Before the start of the school year I had a cup of coffee with a History professor and interrogated him about what it felt like observing life through a historian’s kaleidoscope. When the tables turned and he asked me what I was doing at Grinnell, I was forced to reveal I study Economics.
“It’s ok though,” he consoled me, clearly well aware of this particular attribute’s power to stop a Grinnell conversation in its tracks. “Society really values a perspective on globalization, employment, and the macroeconomy, even if that’s less appreciated here.”
I sigh and feel misunderstood as I often do when discussing Economics at Grinnell. My degree hasn’t simply shined a spotlight on specific components of society: it’s gifted me a compelling lens through which to view any issue. However, attempts at describing this ‘lens’ usually turn out too vague or too technical to convey any meaning, so I rarely defend the Dark Arts within Bubble Confines.
“You should talk to Mark Peltz over at the CLS,” the Professor suggested, sensing my anxiety. “He’s interested in helping students present what they have taken away from the majors across disciplinary boundaries.”
I don’t have anything better to do, so I go straight from Saint’s Rest to the Center for Careers, Life, and Service and ask to set up an appointment with Mr. Peltz.
“Oh, the big guy?” the receptionist raises her eyebrows. Noting the slight confusion on my face, she explains that Peltz reports directly to President Kington and oversees the entire CLS.
“So what’s this regarding?” she asks.
Suddenly my Economics identity crisis doesn’t seem like an appropriate appointment subject heading for a meeting with this particular Mover and Shaker.
“Oh…I’m writing an article…,” I stammer, doing a quick mental run through of my potential badges of legitimacy. “For the GUM.”
When I meet with Peltz a few days later, I’m still unsure of what exactly I am doing in his office.
Peltz is a dynamic, passionate figure who clearly possesses a thorough appreciation for the many facets of Grinnell’s identity. However, he expresses his understanding the way a business executive might: in structured, precise terms.
Peltz sees Grinnell as offering a boutique form of education: only 2% of U.S. students attend liberal arts schools. Given this niche, he believes it is critical to elevate the fluency with which students communicate the distinct qualities of this type of education as well as the transferable skills acquired through their degree.
“Whether students are talking to their parents, to one another, to employers, or to a Rhodes Scholar selection committee, they must be able to communicate what it means to be liberally educated and why that matters,” Peltz said.
“But for this to have a meaningful effect, it has to manifest itself in a variety of different forms,” he added. “This can start with an increased emphasis on advising relationships. It can happen by senior students having summative conversations with their Professors before they leave, and upper division students have a role to play in providing guidance to younger students.”
Peltz described a recent pilot program in which the CLS partnered with Professor Lacson to incorporate student reflection on what specifically they learned to do throughout the course. One exercise challenged students to prepare to talk about their experience in the history class in an interview for a museum internship. For the most part, students had very little trouble expressing themselves. However, when tasked with explaining how the course prepared them for an internship in Silicon Valley, students were suddenly unable to meaningfully translate their experience.
“We tend to see career paths as linear, and so it’s very unnatural for us to think of it differently,” Peltz explained.
As aspiring agents of social change, this phenomenon is cause for concern. One of our primary post-grad objectives should be deftly placing our approach into dialogue with other fields of study. Applying our specialty knowledge alongside colleagues who already appreciate its value simply will not suffice. We must be ambassadors.
The conversation with Peltz gave me several ideas that the GUM article I had cornered myself into writing could explore. My piece would weigh student responses to the questions, “What does your major mean to you?” “How does it influence the way you see the world,” and “Are you able to communicate this across disciplines?”
In one of my first interviews, senior Ebony Chuukwu animatedly described the profound manner in which Grinnell’s Theatre department transformed her personal understanding of Theatre as a discipline.
“I used to see theatre just as spectacle,” Chuukwu explained. “But the influences I’ve had here, whether it’s Craig [Quintero], Celeste [Miller], or Anna [Banker ‘15]—for them theatre isn’t just a show, it’s serving a political purpose. So for example, I’m a woman, I’m black, and now I want my theatre to focus on those things.”
