How the Sciences Hurt

Ever since I was a child, I knew I wanted to spend my life helping others. When I was little, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Next—when my mother told me I should be a professional arguer—I thought I would become a prosecuting attorney. Finally, after my grandfather passed away after a massive heart attack before my freshman year of high school, I wanted to become a medical doctor. I spent the next three years doing everything I could to get into a university with a good pre-medical program. Websites and books gave me suggestions, and I followed their advice dutifully: volunteering once a week, earning straight A’s, establishing relationships with my teachers, and signing up for extracurricular activities that had my mother driving me from place-to-place until 9pm on school nights. And I worked a part-time job at the local fast food joint to save up for school, since my family couldn’t afford to help me with any expenses.

I gleaned from all the reading I did in high school about becoming a doctor that the process was akin to the grueling initiation and hazing associated with military training. Professors, my sources suggested, would make classes unnecessarily difficult and pride themselves on the failure rate of the course. Office hours would be an uncomfortable battle of egos. And, inevitably, there would be sleepless nights agonizing over the most minute details in the hopes of correctly answering the one question that would earn the professor’s praise.

When I finally got to college, I tried to keep up with all of the activities (as suggested for those wanting to get into a top-notch medical school), but my grades began to suffer. I started dropping activities until all I had left was work and school. I spent what “free” time I had crying in the bathroom of my dorm after coming home from group study sessions because my friends said things like, “this chapter was too easy.” I would talk about the football game on television last night instead of asking for the help I came to the study session to get in the first place.

During my first three years of college, I tried to avoid taking any courses in the humanities because I thought they wouldn’t be relevant to the career I imagined I’d have in medicine. The required humanities classes that I did have to take made me and my aspiring scientist friends uncomfortable. I remember my first week in a literature class. My professor asked a question, and someone answered in a way that I thought sounded ridiculous. I was surprised that the professor did not humiliate them in front of the rest of us; instead, she encouraged the student to continue along their train of thought and asked a follow-up question. My left-brained peers and I looked at each other in suspicion. There was an evil twist somewhere; the professor, we thought, would eventually take the student’s answer and spin it in a way to prove that the student was very wrong. But that moment never came. We waited the full fifty minutes, and the professor never made a comment that would make us laugh at a student’s ridiculous answer.

About halfway through the course—and after my first-ever encouraging office hour with that English professor—I began to participate in the class. I was the one making the comments my fellow science-major friends found ridiculous. I began to discuss things like symbolism. I wrote papers puzzling over a moment in a primary text, and I went to office hours to continue discussions with my professor. After an office hour toward the end of the semester, my professor asked me if I had ever considered adding an English minor, and I immediately resisted. I told her about my dream of helping people and how the only way I could do that was to be a doctor. Before I left her office, she made a comment that led to me spending an entire weekend online trying to figure out if she was right that I could still go to medical school if I majored in something other than biology. When I learned that this was true (and actually encouraged), the first thing I did on Monday morning was go to my advisor to discuss changing my major to English Literature.

After graduating, I realized I had focused too much on the literature and hadn’t completed my pre-requisites for medical school. I started a post-baccalaureate degree in order to finish taking those classes. When I was almost finished, I applied to two master’s programs: a Masters of Science in Anatomy and a Masters of Art in English. I was accepted into both programs. I spent the summer taking Organic Chemistry and thinking about my future. I realized that I did not want to be a physician after all; I wanted to be an English professor. I wanted to talk about Shakespeare with a classroom full of students who I hoped to help as much as my English professors had helped me.

It has been almost a full year since I made the switch from thinking like a would-be doctor to thinking like a graduate student in literary studies, but I still cannot shake my defense mechanisms. I still sometimes find myself pretending I am much more prepared than I am. I don’t need help, I’ll say, and I am very certain of myself—when in actuality, I feel as if I am drowning in work, I need reassurance constantly, and I have no idea what I am doing. I spent last semester applying to English PhD programs because I know that eventually I would like to teach literature at the college level, but also I realize that this future may not be possible because of the current crisis in the humanities. That’s dispiriting for those of us who have made a leap to pursue our dream, but I worry, also, that a career teaching literature won’t be possible for me because of the anxieties that my pre-med studies turned on in my brain.

The ways that the sciences are taught and talked about are not ideal for grooming a student who will not spend their life immersed in science—nor for a student who will; they are harmful to the best of students and absolutely detrimental to struggling students. I relay this story of my personal experience in the hopes that at least one person teaching a science course will read it and reevaluate what they are doing. Maybe one day, more students in a science class will be unafraid to give the wrong answer. Maybe one day, STEM professors will pride themselves on the number of students passing their class rather than failing. Maybe one day, study groups will be about helping one another understand hard-to-understand material. These are the changes students need in order to grow into the capable physicians and scientists that they have dreamed of becoming—rather than uncertain, terrified students who are not even comfortable in an introductory-level literature course.

Kathryn Croft is a second-year MA student at Wright State University where she is pursuing a degree in English literature. Her main interests are Shakespeare, feminist literature, and the use of medicine in literature.

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