hard. I have friends who take as many 100-level courses as possible to sail through school, and I have friends who take more 300-level courses than required. And none of this takes into account the internships, extracurricular activities and jobs with which St. Olaf students constantly seem to be challenging themselves. As far as I can tell, there is no correlation between chosen major and the desire to challenge oneself.

The temptation to be bitter about people who drift through school taking the easiest courses possible is strong, but pointless. Taking that extra seminar might mean sacrificing your Summa Cum Laude while others spend four years couch surfing with a 4.0, but when you've snared your dream job or internship based on your superior preparation and the aforementioned couch surfer is stuck in a cubicle farm, with the option of advancing to a slightly larger cubicle in four to five years, who's going to be laughing? Not them. This point is, of course, moot when said couch surfer takes a six-figure job at their dad's company, but really, I'm trying to make a point here.

The bottom line is that we all need to be happy with our own progress and success, rather than occupying ourselves worrying about what other majors are or aren't doing.

At least that's what I'll be telling myself as I crack open my organic chemistry homework.

April Wright '09 is from Eagan, Minn. She majors in biology and English.

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