This summer, I didn’t take any biology classes (which I’m sure my advisor hates me for). Instead, I took some English classes and really found my niche. I had been playing with the idea of switching majors for a few months by the time it came to the first day of Session A classes, however, after just six weeks in my English classes, I must say that my desire to be a biology major has gone completely extinct. But I want to emphasize something: I’m not switching majors because I don’t like bio, but merely because I hate being a number.
It’s always seemed so odd to me that, whenever I talked to my fellow cohorts in the bio major, we all felt the same pains about the major and its setup. There was always a unanimous agreement about how the department does everything it can to prevent you from being a bio major and how the classes are designed to cull the herd. These things never seemed odd to me until I explained the bloodthirsty processes to my humanities-identified family. I explained to them all of the aspects of being a bio major that we follow blindly that many others find obscene. For starters, I explained “The Curve.” I told them all about how classes are curved to make sure the average of the class is acceptable, but I also told them how “acceptable” is a very fluid term. I delved into the endless stories about how my professors had said, “Okay, the curve was really high on this past midterm, a 72, so next time I’m going to have to make the test more difficult,” and the joys of hearing our lab TAs explain that “Even if I think you all deserve ‘A’s, I can’t give you all ‘A’s because my class average has to match the overall class average. So, if I gave you all ‘A’s you’d be averaged out and so you’d all receive low ‘C’s.” I also explained that, many times, this Holy Curve was disrupted either by kids who seem to do nothing with their lives but study for six hours a day or by the extreme amounts of Adderall that a large amount of students consume during midterms and finals to get their desired grade.
Then, I told them how the biology advisors had told me that they didn’t think going abroad was a good idea for bio majors unless we were going to Costa Rica or Australia … “but, whatever, it’s your life so I guess I’ll sign the paper,” was the reluctant response when I came in after I had already decided to study abroad in neither Costa Rica nor Australia and just needed a signature. I explained how many of my professors seemed annoyed or aggravated when I asked them questions during office hours, how some of my professors outwardly expressed that they were only teaching this class because the university was requiring them to and that The College of Letters and Sciences’ and Biology Department’s advisors both explicitly explained to me that “biology classes are designed to make students fail so that they will switch out of the major.”
Yet, after explaining all of these science norms to my family, I was always struck with the inability to answer fully when they (and I) asked the question, Why? You accepted me into this school as a biology major so why are you trying to prevent me from succeeding? Why aren’t you trying to help me achieve my goals to both study abroad and graduate in biology? Why are these professors priding themselves on their 55-65 percent averages? Why does this top-end public university suddenly have more parallels to a corporation instead of a school?
In my summer of English classes, I almost forgot about the love-hate relationship with The Curve because here every student can earn an A if he/she works hard enough. I almost forgot that professors might be teaching not simply because they are required to, but because these professors avidly enjoy teaching their subject and discussing ideas with students. I almost forgot that professors actually have the ability to know me as a person and not just an i>Clicker number because these professors learned my name within the first week.
People I met during my bio career are always shocked to hear that I’m switching majors. The first thing that happens is they crinkle their face a little, tilt their head slightly to one side, and then ask the same question: “But didn’t you already take all of the prereqs?” Then I tell them: “Yeah, I took (and passed) all of the chem, o-chem, bio … but still.” The next thing they’ll ask is what am I switching to, and when I respond with English they usually have to take a few seconds to compose themselves before saying, “that’s so different!” My only response is that it’s a world science hasn’t even discovered yet.
Now when people ask me what my major is, I’m still not completely comfortable with telling them something other than biology. However, I am completely comfortable with not being in the UCSB biology department anymore. I have come to realize that I don’t want to graduate from this prestigious university having drugged my way, hated my way, or “just-want-to-be-done”-ed my way through these four years. I love learning, and that’s why I decided to come to such a prestigious university, because I knew that I would be getting a world-class education and spend four great years doing just that. However, I have come to realize that the biology department is an environment that doesn’t foster learning, but instead values the ability to regurgitate information onto a test. So, no, I won’t be graduating from UCSB with a degree in biology, but at least when I graduate my diploma won’t say Degree of Biological Sciences Awarded to i>Clicker Number 1569D2AE.
Very well written–I can definitely tell that the English departments have gained a valuable student! I absolutely empathize with feeling like a wallet for the school and being ruthlessly filtered through weeder classes. I think you make a lot of good points and have obviously thought about them extensively, but I think that you’ve avoided the real reason that a lot of majors in the humanities receive something of a dismissive response. As important as literature and art are for critically inspecting ourselves and society, the coursework doesn’t give you the same tangible skills that STEM majors do. It’s difficult… Read more »
I totally agree; I did not want to devalue the STEM majors in anyway- I have the utmost respect for the people who can withstand that coursework and pressure with grace and joy! I thought a lot about just pursuing English as a graduate program, but in the end I decided this was the better choice for me. Ultimately, the piece was written with extreme tunnel-vision to highlight some of the true downfalls of the Biology Department (as well as some of the other STEM I’m assuming) to spark conversation. Because, sometimes, once a spark is struck, wildfire catches.
I agree wholeheartedly with everything that you wrote in this article. Although my situation is somewhat different than yours, I understand how you feel in every aspect that you addressed. I came into UCSB as a Biochemistry major in the chem department, but decided to switch into MCDB my third year, where I struggled because I honestly felt that my college experience was too short to spend it away studying 6 hours a day for some test, and that it was much more valuable to me to gain leadership experience in organizations on campus and building relationships. It was not… Read more »
Some wisdom from a non bio major who knows lots of bio majors…
First of all, bio majors are a dime a dozen. A degree in biology often has been the stepping stone to med school. Jobs in biology don’t exactly grow on trees either. Too many people in the major. So it behooves the faculty to cull the herd any way possible. Kinda like goes on with physics majors at a lot of colleges and universities.
Very well written! I agree with your stance about the importance of learning and the learning process, rather than regurgitating everything, and still being considered another number. Kudos to you for having the courage and conviction to be so honest, sincere, and respectfully thoughtful on your situation and decision.
Bethe later explained to Feynman that most physicists were too respectful of his reputation to contradict him, but that Feynman seemed to have no inhibitions about disagreeing with him and offering contradicting ideas, which he needed to progress in his thinking. Feynman said he felt just as much respect for Bethe’s reputation as anyone else, but that once anyone got him talking about physics, he couldn’t help but forget about mere social considerations and just openly try to figure out how the physics worked.