The pervasive notion at Stanford that “fuzzy” (typically defined as the humanities and social sciences) classes are easier than “techie” ones needs to be substituted with a different framework entirely. The techie-dominated mentality and what it often entails — late nights debugging at the LaIR, study groups convening to solve the final problem on p-sets, and hectic cramming on the day of midterms — rejects humanities classes as illegitimate. Mere rote memorization on theories on nuclear deterrence theory in PoliSci 101 versus solving Heap Allocator with an explicit free list in CS 107? Surely, these tasks are not even remotely comparable. After all, a commonly shared sentiment is that you don’t even need to do the reading (or go to class) to ace some humanities classes.
As Amy Shen writes for the Stanford Review, “intellectual vitality and academic success are an integral part of what Stanford stands for as an institution, as well as how Stanford students view themselves.” This lies at the root of the problem of how the humanities are conceptualized by many students. The ease in attaining a desirable grade in a class is the litmus test for determining how challenging it will be. When evaluating humanities classes with this standard, it may not be inaccurate to claim that pursuing a linguistics major is objectively less work than mechanical engineering. But judging the intellectual value and rigor of courses of study through a blood, sweat and tears quantification leads to a learning environment in which grades are placed at the center of the educational mission.
I have taken many humanities classes in which the marginal benefit to my final grade of additional studying was close to none. In Introduction to Anthropology, an extraordinary class I took winter quarter, we were handed review sheets before our midterm and final with the same questions that would appear on the tests. As the quarter got very busy, I questioned why I was so adamant about completing the readings before section each week even amidst urgent midterms and p-sets that I struggled to finish. Couldn’t I just skim the readings before the tests for information relevant to the questions on the review sheets? Wouldn’t this reserve more time for my more time-sensitive work, in which the correlation between time spent and grade achieved was much higher?
Absolutely, but I also realized that with this mindset, I would always sideline my humanities education if I viewed my commitment as one dependent on obtaining the best GPA possible. Analyzing the readings thoroughly is rarely an easy task. In English 10A: Medieval to Renaissance English Literature, I struggled in the first weeks of my freshman year in parsing and reparsing Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in Middle English, completely exhausted by annotating translations to basic words in virtually every line. In an anthropology class on Islam and human rights, I pored over neoliberal critiques of LGBTQ advocacy and discourses in the Arab world simply because it initially contradicted my sensibilities; I outlined the author’s arguments and attempted to refute them when I found myself instinctively (but somewhat irrationally) in disagreement. Recently, I found myself doing a Google search on Irish politics during their civil war, and spent at least an hour trying to understand as best I could the motivations behind differing party loyalties, before I was comfortable delving into a piece describing a dirty protest at a women’s prison. Each time, I proceeded to have fascinating discussions in class that both corroborated and questioned conclusions I had drawn when reading alone. These conversations on niche topics contributed to my grasp and evolving perspective on larger concepts like social progress and civil disobedience.
While I have been proud of these moments, there have also been countless times when I’ve been sloppy with my engagement with texts. For a class on belief, I often skimmed deeply religious ancient texts 20 minutes before class. I complained at the end of the quarter that I just could not understand the emotions of guilt or faith expressed in the texts as a non-believer. Looking back, this should have been no surprise. I set myself up to fail.
When I am really, deeply immersing myself into a humanities class, I know it. Throughout daily life, I will find myself constantly in conversation with ideas posed by texts, peers, and the professor. All classes that deal with big ideas offer the opportunity for infinite participation. Before dismissing and invalidating any class you’ve taken as “too easy,” think: have I made a real, honest attempt to comprehend what these thinkers are posing? When I am in a seminar or section, am I listening to my fellow peers’ interpretations when they contribute (or am I spacing out, or worse, online shopping)? Have I challenged myself to adopt a perspective in relation to variously an author’s, professor’s, or peer’s, rather than just emptily summarize and regurgitate? Could I coherently defend my ideas against others, and have I tried to?
Contact Jasmine Liu at [email protected]