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Dating our disciplines

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JULY 13, 2020

When you get to college, picking a major is a little bit like dating. You try this one and that, take a few classes, then settle down and commit. The choice is much mythologized: It will set you on a course toward a career, they say, determine how much you make and how happy you’ll be. If only it were that simple. 

Sonnet: In the beginning, I agonized over this process, spending hundreds of hours trawling through the course catalog website. Like online dating, this approach — snap judgments based on a two-paragraph course description, sleuthing through biased and limited information on crowdsourced websites — is not necessarily effective for testing and developing meaningful relationships. The impression of an endless stream of options saps you of the energy required to focus your attention on the person (or course) in front of you and really give them a shot. 

In efforts to meet my prospects in person, the first weeks of every semester before the drop deadline became a frenzied dance, getting my butt into as many different seats as I could, sometimes leaving one lecture halfway through to rush to another class happening at the same time. 

Madeleine: While Sonnet was galavanting between lecture halls, I was scribbling notes in general chemistry, a resolutely pre-med freshman. I quickly realized that I did not, in fact, want to be a doctor, and so I set out looking for alternatives. After one environmental science class, I made a decision: molecular environmental biology.

It was an admittedly haphazard union: a thread of connection that unspooled into a four-year relationship. I spoke with a few people, filed some paperwork and transferred to the College of Natural Resources. (Tied the knot, so to speak.) 

Sonnet: As my friends signed their declaration forms one by one, I kept flirting around, waiting for a deep tug of resonance to make the decision for me. 

The majors became characters in my mind, vying for my commitment: Computer science was the popular one who promised exciting, sleepless nights and eventually a private yacht with a side of compromised ethics; cognitive science the jack-of-all-trades type, charming and dynamic; English the intoxicating one I couldn’t get out of my head. But none of them felt quite right.

The crush that won out, ultimately, was linguistics. It was like prying the hood off the engine of language, taking it apart to understand how it worked. I kept peering deeper.

In the end, declaring the major was less “suddenly I knew” and more like moving in with a partner by accident, when you haven’t sat down together and decided to take the leap, but suddenly you realize you haven’t slept at your own place in weeks. I walked into my adviser’s office one day with a question about a syllabus and she said, “Are you ready to declare? You have all the prerequisites.” And, tired of agonizing, I did. 

Madeleine: MEB and I were happy together, for a while. It was hard work, but laced with delight. Willingly, I spent long hours puzzling through organic chemistry problems, deciphering this strange pictorial code. I was rewarded, every so often, with the joy of some fluency in these little molecules, the matter of life. I waded through the brutal slog of memorization: plant parts and phylogenetic trees, the names of long-past epochs. But this deep understanding of geologic time widened my scope, gave me a sustained feeling of smallness attributable only to awe. 

Then crept in parts of this union I simply didn’t like: the obsession with data and the insistence on learning R. I fell in love with biology through its stories, with ecology in the way that it could tell me about the interconnectedness of the world I live in. I chafed at the whole field’s newfound infatuation with numbers. 

Sonnet: Linguistics, too, was challenging and electrifying. Unearthing the elegant structures that underlie it, I came to understand language as a sensitive, mutable instrument, an emergent property of the human mind that, when studied, can tell us as much about us as we learn about it. 

But when you move in with someone, you inevitably see parts they don’t bring on those early dinner dates. I began to see how it fractured into subdisciplines, locked in theoretical disputes that felt more political than grounded in respect for the object of study. I watched graduates who’d been attracted initially by the rich particularity of human language take jobs at tech companies teaching computers to collapse that expressive texture.

Madeleine: I was young when I chose biology, too young to have one intellectual partner forever. I remember, distinctly, going home Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year and seeing some of my oldest friends. We were dispersed all over, all studying different things, making different plans. Suddenly, seeing all the paths I could’ve taken, I panicked. I barely read or wrote anymore, pursuits I had always loved. I returned to campus wild-eyed, enrolling in an English class and applying to write for this very newspaper. 

And so began my many affairs. I had a fling with geography, an exploratory few semesters of daydreaming about faraway places. I finally made a move on my longtime crush, creative writing, and workshops were even more intimate and addictive than I’d imagined. Then the longest, most drawn-out mistress: journalism. I kept returning to her, despite rejection and burnout, for the rush of being on deadline, the buzz of the newsroom, the jigsaw of crafting a story. 

Sonnet: I think I knew all along that I wouldn’t be academically monogamous. Early in my junior year, I signed more paperwork, obtaining official permission to split my time between linguistics and an interdisciplinary major in CNR, one that would morph as I did. Resisting pressure to define myself by the boxes I’d chosen, I took classes and found work that pushed and excited me: data science classes that gave me tools to help answer questions that dogged me, writing classes that honed my language, seminars that pushed my thinking. 

Sometimes I think I have an inkling, finally, about what the “right” majors would have been for me, if I were to do it all over. Luckily, I’ll get to keep spending time with those things, and all the other interests I haven’t even met yet, for the rest of my life. 

Madeleine: I felt, for a while, like I was constantly explaining to everyone what I studied. My science friends couldn’t understand why I wrote essays for fun; my creative writing friends balked at the idea of a four-hour chemistry lab. I, too, am not always sure where it is leading. I probably won’t “use” my major, in the strict sense of working in environmental genetics or bioengineering. But what I loved in all of it was the same: the focus on observation, on asking the right questions. The learning and the unlearning, the refocusing of history, the inclusion of new and silenced voices. 


Some people marry their college sweethearts, confident that the choice they made at 18 will continue to fulfill and challenge them for the rest of their lives. Others course-correct gradually, or change courses entirely. Neither of us appear to be the marrying-young type. We have little certainty about the courses ahead. 

The majors we chose were our intellectual first loves. They stretched and molded us, showed us what it feels like to be on fire about what we’re doing. The relationships may not end in marriage, but we’ll carry what they gave us into all of our future flings and affairs and eventual unions. The time we spent with them was far from a waste: It was, simply, the best we knew how to do at the time.

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected].

JULY 13, 2020