Although common across disciplines, this evolution often goes unrecognized in the collective Grinnell consciousness. What we are left with is a dangerous environment of students using their high school experiences with subjects to construct their perception of what those courses currently hold.
“A lot of people will remember their high school algebra and say ‘Oh, so you guys must just solve really big polynomials. As if math is just a more complicated version of what we were doing in 9th grade,” senior Math major Boyd Monson explained. “In a lot of people’s views, we’re still just solving for X. And you know what, if that’s what we did, I’d hate my major too!”
Monson delivers a poignant critique of a widespread misperception. Disciplines don’t just progress linearly at a constant rate: they evolve and unfold with time. Nearly all the students I spoke with alluded to the failure of lower level courses to adequately represent the more complicated questions that a discipline has committed itself to investigating. It’s only by peeling back the layers that we ultimately discover what lies at a discipline’s core.
By limiting ourselves to upper level courses in only one or two fields, we end with a deep understanding of a couple of majors, and unfortunate misperceptions about the rest of them.
“People will tell me about their experiences in 100-level history courses, and I’ll think, ‘Wow, that really doesn’t resonate with me at all,’” senior history major Willa Collins explained.
Collins lamented that many students have a false notion of history as a composition of facts about “what happened back then,” which after being memorized, reveal some sort of “ultimate truth” about the past.
“At Grinnell, history is more a way of thinking about the world, a way of accessing and processing information, versus being an expert in a certain place and time,” Collins said.
“So how do you guys access and process information?” I probed, salivating at her description of history as a way to “think about the world.”
“We’re always searching for context,” Collins replied. “So for example, if you’re given a source, we’re always thinking, like, ‘Who was this person?’ ‘Who were they working for?’ ‘Where were they from?’ But what I like about history is that even though we’re analysis of text based, we can’t just wallow in the text. We strive to bring in as many different types of sources as possible to understand a moment or perspective.”
“So your goal is a complete understanding of a moment or perspective?” I tried to clarify.
“As rich and nuanced of a narrative as possible,” Collins amended. “But one that’s open to adaptation, advancement, and critique. We want to tell a robust story.”
“Does that influence how you see the world outside of your studies?” I asked.
Collins paused to mull it over.
“It makes me a really bad person to rant to,” she laughed. “Like if my friends are complaining about someone I’ll usually be like “Hold up: there has to be more to the story. Who is this person, what are they doing, how can we access what the other player’s best interests and positions were?”
Unlike Collins, many of the students I interviewed initially struggled to answer questions like this one. In my early interviews, most resigned to talking about their career paths and what their degrees were setting them to accomplish.
When I tried to push past job talk, students admitted that this was the first time they had thought about their majors outside of the context of potential careers. Almost everyone expressed a desire to have their coursework set aside a moment or two for reflection.
“I think the reason answering these questions is so difficult is because it’s not something that we talk about explicitly,” senior English major Lana Sabb explained. “I’ve only had one class that has asked me to defend English.”
Interestingly, Sabb’s complaint exposed a fatal flaw in the way I had gone about investigating how people’s majors influenced the way they saw the world. Without “unpacking” what it was that I was asking, it was unreasonable to expect students to be able to “unpack” their answer.
Upon reflection, I realized that what I meant by “see the world” was probably “approach and interpret situations.” And what I meant by “approach and interpret” was probably “communicate and problem-solve.”
I arrived at the rest of my interviews with a list of smaller, stepping stone questions that would hopefully guide us to the crux of the issue.
“Describe to me how biochemists communicate,” was the way I began my conversation with senior biochemistry major Fatu Drame.
“It’s a language we have,” Drame replied. “Very formal, and you have to be very precise, and…”
Slightly frustrated, she trailed off, cocked her head to the side and smiled. I had become all too familiar with this ritual and knew exactly what she was thinking: “Which words will allow you to understand what’s swirling around in my head?”
After a moment, she regained her footing.
“So we have a lot of technical terms and concepts, and you have to know them to understand what we’re doing,” Drame explained. “You have to be very careful with your vernacular.”
