An unfortunate side effect of teaching men and women alike that STEM fields are the only areas that matter is that the humanities—and by extension, feminine cultural traits like collaboration and compassion—are unfairly seen as frivolous or ornamental.
At the transition from fiction to creative non-fiction, I asked my creative writing class to buy copies of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-winning account of the year she spent living in Roanoke, Virginia. We were about to start our environmental narratives, and Annie and her winding journey through the Blue Ridge Mountains would be our guide.
But the next week, my students arrived looking wounded and confused. Some pushed their books to the far edge of the table—there’s safety in distance. Others, out of either laziness or silent rebellion, showed up empty-handed. The future teachers just looked betrayed.
What are we supposed to do with this? What is the point?
I won’t pretend that Pilgrim is an easy book to read; much less to teach. It chronicles a young woman on her daily outdoor meanderings, many of which feel tedious and mundane. But littered among musings on moths’ mating habits and frogs’ shedding old bags of skin are gems of transience, epiphany: the blind girl who removes her bandages and sees the tree with the lights in it, the nightmare of a bed covered in myriad hatching fish eggs, the claws of a cat painting Annie’s chest with blood. I might see anything happen; I might see nothing but light on the water. I walk home exhilarated or becalmed, but always changed, alive.
Don’t try to read too much at once, I suggested. A little bit goes a long way, like castor oil. Read a section with your morning coffee as the sun comes up, another before nestling down into the covers. And remember that if you treat it like a chore, it will feel like one.
But this is not about moths or fish eggs or the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is about a society’s troubling yet normalized resistance to, in Annie’s words, seeing…and being seen.
On a May day in 2009, my friend Julie and I spread out a blanket on the quad of our small liberal arts college and spent the afternoon reading. The book was The Great Gatsby; the snack was pizzelle cookies drizzled with homemade honey. If I try hard enough I can still smell the wisteria blooming on the pergola, taste the anise in my mouth.
A few weeks ago, I opened Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to re-read along with my students. I told them that this book has calming properties, that I had read it to center myself when my last semester of grad school coincided with my first semester teaching. But this time I was not calm. I tore through each page, highlighting furiously. Dishes in the sink, bills on the counter. My eyes drifted to the stack of papers that really should have been graded by now so they could be returned today. I needed to get groceries. I needed to come up with a conference topic.
The book is hard, I said. It was hard for me too. It felt like an inconvenience.
My class nodded.
I decided that I should get over myself, I said.
They nodded at that too.
America spends $4.3 billion on STEM education annually due to the vast growth of jobs that demand backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math. My college’s new STEM building, trimmed in solar panels and stocked with the very latest equipment, towers over the campus landscape. I have graced all floors but the top, which is exclusively for chemistry and designed to minimize damage in the event of an explosion. Charming details like this make me glad to teach English.
STEM fields are notoriously and disproportionately dominated by men, a fact that has inspired organizations like Girls Who Code, Engineer Girl, and Danica Keller’s Math Doesn’t Suck to promote involvement for women. There’s even GoldieBlox, the pastel-colored construction kit that aims to combat the distinct loss of interest in science and math that plagues girls in their later elementary school years.
Women need these opportunities and encouragement for certain. They should be learning about Ada Lovelace and Rachel Carson; they should feel safe and welcome to enter the doors of the old boys’ club. But we would be remiss to believe that the old boys’ club of science and technology is all life has to offer.
Cross-cultural psychologist Geert Hofstede theorizes that national culture can be measured across six dimensions, one of which is whether a society values predominantly masculine or feminine traits. The United States scores as a masculine nation, privileging competition, upward mobility, individualism, and a “live to work” lifestyle: all qualities bolstered by careers in STEM.
An unfortunate side effect of teaching men and women alike that STEM fields are the only areas that matter is that the humanities—and by extension, feminine cultural traits like collaboration and compassion—are unfairly seen as frivolous or ornamental. A nation that craves little more than novelty, efficiency, and immediacy is now inconvenienced by the elements of the human condition. “The world only spins forward,” Belize reminds his friend Prior in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. “Yeah,” Prior answers, “but forward into what?”
I am not suggesting that STEM workers are emotionless Vulcans, nor am I advocating for every student pursing a STEM career to jump ship and major in art history instead. Philosophy enhances law, music teaches math, and currently, according to The Washington Post, those in STEM fields like engineering “are paying more attention to the humanities to better understand the social and cultural context of the communities for which they design products.” We must realize that the arts and sciences need each other, or else fulfill the horrific vision of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
My students asked me what the point of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is. At the end of her chapter on spring, Annie Dillard shares the story of an Eskimo hunter who asks his local priest if he would be condemned to hell if he were ignorant to God’s existence. The priest tells him no, not if he had no idea, and the exasperated Eskimo replies, “Then why did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; Annie writes, but since I’ve seen it, I must somehow deal with it.
This is how I feel about the humanities. I know about Fitzgerald and Nabokov, Morrison and Dillard, so I must acknowledge them. I must shut down the circus of practicalities storming through my brain in order to see and be seen, to pay attention to the tree with the lights in it. And when I close the book, feeling romantic enough to capture the hollowness of the sky before snow, or the grassy smell of puppy paws, or the soft sounds of Julie and me breathing on the college quad when the landscape glittered with possibility, I wonder if there is a more vital obligation than being filled to the brim with life.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.