My mini-bio in the corner of this webpage says that I’m a “Scientist by day…,” which is true, but have I told you that I was also an English major?
English was my first love and I started college absolutely sure I would be an English major, but I’ll never forget how disappointing that first semester class was, an introduction to British Literature. The students were dull and uninterested. The professor was equally as dull and uninterested. I remember in particular that we read Wordsworth’s The Prelude…and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and frankly, I don’t think the professor could either.
Things perked up a bit in later semesters, but for the most part I found that my English Department was fairly mediocre. I had been spoiled in high school with a series of talented English and writing teachers who really pushed us. We learned all sorts of literary theory, cool stuff like post-structuralism and deconstructionism. I liked digging into the wordsy-dirt, signs and signifiers and all that. But they don’t really teach much literary theory to English undergrads (not at my college anyway), so each class was like one bad book club after another.
On the side, I started to take more science classes because I wanted to beef up my English degree. I had a vague idea that I might try science journalism as a career.
I had a particularly good teacher in Chemistry who encouraged me to try undergraduate research. As frustrating and difficult as research could be, it was also incredibly satisfying. The analytical side of your brain gets a thorough workout designing experiments, running them, and analyzing the data. Based on this, I ended up double-majoring in English and another science (don’t want to say which, for anonymity’s sake), which ultimately led me to graduate school for my Ph.D. I finished that English degree, but my heart wasn’t really into it by the end.
I took just one creative writing class during college and ended up doing pretty well. The professor made me submit one of my short stories in a University contest and it got third place. I thought that was pretty cool and I was certainly proud, but I’d also gotten snobby about the humanities (since I was a budding scientist who clearly knew everything) so I didn’t pursue it any further. The professor asked me to join her by-invitation-only novel writing class…and I turned her down. I had too many science classes to take, I told her, I couldn’t possibly find the time to do that.
Not joining that class is one of my major regrets. Why did I need to be such a damn know-it-all? That’s the problem when you first start taking science classes; it gives you the mistaken impression that the universe is there for you to understand and you are a wizard that can do or make just about anything.
Of course, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know. You’re not a wizard. You’re just a kid who starts to build some expertise in a very limited arena. You specialize to the point of being useless to practically anyone but yourself. I didn’t figure this out until a few years into graduate school though.
So knowing what I know now (and how little that is), I’d give my Junior year self a stern talking to. I’d remind myself that I’d always wanted to write and publish a novel, so why not take the darn class?
Do you ever wish you could go back in time and change one decision? I have no illusions that my life would be completely different if I had taken more writing classes, but it seems like a wasted opportunity that I can’t easily get back.
Did your life take an abrupt turn? Was it for better? For worse?
I don't regret going into the sciences, but I do regret turning my back on literature.