By: Philip Harker
I’ve yet to see a phrase that makes a UofT student’s skin crawl quite like “breadth requirements”. These two words seem to invoke vivid feelings of anxiety, course planning stress, and frustration in a subject area totally outside of one’s comfort zone. They conjure up nightmarish scenarios such as an optimistic English major struggling through what they were told would be an easy Earth Sciences course, or a prospective Computer Science major getting absolutely destroyed by a Classics course way out of his league (yes, I speak from experience on this one).
Today, I’d like to speak directly to my fellow STEM students. I get it, maybe you had a bad experience with the humanities. Maybe you hate essays. Maybe you think it’s a useless thing to study. But you’d be surprised by how much you actually stand to gain from taking a course or two in the field.
For one, the humanities is all about writing. Like it or not, we in STEM have to write. A lot. Writing skills can take a backseat in a STEM student’s mind when they’re studying for a calculus exam, but science simply cannot be done without writing: lab reports, technical manuals, README files—you could be doing far better on all of these if you spent more time perfecting your writing skills.
Another skill that the humanities can help you with is research. We are in the business of drawing on other people’s findings and making new discoveries based on that— we investigate, we consolidate, and we add to the collective body of human knowledge. It’s a lovely sentiment on the surface, but in reality it tends to devolve into piles of boring white papers and data analyses. It’s easy to hate the literary review phase of research, but us STEM students should be humbled— literary review is all they’ve got in the humanities. If a historian wants to figure out what a specific cavalry unit was doing at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, for example, they can’t just run a quick experiment in the lab. They have to research primary and secondary sources, sort out fact from fiction, and only then can they make their own arguments.
None of this is to say that STEM is easy or less nuanced. All I’m saying is that you might benefit from exploring the humanities with a different attitude. But where should we start?
To be clear, we’re only discussing the humanities here. Social sciences, like Sociology or Economics, are a story for another time. That being said, here are a few subjects you could consider pursuing courses in:
Suggested Combinations: Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Psychology
To quote every introductory Philosophy lecture in the English-speaking world: Philosophy comes from a Greek word meaning “love of knowledge”. It’s Philosophy Month here in the Trinity Times Features/Op-Eds Section, and there’s possibly no stronger link between the arts and the sciences than Philosophy.
Philosophers ask questions about the universe, the human mind, abstract logic, and even existence itself. Philosophy has been described as the root of all human knowledge, and it predates the scientific method by thousands of years. People with a mind for math will enjoy the study of pure logic, and physicists and psychologists alike will appreciate how much of their field comes from centuries-old ideas.
Suggested Combinations: Biology, Statistics, Astronomy
History is about more than just old white guys and events that no one has heard of. It’s the systematic documentation and study of events in the past. For many STEM majors, the idea of understanding and documenting large quantities of information over time is nothing new. In Evolutionary Biology, we have to work with large data sets over time to understand life history. Statisticians and astronomers are much the same, who are constantly working to make estimates on data collected over time.
Historians make inferences. It’s one thing to memorize a bunch of historical facts; it’s another to bring these facts together to form arguments and opinions. That’s what historians do—just like scientists with data.
Suggested Combinations: Environmental Science, Linguistics, any Research degree
Opinion warning: there is no skill in STEM more valuable than communication. English, Book and Media Studies, Creative Expression and Society… all of these departments could enhance any scientist’s communication skills, both orally and in written form.
All scientists should consider a rigorous technical writing course or two, both for the reading and writing skills to be gained. Environmental Science in particular comes to mind, as it takes a certain set of skills to persuade the masses to change their habits, whereas linguists might be interested in the practice of how we use language, to balance the rigorous theory of their studies.