One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from a professor consisted of just three words: “always ask why.”
I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, but I hated the prospect of being forced to tailor my passion to fit an academic curriculum. Conditioned all my life to believe academia is restricted to the discussion of subjects which might benefit my career prospects, I couldn’t understand why I was being forced to squander my credit hours on a second writing requirement. It was frustrating for me to immerse myself in an introductory English literature course with a weak background in literary analysis.
Naturally, I was intimidated by the class from day one. What was my half-baked comment worth in the face of the brilliant remarks of my classmates, who obviously knew more than I did, and had decided to take this class based on personal interest?
For a long time, I saw area requirements as a punishment — a painful reminder of my place at the bottom of the University’s food chain of intelligence. During my first year, I spent countless hours redrafting my schedule for the next seven semesters, trying desperately to find ways in which I could squeeze in all of the requirements without sacrificing the more “important” classes.
I didn’t end up writing a great first English lit paper — in fact, aside from basic sentence structure, I did everything completely wrong. My thesis was murky, my paragraphs were too short and I had no idea if any of my arguments were even valid. While normally I would have been discouraged by my failure, my professor insisted I come talk to her about how I could improve.
As it turned out, my problem was not that I was a poor English student, but that I was too afraid of being wrong to allow myself to think. My assumption that I couldn’t do well in a humanities class only stifled my desire to try, and I had unfairly excluded entire worlds of thought instead of seizing the chance to learn something from them.
My professor explained how inquisitive observation opens the floodgates of critical and analytical processing. Contrary to most lower-level math or science classes, where everything is blindly accepted as fact, humanities courses require you to interpret and verify the content for yourself. This facilitates a habit of independent thinking which can, and should, be applied outside the classroom.
I’m no longer envious of students exempt from area requirements — they’re just the ones who were lucky enough to have been granted opportunities to learn how to think earlier on. I never would have guessed I’d willingly end up taking three non-Western perspectives courses, four second writing requirements and an extra level of French.
Area requirements ultimately helped shape a large part of my identity — both academically and personally. Though not all of my experiences with these courses have been positive, they have taught me a wealth about myself and, more importantly, about perspectives previously outside my field of vision.
Vega’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.