April 17, 2020

GHAZI | I Don’t Study Humanities as a Hobby, but a University During Pandemic Has Proven It Thinks So

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No question quickens my pulse more than, “What do you study?” Do I lead with the answer? Do I follow with a list of my most enrapturing courses? Or, do I wait and evaluate how much of the validity I earned by saying I go to Cornell will depart from their faces when I reveal my major?

“English.” Oh my god, backtrack, reboot, new plan. They think I write bad poetry in a candle-lit room surrounded by second-hand copies of the British canon. They think, what a pity, to go to an accredited research institution and trade a once in a lifetime opportunity for an aesthetic.

“But, I’m pre-med.” These words sound apologetic every time. One second, my academic decision to study humanities seemed like a youthful mistake, and the next, it became a calculated approach to forging my way to a health care profession. Like a well rounded Ivy Leaguer, she will leave college with her cute degree to pursue her real degree, they think. For the first two and a half years of college, crossing field lines meant new questions, faces and spaces of Cornell. I told my inner monologue to keep quiet because if chasing a jumbled course enrollment makes me happy and keeps me on my toes, do I need an intention? But at the hour of pandemic, it’s not an adult I see once a year at a Fourth of July barbecue, an internship interviewer or even my parents who draw the insecurity to the forefront and treat my decision to study English as a hobby. It’s my own educators.

With each revised syllabus and back-to-back announcement about restructured courses that flooded my notifications this month, my STEM classes wedged themselves into the first slot of my list of concerns without my permission. Natalie Brown ’20 noticed that peers in her STEM courses responded to college in the time of coronavirus with much more panic than those in humanities, as students turned to Piazza forums and email chains to verify prelim dates and grading schemes. “Stressing over revised prelim dates is a privilege in itself,” she said. A COVID-19 FAQ page distributed to pre-health students recommends those interested in applying to M.D. programs maintain letter grading. To my English major ears, this roughly translates to an insult at the humanities: If you’re contemplating S/U grading because being a student is not your number one priority right now, dispense that history class, do not risk your medical school chances.

So many of us arrived at college excited to engage with interdisciplinary coursework that would provide us the tools to solve worldly problems that are interdisciplinary in nature. We just didn’t think that the interdisciplinary issue we were preparing for would arrive before we threw our graduation caps on. But as we adapt to our new home lives, new class structures and new routines, so too must our educators adapt how they present their coursework and evaluate their students’ understanding of it. Because the only thing this pandemic has proven to me is that interdisciplinary branding is just that — branding.

Our classrooms now can be truly interdisciplinary by emphasizing how the coursework fits into the action plan out of this pandemic. In one attempt in my first online physics lecture, my professor dropped a few bars of “hope and encouragement” that failed to provide me with either. We should look no further than Sir Isaac Newton and the gravitational laws he formulated during a plague year, he noted, to realize that what we choose to do during this pandemic — one that, contrary to what the greeting of every email we’ve received tell us, is not “unprecedented” — doesn’t have to be impeded by the world around us. I appreciate the optimism, but I just have a few questions: Did Newton have to secure access to Wifi or risk not passing his coursework? Even with that access, did power outages ever further hinder his presence in a classroom? Did Newton’s day-to-day survival rely on a paycheck from his work-study job, his stable, on-campus housing or his parent’s employment in the face of a global economic crisis that led to nearly 25 million job losses in his country within the first month of his quarantine?

But even Newton’s story strikes one chord of relatability: Much as he turned to his books and musings of the universe’s mechanics to offer him an escape, many of us now turn to our curiosities for solace. This comfort is not one I’m finding in Canvas prelims, PDFs of problem sets with math I must teach myself and lab reports for experiments I’ll never do but watch videos of my professor conducting in the kitchen. For me, it’s between pages of novels that keep proving they are anything but fiction. “The humanities courses I’m in were able to pause and let us take a second to react to everything, and let it be okay for us to not be okay,” Brown said, “while STEM has been much more on the side of ‘let’s pretend everything is completely fine and make sure you turn in x, y, z and are ready for the upcoming prelim already.’”

By applying the pillars of humanities teaching in our STEM classes, we can bring to digital teaching the merits of the schools of thought that will be hit hardest because of this crisis. Budget cuts, hiring freezes and cancelled contracts are just some of the obstacles that will emerge from this situation, explained Prof. Liliana Colanzi, Romance studies. “Disciplines across the humanities were badly damaged by the 2008 economic crisis and were just starting to recover from years of austerity imposed by neoliberal policies,” she said. “I fear that the setback of the pandemic could lead to similar policies that end up destroying all that we achieved in the last decade.” 

So, as we learn how to tend to our present and pause our future-centric expectations, our STEM educators must realize that not every minute of their digital teaching has to be curriculum related. For starters, STEM professors: Acknowledge the pandemic beyond a fleeting mention of its uncertainty. Grant students time and alternative displays of their learning even if it falls outside the mold of what is acceptable to STEM curricula. Sparing a few minutes to use what makeshift conversational space we have to heal may compel us to turn our cameras on and — wait for it — maybe even our microphones. Take a leaf out of performing and media arts Prof. Carolyn Goelzer’s teaching method, for whom the pandemic has meant putting into effect much of what theater stands for. “Those of us who have spent most of our careers working in theater are familiar with the call to be flexible, open and courageous when it comes to adapting to constantly shifting parameters and making best use of what we have available in the ‘moment of play’ to do our work,” she told me. “We’ve been starting our online class time simply breathing together. It helps!”

If my professor in a Shakespeare seminar could find a link to COVID-19 by assigning a reading on indigenous modes of learning by a New Zealand theorist, as he was inspired by the country’s proactive public health response, surely my STEM educators can impart connections to their fields too. So long as our pain is not likened to Sir Isaac Newton’s pre-corona semester of DIY physics, we can be interdisciplinary. We can heal, we can learn, we can connect. One day, I’ll come up with a satisfying answer to the mythologized question of why I want to pursue medicine. Rest assured that every part of my answer down to intonation and punctuation will have to do with my continued devotion to the humanities.

Paris Ghazi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pghazi@cornellsun.com. La Vie en Prose runs alternate Thursdays this semester.