STEM vs. humanities: a conversational guide

Picture this: you’re sitting in the Blue Room munching on a French toast muffin alone and someone asks to join your booth. You of course say yes, and in an effort to make sharing a table a little less awkward with a complete stranger, you look to the notes they are pulling out to make small talk about their classes. But alas! It’s all chemistry and calculus, and all you know is humanities. Disillusioned, you are forced to return to the uncomfortable silence and weird looks when you accidentally play footsie with your STEM stranger.

We all know and love and stress about Brown’s open curriculum, which gives us the freedom to take (or not take) whatever classes we choose. But the ability to focus on either STEM or humanities creates a gap in understanding our friends on the dark side (the dark side being up to interpretation).  Those awkward pauses in conversation when you have no idea how to comment on some class a friend is complaining about, or straight up don’t know what they are talking, are avoidable. We want to help you navigate those conversations with confidence, so study up.

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STEM:

CS 15: First of all, I had no idea what CS stood for, and in the interest of saving others from the embarrassment of having to ask, it’s computer science. CS 15 in particular is essentially Intro to Computer Science, and the bane of existence for those students, so be sure to express extreme sympathy for people complaining about it.

Fishbowl: Where dreams go to die. It’s where are aforementioned CS students go to get help during TA hours, but are usually never heard from again. If your friend says they’re going there, send regular text updates assuring them they will some day see the real sun again.

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Labs: It’s not your high school lab where things changed color and that was it. Chemistry labs in particular take up entire afternoons, and the pre-lab and lab reports that go with it, so don’t expect to see friends in lab much.

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New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv ’04 speaks at Brown

rachel aviv

Last night, journalist Rachel Aviv ’04 returned to Brown to deliver a lecture about her approach to nonfiction writing and the challenges she faces throughout her work. Her talk, which took place at Brown/RISD Hillel, was sponsored by the English Department as part of this year’s Great Brown Nonfiction Writers’ Lecture Series. Aviv, who became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 2013 (you can check out some of her work here), focuses primarily on investigating marginalized and often-stigmatized people. Her work has received an immense amount of praise, evidenced by a long list of awards and accolades. And, according to the lecture’s host, her phenomenal work was equally present on College Hill; Aviv was described as “a star in the [nonfiction writing] program” and one of the first students within the program to write a thesis and earn departmental honors.

Aviv opened her speech by sharing that what she finds to be the most difficult aspect of her writing process is actually figuring out what to investigate. The hours of seemingly-wasted time that she spends aimlessly browsing the web can become incredibly frustrating for a journalist — especially, in Aviv’s case, in the face of a 33,000-word annual writing quota from The New Yorker.

From there, she continued describing the manner in which she writes, describing “two intersecting strands” she deemed essential to the success of her stories. According to Aviv, a successful story would combine an issue of particular relevance or significance with a character that would serve as a guide, allowing for readers to become emotionally invested in the chosen issue. Especially within the context of the highly marginalized and stigmatized topics that Aviv explores, a compelling character is integral to her ability to create protagonists within the antagonistic parameters of her subject matter. Continue Reading


Light reading: Novels for undergrad

The Rock

Perhaps the best building on campus

College (University, for our international friends) is a stretch of time that seems to exist apart from the rest of our lives. It’s a very particular environment, and one that we’re unlikely to return to. Really, the only ways back are grad school and tenure, two particularly treacherous paths. If you intend to travel them, I can only wish you good luck.

What I feel should get more attention than “the college experience” itself is the clear distinction between the years we spend at school. Each of them brings new challenges and experiences, and while the temptation is there to just call them hedonism “college” and be done with it, there’s something to be gained from approaching each year as its own entity. With that in mind, I recommend each of these novels for a bit of light reading (okay, one of them isn’t nearly so light as the others), one for each year, in hopes that they’ll prove illuminating for the days and nights you spend at Brown. Read them in order, out of order, the one for your current year, any of them, none of them (I don’t recommend his choice, but I’m not your mother), or however else you choose.

Freshman Year: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

As a first year student at Brown, the knowledge you clearly need is how to become romantically involved with someone who is filthy rich.

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Why humanities? Paxson weighs in

That scarf though

Questions concerning the worth of humanities may have always been present, but these concerns have become an obsession nationally—perhaps internationally—this year. There was the Florida Governor who wanted to charge students more for majoring in the non-STEM subjects. The unequivocally titled New York Times article “The Decline and Fall of the English Major” was essentially a letter to us college students, begging us not to neglect the diminishing art of writing. Closer to home, there was the Herald‘s report that 54 percent of students were concentrating in 10 subjects of our offered 79, English being the only humanity to grace the top ten. We can blame the economy, the government, the man; at the end of the day, it just means I’m scared of the fact my shopping cart has such ‘impractical’ classes.

Late this summer, The New Republic published an article by our very own President Paxson praising the humanities from an economic standpoint. While it may seem studying Plato, who never had a good idea for an app, or Jane Austen, who I doubt would have been the ideal employee for McKinsey, is both irrelevant to success in today’s world and of less value to our society than, say, taking CS-0150, Paxson argues that not immediately seeing the importance of something doesn’t diminish its importance. Translation: Randomness is key. Weird knowledge can be weirdly useful knowledge. (I’m sure we’ve all also had about five professors talk about how class they randomly took  ‘changed their lives’—I find it adorable every time.) Paxson also argues the importance of humanities concentrators in considering our place in an increasingly globalized and technologically advanced world. Whether you agree with all her points or not, it’s something to consider before Banner locks us out.

Check out The New Yorker‘s take on Paxson’s piece here.

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