Monson described a similar emphasis on precision in Mathematics.
“A lot of what the major is, is you want to prove something, and communicate it clearly and with no ambiguity,” Monson explained. “So you learn to talk in a precise way. What we do in Math is abstract things…”
“Hold on, can you tell me what that means?” I interrupted. “I always hear Math majors talk about it and it makes me uncomfortable.”
“So what we’ll do is look at a concrete problem, say 3+5=8,” Monson replied. “And then we’ll see that other numbers, you can also add them together. And then you ‘abstract,’ which is saying: OK if numbers behave in this way, are there other objects that behave in this way? So what can we say about everything that behaves in this way? So that way we can move past numbers to something more general in science, in nature, or if we’re being honest, probably just another area of Math. The thing is, that sort of thinking is something most people at Grinnell are good at, and like to do; but as soon as the language shifts to mathematical language, people’s minds shut down.”
Other students also complained about the unfamiliar technical vernacular of their discipline discouraging students from pursuing content that they might actually have talent or interest in.
“There’s definitely a level of secrecy in the way we all communicate,” Drame explained. “Which makes sense, because you want to individualize your group. But you want to inform and be informed by other disciplines.”
This is exactly the conundrum that prevented me from communicating about Economics. Using exclusive terms hid the meaning behind them; but in their absence, I could never seem to make my favorite concepts come alive.
“It’s almost like we need two sets of communication styles: one for how you speak with people in your own division, and one for how you speak with people outside of it,” Drame said. “And right now, most people only have the first one.”
Monson described another challenge embedded in a discipline’s default method for conceptualizing issues. According to Monson, the humanities are more likely to focus on revamping the entire system, while disciplines such as Math, Economics, or Computer Science draw attention to what practical things can be done to affect a positive change.
“I think lots of times when the two viewpoints intersect, there’s a strong tendency for each one to say ‘No, no, I understand what you’re saying…but…,” Monson explained. “That type of dismissive attitude is frustrating because you really do need both sides. You need the people saying ‘let’s blow everything up’ to motivate change and raise awareness about issues, but you also can’t escape from the ‘What can we actually do here?’”
However, this dichotomy fails to capture some of the nuances characteristic of different problem-solving approaches. Students across disciplines offered additional layers of complexity when describing their specific style.
Collins on History: “History trains you to be really comfortable with shades of grey. So when approaching something I’ll usually be like ‘Well you have to look at this, and this, and then also this.’ You really start to emphasize the basic gradation that’s present in all facets of life.
Sabb on English: “What I like about English is what you choose to argue is a bit more open than maybe in science. So you learn to be creative in building an argument, and to do it in the presence of incomplete data. In that way you gain an ability to understand things outside of what has already been proven. Which is important, because there’s a lot in this world that can’t be diminished down to a simple conclusion.”
Drame on BioChem: “Science gives you a really hands on approach to problem solving, mostly because you’re in the lab six hours a week. So you’ll be presented with a research question, you hypothesize, you try and figure out how you’re going to attack it, execute methods, do trial and error, and then try to make sense of your results.”
Monson on Math: “The process of abstraction is a great tool for seeing what’s underneath the hood any time you’re learning something new. It’s kind of ironic, but I also think that by abstracting things you can think more concretely about problems.”
Chuukwu on Theatre: “I love the artistic way of facing an issue. Thinking about something in terms of the different ways you could present it on stage is a really powerful approach. I also think Theatre has a much different understanding of collaboration than a lot of other disciplines. In most non-Theatre courses I’ve taken, you sit in rows, whereas in Theatre classes, you’ll almost always sit in a circle.”
Peltz on Liberal Arts: “One of the greatest virtues of a liberal arts education comes from the idea that it is very likely that a job you will one day have doesn’t exist yet. And when that happens, we will need talented, resourceful, problem-solvers to lead.”
The practice of engaging with each other using the techniques we learn has yet to surface as a predominant component of the Grinnell experience. But the more effort we expend raising our awareness of the problem-solving approaches potentially at our exposure, the better equipped we become to solve the world’s complex issues.