BY LIBBY ASHTON
Published January 21, 2010
After spending two years at the University and finishing the cross-discipline sampling that is the beauty of distribution requirements, I now know a little bit about the biology of nutrition. I took the class “Biology of Human Nutrition” to fulfill the natural science requirement that my philosophy major didn't cover. But because my nutrition class was held in a lecture hall filled with history majors trying to satisfy their own natural science requirements, I still don’t know anything about biology majors.
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Because of this lack of exposure to students of the non-humanities, I haven’t been able to achieve any real concept of how their minds work. The only impressions I’ve been able to form are rooted in their stereotyped identities. For example:
I am a philosophy major. I am "pretentious, planning to spend the rest of my life working at Starbucks, unshowered, judging you for being shallow.”
You are in the Business School. You are “high on Adderall, selfish, wearing a tucked in button-down, loudly complaining about your finance homework.”
She is a communications major. She is “in a sorority, also studying psychology, trying to take the back door into the advertising/marketing world, hot.”
He is an Engineering student. He is “self-important, socially incompetent, a minority, going to make more money than the rest of us.”
I came to the University wide-eyed and ready to wring every drop of stimulation out of my liberal-arts-meets-major-research-university education. I chose not to go to Kenyon College in Ohio or Bowdoin College in Maine because I wanted to expose myself to more academic diversity than I expected to find at these classic liberal arts colleges. I wanted to study with engineers and business-minded students along with the less linear thinking, more familiar students of the humanities. I saw the University as the perfect shade for me, blending together every color I looked for in an undergraduate experience.
The potential for integrating the minds of the University’s diverse intellectual community is not being actualized. The components of my perfect shade have been divided up, branded as primary colors and stuck in separate buildings throughout Ann Arbor.
The B-School students stay in their palace on Tappan Street, only to be bothered by the rest of us when we crash their cafeteria for the sushi option — because you can only go to Sadako so many times. The English majors, who are rumored to be the coolest kids on campus, are probably drinking coffee somewhere (because I hear they never really have work to do) and reminiscing about the good times they had while attending the New England Literature Program. The political science majors sneak into whatever part of the Law Library is the most off-limits and try to look as intensely studious as possible. I guess they think the more they look like law students, the more likely they’ll one day become law students.
No one knows where the pre-med students go. Apparently they lose all their friends by the time they’re done with Orgo II.
The division among academic concentrations is so tangible to students that it becomes nearly impossible to take individuals out of their major subcategory and see them as peers in a larger educational context. As with the division among any set of groups, stereotyping exists often as a cognitive shortcut to processing information about someone or something unfamiliar.
Generalizing the identity and behavior of students studying something different from what I study makes the humanity of these people less salient to me. I see them as two-dimensional figures roaming around the Diag on their way to some class I’ll never take. One method of adding dimension to these faces that decorate my walk to class is to make our paths intersect.
The declaration of a major can’t be avoided and shouldn’t stop. But the University could make a stronger effort to promote integration among the different departments.
Perhaps the University could implement a policy wherein students are required to take four seminars during their time at the University. This policy — which would be independent of concentration qualifications — would provide an opportunity to satisfy distributional requirements in an intimate, discussion-based environment. These classes would be similar to first-year seminars in that a variety of departments would offer them and students from a variety of departments would enroll in them.
As it stands now, the general education requirements encourage Engineers to take a sociology class and film and video studies majors to take a statistics class. However, the nature of a large university is such that few of these classes foster genuinely collaborative learning among the students wherein we can directly benefit from our engagement with each other.
The University offers us an ideally explorative, integrative and broadening college experience.