I’m just a pre-med girl, living in a lonely world, attempting to fulfill pre-med requirements while still taking as many non-science classes as possible. Sure, I love science — but I also love to read: everything from Aristophanes to Rowling. Oh, and I really, really like welding pieces of steel together. I was in an cappella group my freshman year, but now I do sketch comedy. And I think global warming is kind of a big deal, but I’m not a STEP coordinator or anything like that. I digress.
I am a molecular, cellular, and developmental biology major, and I get a pleasant tingle in my stomach when someone starts talking about the mechanism by which bacillus anthracis invades a host cell. A fun, almost as pleasant fact about MCDB is that the major looks uncannily like the pre-med requirements, which allows me to maximize the number of non-science classes I can take while still fulfilling my pre-med requirements. But there’s a downside. I am perennially cut from classes on the basis of my major. The burn of this impersonal rejection stings so much more than would a rejection on the basis of qualifications or skill. To those classes I remain outside, my nose desperately pressed to the glass, steaming up the window with my biology breath.
This semester, heartache arrived in the form of auditions for a theater studies class. After callbacks, I felt good. Not only had I demonstrated my ability to maintain a straight face while telling a horrifyingly detailed story about the menstrual cycle, but the callback process had indicated that members of the class were to be chosen on the basis of merit, not major. Seven agonizing hours later, I received my response: the few spots in his class would be given only to upperclassmen theater studies majors. The professor’s explanation for my rejection could have been a kind lie, meant to spare me from the cold hard truth of my shortcomings as an actor. But I am no child. I take his words at face value, which means that I was rejected from the class based on my major alone.
I understand the system. To the overwhelmed shopper, having a major can ensure admittance, especially if you are a junior or senior. Alternatively, professors who must kick hordes of students out of their oversubscribed classes often find that the major system makes the process simpler. The fault is often not with the professor but with the process itself — virtually all departments require that upperclassmen majors receive priority in their classes. The major system provides a quick, thoughtless and ultimately unsatisfying solution to the problem of student demand, far greater than the number of course seats in supply.
Abolishing majors as a graduation requirement is not the solution, because majors are not entirely without merit. Majors can validate claims of experience in certain fields quickly and easily. The world is more quick to judge than a professor trying to figure out how to sift through 150 applications to find the 12 most deserving students. A one-word method of self-identification is a temporary defense against immediate dismissal from the world and its professional gateways.
But the infrastructure of Yale graduation requirements should be slightly easier to change than professional expectations. Professors cannot predict how many students will shop their classes. But the fact remains that far too many of them are heavily oversubscribed. How can we plan to expand the number of undergraduate students by adding two new colleges without also increasing the number of classes offered? Offering more classes will give students more of a chance to take diverse range of classes not necessarily in their major, and reduce the need for a quick and dirty way of choosing how to admit students into seminars. Although oversubscription will remain for some courses, with reduced overall demand, professors will be able to spend more time evaluating students individually. Pressure could also be reduced with less stringent major requirements for students whose schedules don’t permit academic exploration.
The major system is a major obstacle to what I came to Yale to do: to discover myself and broaden my character. Ironically, I have discovered that there is no singular “self” for me to discover, but, as with most Yalies, only flashes of diverse, occasionally-conflicting identities that I started to discover before Yale and will continue to do so afterwards. My diverse interests complement each other. Concepts learned in physics help me figure out the feasibility of a sculpture plan, but my ability to wield a vertical arc weld doesn’t hurt. Graphic design allows me to appreciate the intricate and harmonious design of a strand of DNA. And thanks to orgo lab, I can whip up a killer batch of pancakes.
So yes. I am a biology major. But I hope that simplistic description isn’t all that matters to you. I am not a Jack-of-all-trades, but I am not a Jack-of-one-trade; putting me or any Yalie neatly into a box just won’t work.
Nina Beizer is a junior in Berkeley College.