Switching to VES

Almost three years ago, I arrived on this campus with the enthusiasm that any first-year brings. In addition to my excitement about college and being away from home, I also looked forward to finally studying the subject areas in which I was most interested and not being confined to the strict regimen of high school classes. But as all first-years find out around April, this freedom can often result in a panic as it comes time to choose a concentration.

I had hoped to avoid such a panic, and I had listened to the advice of my proctor and had taken a variety of classes--including Ec 10, Chinese and photography--that would help in my concentration decision. By reading period, these were my conclusions: I hated Ec 10, Vanserg was too far away and my experience in the introductory photo course surpassed all the art classes I had taken in high school.

But like many first-years, I was still confused about what academic path to take, even though I already had made such a clear-cut decision in my mind. And when my advanced standing forms were due, I walked down Garden Street and turned in a form that declared economics as my intended plan of study.

I don't know what possessed me to do this, except maybe it was my learned prejudice that going to Harvard and "taking pictures" would be a waste of $120,000--that by being at such an academic institution, I had to study something that seemed reputable and scholarly, and having their son examine marginal costs, GDPs and derivatives was the best way for my parents to spend their money. I disregarded the fact that I was stuck in an overcrowded department, a place where the professors probably would never learn my name, and most importantly, a subject matter in which I had completely lost interest.

As my first year continued, I slowly began to realize that I had made a huge mistake, but I still continued to question whether or not I could really make the switch to Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). Like every Harvard student who to some degree prides themselves on "being smart," I wasn't ready to deal with the attitude that I felt existed on this campus: that VES concentrators were slackers and that it wasn't fair that we could "have fun making things" while everyone else had to write papers and take finals.

But as my color photography class continued, I realized that I had to switch. It wasn't just the subject matter that prompted my decision; it was the department as a whole. It was a place where all the professors in all areas made an effort to learn my name, talk about my interests and look out for my overall well-being. My advisor, Professor Chris Killip, would routinely make time for me not only to have extra critiques of my work, but to listen to personal problems about my family, other classes or even my love life, offering advice in times of depression and refocusing me towards my studies. This atmosphere encouraged me to love learning and to take on challenges to realize my full potential. It was an academic environment that I think Harvard strives for in all departments, regardless of subject matter.

To this day I still to some degree deal with the stigma that comes from "taking pictures." I have come to accept the fact that I will fall behind in the race of applying for post-graduation jobs, internships or fellowships, that I will hear comments from pretentious science or humanities people who will say something to the effect of "I can't believe this was someone's thesis" and that my parents still don't know what "Visual and Environmental Studies" really is (I told them it was like environmental science--they liked that answer).

I have, however, noticed that my close friends and roommates have learned to respect the work that I do. They see the intensity of my projects, and when they come to my photo shows or my films, they understand that it is the product of hundreds of hours of sweat and tears and an intense love for what I have chosen to study. After the screening of my film this semester, they understood that it wasn't a cheesy movie I had done "for fun," but the result of an entire year of writing, producing, directing and editing, involving a two-week period where I slept in Sever basement and pulled three all-nighters, one lasting 40 hours. And the end product of all my work resulted in a harsh five-minute critique from my department.

The hardest part about VES isn't the time and energy we put into our work--students in every department can cite similar examples--but the critiques and the level of maturity needed to face them. Suppose your professors for all your classes made public all your grades and comments for all your tests and papers, and suppose everyone was given the chance to say something negative about your work. You were also able to see that someone else did much better than you, and the professor made this public in front of everyone. VES concentrators go through this almost every day in class, and the strength to continuously face this situation for the sake of learning is something I think is very unique to students of VES and is not taught anywhere else.

I hope that some will rethink their impressions of the VES department and the concentrators in it. I think it would be a shame if the continued growth of the department stopped, if department chair Ellen Phelan's vision for it was changed or if Harvard no longer taught the making of art because it wasn't considered to be educational. Most importantly, however, I hope that the attitudes around campus about VES change as well, and that first-years as well as older students can start to look seriously at VES as a respectable academic department.

Jeff Sheng '02 is a VES concentrator in Eliot House.