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“Oh, you’re so lucky. If I didn’t have to worry about my career I’d concentrate in WGS too!” a male upperclassman said in a way that almost made it feel like a compliment. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the timing. At the very moment he asked what my intended concentration was, I was rushing to a meeting with a pre-law advisor after a shift at my work-study job.
During my first semester of freshman year, I’ve shared with people both within and beyond Harvard that I intend to pursue a joint concentration in History & Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality, and I’ve been met with some unexpectedly inconsistent judgments about the practicality of concentration choice. And quite frankly, I’m already tired of it.
The negativity surrounding my concentration choice began on the day before I left home for pre-orientation with my allergist, who said, “You’re thinking of majoring in history? What do you want to be, a ski instructor?” and then laughed. I can’t ski, let alone can I even begin to address the extent to which that comment is problematic, offensive, and simply inaccurate.
The negativity continued in more subtle ways when I got to campus, when many of my peers seemed to establish a dichotomy between selecting a concentration that would lead to a successful and profitable future and choosing a concentration that they found intellectually engaging. I find that dichotomy problematic not only because I don’t believe it’s true, but also because it threatens the important role of intellectual curiosity in the classroom.
I’m already tired of fellow students commenting on how “lucky” I am to be interested in subjects that they assume are easier, less stressful, or supposedly permit grade inflation to a greater extent than other departments. I’m already tired of fellow students assuming that courses which are strictly content-based, such as math courses, are inherently superior to those that allow for, or even encourage, the inclusion of personal experience or subjective analysis in the pursuit of constructing more nuanced arguments, as many humanities courses do.
To be clear, I don’t believe I should have to justify my decision to follow my passions and choose the concentrations I’m most interested in. But the assumption that humanities or social sciences concentrations are “easy” is just plain wrong.
I discovered just how hard History & Literature would be after receiving extensive comments on my first essay for a class intended to prepare prospective Hist and Lit students for the concentration— comments that pushed me to deepen my analysis and tighten my argument in ways I’ve never been asked to consider before. Essays are all-encompassing in the best ways, and I find myself unable to pull myself away in the days I’m developing my argument. And I discovered just how hard WGS would be after reading two sentences of Judith Butler in a class this fall. Until you have read Judith Butler at midnight in preparation for a midterm, let’s not talk about how I should appreciate all the “free time” I have without 3-hour organic chemistry labs.
Many of my fellow students would argue that despite how difficult the humanities might truly be, other concentrations are simply more practical in the 21st century. Implicit in this argument is the belief that humanities concentrations do not prepare students for their future careers as well as science or math concentrations do. I don’t believe this is true. But even if it were, why would one try to dictate the future by prescribing decisions in the present?
The upperclassman who commented on my choice of concentration was connecting our current decisions and our future careers. The perception of concentrations as falling into two mutually exclusive camps — intellectually stimulating in the present but leading to a lifetime of financial struggle vs. unfulfilling in the present but leading to a future of wealth — assumes a narrow definition of success and removes the love of learning from our college experience. This view turns our Harvard experience into a transaction.
Of course, I can’t overlook that this upperclassman was specifically commenting on WGS as a concentration that was incompatible with a future career — or, at the very least, a lucrative future career. The inherent sexism of his comments suggesting that I, as a woman, was lucky that I didn’t need to worry about my future profession reinforces the very need for gender studies.
This is a very basic problem with a very basic solution. The fact that I have to say this is surprising, and the solution is in all of our hands.
Orlee G. S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Greenough Hall.
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