An Expensive Waste of Time

VES simply doesn’t meet Harvard’s standards of rigor

At a party last weekend, I started talking to a girl. Everything was progressing smoothly until I asked her what her concentration was. “Earth and Planetary Sciences,” she promptly replied. This was sort of stunning—I don’t think I’ve run into a single EPS concentrator in my four years here, and certainly never a girl (I guess our new women-into-science initiatives are working). I was so astonished that I had no reply and probably blew my chances of a sweet make-out session.

But the point of this column is not to harp on past loves lost (I only have 1,000 words, after all), but to lament a much more common answer to the aforementioned question, a concentration so unnecessary, ridiculous, and over-dramatized that it’s hard to mention it anymore without a snicker on your face. I am talking, of course, about VES—Visual and Environmental Studies—also known as “art.”

I can feel the crimson tides of fury rising as some of my readers begin sharpening their swords and paintbrushes, raising their easels as shields, crossing my name off the Signet’s punch book, and preparing to storm the Crimson offices or my room to defend their concentration to the death. But hear me out. It’s not that I think that VES offers no interesting or even no important classes. It’s simply that the idea of VES as a concentration, a major at Harvard University on par with astrophysics, engineering, English, or biochemical sciences, is baffling. Let me explain why.

To become a VES concentrator, your requirements are essentially to take a bunch of studio courses and perhaps one or two historical or theory courses. What exactly is a typical VES course? Well, let me point out a couple. VES 10: Drawing. VES 56r: Stop-Motion Puppet Animation. VES 120r: Wallpaper and Grids.

Yes…wallpaper and grids. The first time Harvard has offered a seminar course where the main prerequisite is being familiar with straight lines. And of course, this isn’t even including some of the more esoteric VES classes, such as VES 420p: Paraphernalia Construction and VES 99s: Comping the Advocate (usually taken concurrently with VES 91c: Nose Candy). Just kidding. I apologize; that was out of line.

There is no doubt that I have purposely selected some of the goofier VES courses, and a VES concentrator could obviously point out some equally silly classes in other departments (Anthro 1130: Archaeology of Harvard Yard being my favorite). The examples speak to the whole, however. And one area in particular in which there is simply no comparison is the area of thesis research and presentation.

Theses in computer science might involve writing a new operating system or a computer AI (or something even more ridiculous, since you do that baby stuff in CS 50). A social studies, English, or even government concentrator is expected to turn tens and tens of pages of careful and precise research undertaken over a long period of time to get their degree. I personally became embroiled in a huge snafu with my concentration when they essentially demanded I stay over the summer to work on a research thesis in neurobiology.

Meanwhile, let me give you some actual thesis projects actual VES concentrators have told me about. First, there was a study in which someone made a dress with a train as long as Harvard Yard and then walked across the Yard while filming it. End of thesis. Second, one concentrator redid the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into, yes, Ninja Turtle porn. I don’t care what you may want to say about me not understanding “art” or the theory behind it, but when Harvard is willing to accept drawing Michaelangelo, Leonardo, and April in a threesome as successful proof of completing four years of liberal arts education, somewhere along the line the train has clearly fallen off the tracks.

Anyone who dares to compare the difficulty and magnitude of these projects with the typical thesis in other concentrations needs to check their madness at the door. We’re not at a vocational school for learning how to paint. VES should be an area of elective classes or a citation program, but not a concentration awarding the same diplomas as other majors.

I guess I made a wrong turn somewhere on I-95 coming up to school, because sometimes I’m pretty sure I’m at RISD. If anyone out there can offer a compelling reason why VES should remain a concentration like all others instead of a citation program or a set of electives, I’d love to hear from you. But until then, VES will continue to stand for what it always has: Very Easy Stuff.

Andrew Kreicher ’06 is a biology concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.