Thursday, September 22, 2011

From the Archives - How to Choose a Major


Long before I went to college, I knew I wanted to be an English major. There was simply no other subject to which I could imagine applying myself. That said, I had plenty of friends who took awhile deciding. Perhaps that’s what led me to write the following essay, during my sophomore year. I can only speculate, because I have zero recollection of writing it. Looking back, I can tell it’s me, albeit a younger, snottier version. I think I’ve mellowed out over the years. If nothing else I know how to spell “cuckoldry” now.

How To Choose A Major — September 27, 1989

As far as I’m concerned, UCSB is the right school, regardless of a student’s field of study. Why? Because everybody rides bikes to class. I mean, everybody. You’ll see a few students walking, but their bikes probably just have flat tires. The important thing is that there’s a minimum of VW Cabriolets, Vespas, and Kawasaki Ninjas here. I refuse to attend school in a place where these stupid motorized vehicles reign.

Okay, so you’ve chosen your school; now it’s time to choose a major. Come with me to my classes and you can get a taste for what each major is like.

English Lit

First up is English 20, which is Renaissance Literature. I didn’t take this class because it sounded interesting or rewarding, but for these reasons: (1) English majors like me are required to take it, and (2) nobody else wants it so it’s one of the few English classes I can get. There seem to be too many English majors at this school, plus non-English-majors who need English classes for General Ed, so the English classes fill up fast.

What can I say about the lecture? It’s okay, I guess. Better than other classes: instead of scrambling to write down every word, I actually listen to what the professor has to say. I look at the notes of the girl sitting next to me to find out how to spell “cukoldry.” She’s written “cutaldy” and obviously doesn’t care how it’s spelled. What does seem to concern her is her handwriting and the headings on her notes. Three colors of felt pen. The heading lists the name of the class, the name of the professor, the times the class meets, the section number, and the date. This information is not useless. When she’s hung over some Monday morning and can’t remember what any of her classes are, it could come in handy.

I’ll bet she chose English as a major, figuring the practice she’ll get in writing and organization in this department will prepare her for her career one day. Her attention to little details extends to her outfit: her dress is impeccable, from the crisp collar all the way down past the blindingly white socks with little fuzzy balls on them to her shoes, which are cute white and teal numbers with lots of Velcro. I’m wearing mended shorts, the inevitable bike race t-shirt, and the my black-and-white Nike high-top basketball shoes which I call Shamus because they look like killer whales, which is why I bought them.

My notes are much sloppier than hers. Instead of her huge, loopy letters with tiny circles dotting all the i’s, my handwriting looks like the last words of a dying man, scrawled desperately on linoleum with his own blood in an attempt to expose the man responsible for the gushing knife wound in his back. I’m sure this girl uses three different colors of highlighter, too. Buying used textbooks, I can’t avoid the blight of highlighters. As if reading boring drivel wasn’t bad enough, I have to deal with pink, blue, and green paragraphs. As far as I know, the highlighting is completely random. It’s usually the most concentrated towards the front of the book, because by the second midterm, most students have realized the futility of highlighting, or they’ve dropped the course.


French is next. I think foreign language classes are all the same: “discussion” format, instead of a lecture. French teachers must have even less money than I do: this one has worn the same dress every day this quarter. With foreign language classes, at least lower-division, it’s never a professor, always an instructor. I wonder if that’s what all foreign language majors have to look forward to one day. That doesn’t really bother me, at least compared to other idiosyncrasies of foreign language teachers: they always smoke (in fact, they’re probably the only smokers still around at UCSB), and they’re intentionally ambiguous about their backgrounds, as though they were ashamed to have been born in the U.S.

The instructor is arranging the class in a big circle around the perimeter of the room. I think I know why she always does this: first of all, it kills time (which is about all French instructors ever try to do), and it keeps students like me from hiding out in the back. If I was as ambitious as that guy over there, Dave, I would have positioned myself right next to the instructor’s desk, in her blind spot. But I already established myself in the back on the first day, and besides, this cute girl just sat down next to me and confided to me that she’s not quite sober after last night. That seems a lot more enticing than various negative forms in the French language. She’s trying to do her homework during class, and I look at her work. As with the girl in English class, the content is completely off but the form is perfect. She answers each question with a giant exclamation mark comprised of a circle with an inverted triangle above it. Very cute. This girl is likely an undeclared major. I don’t have anything to base that on; it’s just a strong hunch.

The instructor is breaking us into groups of three, in which we’ll write sentences (using various negative forms, of course) to describe roles she assigns us. My group is given the label “extravagant” and so Evan, who is obviously an Art Studio major, and I think real hard about what an extravagant person is like. I know Evan is an art studio major because he has forsaken his French textbook to make more room in his backpack for paperbacks (mostly Sartre and Camus and the like) and he is sporting the “starving artist” look. His old mended, faded jeans are spattered with paint from the studio, and his long curly hair is blasted back from his forehead as though he had just been blown away by one of the gigantic studio speakers they have in the art department. My roommate, Casey, is a lot like Evan, and I find them both to be very agreeable people. Perhaps the low-stress environment of the art department puts them in a more relaxed mood then other majors. Of course, my cycling would severely clash with my image if I tried to be an art studio major; after a ride my cheeks are rosy and if you’re an art studio major it’s cool to look pale and emaciated. Then again, at least I’d have the emaciated part down.

The third member of our group says nothing, just writes down everything. I look at her notes: every single word that has been uttered since the class began has been recorded verbatim. Throughout my notes, all you’ll see are entries like, “For Tues: ex. A&B p. 98; wkbk ex. A p. 45 in ink.” Wait, there’s one more entry in my notes, a simplified form of a clumsy equation for math class that suddenly came to me a minute ago. Other than that, I figure extraneous notes will just tie up more of my time if I have to read them later. This girl must spend hours re‑reading all her notes every night. As far as original thought, she is completely useless. She reminds me of my old factory co‑workers: seemingly content to do the grunt-work, but unwilling to generate ideas. We try to get her to participate, but it’s useless: she has no aspirations to be part of the brains of our operation.

Now the teacher has broken up our groups and we share our sentences with the class. Dave is first, representing the “professor” group. Always ready to put some spark into the classroom proceedings, Dave has written the French equivalent of “nobody listens to the professor because she is stupid” and has just read it to the class. I like Dave. He’s an English major through and through. Although his hair is good and long for that liberal arts look, it isn’t as unruly as that of an art studio major; it’s combed to represent the sophisticated side of our major. Often he wears a visor which he piles the hair up on, to keep it out of his eyes. Although I was originally skeptical, now I wish I’d just bought a visor instead of having my hair cut. Now my hair looks more accounting or econ. I’m suddenly aware that the teacher is addressing me, asking me to respond to Dave’s avant-garde statement. I could say something straightforward, but I can’t resist picking up where he left off: “What’s that? I didn’t hear you.” (In French, of course.) What a wasted effort. Here I’ve gone out on a limb with the teacher, and a good ninety percent of the class didn’t catch my joke. They probably didn’t understand me—no French majors here.


Next is Calculus class. I compare this class to a painting I saw once of a bunch of fish all fighting over a worm—on a fishhook. That’s right, this class has the element of competition to enhance its unpleasantness. We don’t just compete on tests, but also just getting into the classroom! Today, strangely enough, nobody is in the room when I get there. Here’s why: the class has been moved to another building. I head over there frantically, and sure enough, the room is completely filled up. Why are all these students fighting over seats like they were at a rock concert? Simple. Only from the very front row can you hope to make out the professors nightmarish calculations (which make my handwriting look neat by comparison).

After we scramble to turn in our assignments, which the professor collects in a flimsy plastic bag which is now tearing in several places, I scan the front row for a vacant seat. I know I’m dreaming, but I actually find one. Somebody’s backpack is there on the floor—could mean the seat’s taken, or it could belong to someone in the next seat. I sit down: I figure succeeding at this game requires taking a bigger chance than the next guy, just like parking in San Francisco. This time it doesn’t pay off—I am violently accosted by an irate female classmate, the owner of both the backpack and the seat. Take careful note: girls in calculus class are not looking to pass the time on the way to an MRS degree. I mean, let’s face it, what guy in his right mind would try to pick up a girl in a math class? These girls are here to get their piece of the pie, even if (or especially if!) it means trampling a lot of guys in the process. She’s not dressed for aesthetics—it’s pure business. Efficient slacks that won’t snag on the table in the library late-night study area, no frilly skirt to bunch up under her at the chair in the computer lab. Button-down shirt with big pockets for extra pens and a calculator. Hair coiled into a tight bun that won’t obstruct her vision as she scans the logarithm tables. Eyeglasses, because contact lenses and all-nighters don’t mix.

I finally find a seat in the front row—a Godsend, because if I can’t see the equations, I’m bound to fall asleep instead of copying down the professor’s strange graphs and theorems. I can even put my feet up on the stage. But it’s not all roses—the guy next to me is a hopeless motor mouth. He absolutely will not shut up. “Yeah, I guess you can sit there. I was saving it for Steve, but I guess he won’t be showing up. Up real late, I’m sure, probably partying. Nice seats, huh! This is just like summer school! Duh, huh, huh!” Look at him. Pathetic. Multicolor surfer-dude shorts, Corona t-shirt, prim and proper hairdo. He’s on the social track, obviously hungry for universal acceptance. I’ll bet his career goals include a big house and a BMW. “What the hell is he doing up there? Hey, are you getting any of this? Hey, I think I’ve seen that theorem before, back in high school in Morgan Hill! Wait, is that ‘as x approaches a,’ or ‘as x approaches 2?’ God, man, his handwriting is terrible. Have you looked at those homework problems for Friday yet? Look at all of these! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, god, there’s like thirty problems here!” I press the cold steel barrel of my revolver into his ear and say, “Buddy, you talk too much.” He drops his books on the floor and runs out of the classroom. The professor shoots me a quick glance and returns to his equations as my fellow students glare in disapproval at my disruption of the class.

The guy on my right is a male version of the girl who attacked me for trying to steal her seat. But the male is worse: he constantly mumbles about how he already knows all the equations, and his breath stinks. I know exactly what happened: he ate a peanut butter sandwich right before class and didn’t have the decency to at least rinse his mouth out. He figures he doesn’t have to be decent because he’ll be making fifty grand in a few years anyway with his engineering degree. I don’t care if he does—I’d rather starve to death with breath that’s face-to-face close than lug fifty pounds of Calculus and Digital Fundamentals books back and forth to the library for the next three years, scarfing down peanut butter sandwiches during my few spare moments.

The professor has gone so fast that he’s finished his lecture ten minutes early, as he has done every day so far this quarter. He could slow down a bit so that maybe some of the students could keep up, but hey, he’s got a reputation to keep up here. If the other guys in the math department caught wind that some of this guy’s students actually understood the material, he’d never be invited to another department luncheon, or whatever it is math professors do when they’re not solving derivations or making graphs.


My last class today is history. There’s Tor. I recognize him because he’s in my French class—otherwise, he’s just another generic History 4A Western Civilization student, one more addition to the sea of faces in the giant Lotte Lehman Concert Hall. But I can tell he’s a History major: the glazed look his eyes had in French class is gone, replaced by little points of light. This guy obviously loves facts. Ideas are vague and unstable, insights are false—only cold, hard facts turn him on. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this guy loves history. I don’t think the term “history” needs to be synonymous with “facts.” I actually doubt that Tor cares at all about ancient Mesopotamian cultures. I’ve checked out his notes: statistics, dates, names. That’s it. This is one guy whose notes are not bound to aesthetics—in fact, there’s no organization whatsoever. Just thousands of facts, which will be transferred to note cards and memorized later.

I did that once, for a history final that was 80% of my grade. I memorized so many facts I thought I would vomit and in the toilet bowl it would look like alphabet soup. Of all those facts, all I remember is that the amount of horse manure that accumulated in Philadelphia was truly breathtaking. I once knew the year, the street, and the exact weight per day. Who weighed it all, anyway? I much prefer factoids—statements that sound like fact and give an argument support like fact, but are actually made up. I’ll show you how it works. “I hate horses and here’s why: on 9th Street in Philadelphia in an average day in 1934, 13,000 horses deposited 145 tons of manure. That’s 3/4 of a pound for every man, woman, and child!” Would you know enough to correct me? Probably not. So why memorize real facts?

I try to organize my notes, but the professor, too, is just spouting names, dates, places. Another fact-lover. I think he’s a geek. At least he’s wearing a suit. Never mind that he looks like one of those stupid little kids who wears a miniature suit to a wedding and implores you to think, “That stupid little kid is too young to be wearing a suit.” The prof does look better than Tor, who’s sporting a dingy, blank sweatshirt, Toughskins jeans, and blue Keds running shoes. His attire suits him well: fashion is always changing and hard to pin down. Maybe 501’s were out last year in favor of acid-washed jeans, and this year Lee is heavily promoting its new “three-day weekend: fourth day” image. Leather Aviator jackets may have come and gone. These are ethereal fashion feelings—but blank sweatshirts, Toughskins, and Keds are facts. They’ve never been “in” so they’ll never be “out.” They’re as old as time and will never die.

Tor’s hair is long and greasy, and even though it’s sort of smeared away from his eyes, he looks like a sheepdog. He doesn’t wear his hair long per se; it just happens to be long because he isn’t even slightly aware of its length. Below his intertwined legs, one foot crosses over on top of the other as if trying to meld with it. The only time I’ve ever sat like that was when I was at home alone one night, a paranoid eight year old, and my malicious brothers had turned off the power at the circuit breaker and I thought if I pulled my whole body into a solid mass I’d be more secure somehow. Now, I’ve only had one psychology class, but I’m going to guess that Tor’s body language is expressive of what’s going on inside—feeling out of touch with an unstable world, he seeks solace in sturdy, unyielding facts. Hence the History major.


What am I getting at here? Well, this is UCSB, and what we’re studying probably won’t affect our eventual careers, since this is not a vocational school. Students here do not choose their majors according to what they want to learn, or what they want to be. They choose majors according to who they already are.

So. Who are you?

dana albert blog

No comments:

Post a Comment