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Arma virumque cano: a guest post by Quynh N. ‘15 by Connie H. '15

Why you should take Old English at MIT

Hi guys! My name is Quynh, and like Connie, I’m a crusty old senior about to leave MIT in less than a month. I want to thank Connie for letting me write this guest post and being an overall awesome human being and friend.

When I came to MIT, I was looking for an education that would revolve around science and engineering. I’ve definitely found it—I’m majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry and have spent the last four years doing research in the Saeij lab on parasites and the Gilbert lab on mRNA modifications in yeast. Science has been a major part of my life and will continue to be for a long time—I’m about to start an MD-PhD in the fall.

While my science education has been immensely rewarding and exciting, one of my biggest accomplishments during my time here has been my minor in Ancient & Medieval Studies (AMS). When I tell people about this minor, the first response I usually get is, “MIT has humanities classes? Aren’t you guys a technical school?” The answer to this is a resounding yes. Beyond the foundational math and science classes every student has to take (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus), MIT also has a humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) requirement that requires every student to take at least 8 humanities classes during their time here. Three to four of these classes must focus on a specific field—Connie is concentrating in Comparative Media Studies, but some of my friends have concentrated in German or Asian & Asian Diaspora Studies. While people sometimes gripe about this requirement, most end up finding a concentration they love and find it’s not so bad after all.

I’ve talked to both classmates and professors about why MIT has a HASS requirement. Maybe it’s some weird form of torture to make kids who would rather think about equations and DNA molecules practice writing about the American political system, Japanese pop culture, or Latin poetry. I certainly have felt this way, especially during those weeks where three problem sets for my biology classes seemed more pressing than a 20 page paper on the Roman Republic. But I also think MIT understood something way before I did—having humanities classes adds so much value to your education and to your sanity at this place.

I won’t harp on how the humanities can add to and enhance a STEM education. The Dean of the School of Humanities, Deborah Fitzgerald, already wrote a wonderful article about it in the Boston Globe that precipitates these ideas much better than I ever could. I will say that having at least one humanities class every semester has made me a much happier student here at MIT. You may hate English class right now and when you get here, hope to never read a history book again. But I’ve found that when you only take technical classes, it can quickly become extremely draining working through problem sets and exams, and using one side of your brain. When I read poetry and analyze the author’s word choice, or look at a 14th century painting and ask what meaning a certain figure holds, it’s not about finding the right answer to a problem. My only job is to speculate and question what the creator’s motives and feelings are. It’s a different kind of learning and thinking—one that requires me to invest more of myself. These kind of connections and this type of analysis are not something I can do when I go into the lab and run an experiment. Science and research, at least in biology, is driven by questions of cause and effect. If I delete this gene, what will happen to my parasite? There is a correct answer there even if it’s sometimes not the one I want. But when it comes to the humanities, I’m trying to understand people, their motives, their feelings, and these are much more complicated.

Last Wednesday, I attended a talk by Professor Arthur Bahr on speculation in literary analysis. It was an intimidating environment with 20+ professors from the Literature and History departments in attendance, all discussing medieval manuscripts, how texts are three dimensional objects that can grow and evolve across time, and how historical relevance can be so fleeting. It was the most engaging and intellectually stimulating 2 hours of my semester and I walked out of it feeling happy and invigorated. This experience speaks to the power of the humanities at MIT—the work you do in the humanities can be just as exciting as anything you may encounter in the sciences. You might call me a nerd, but I genuinely enjoy the hours I spend translating Beowulf from Old English or Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reading the crazy stories of Caligula’s reign. I’m just as happy and excited to discuss Early Christianity and poetry as I am talking about a breakthrough discovery in virology, and I can find others who share the same strange combination of interests. To be a student at MIT means you can have these totally different passions and still be able to pursue both.

My experience with the humanities and Ancient Medieval Studies at MIT may just be one perspective, but it’s definitely been a huge part of my time here. I’ve realized that MIT is more than just a technical school because my identity here is much more than just a biology student. I’m going to graduate knowing Old English and having analyzed the Bible. These are very different from the “technical” education I originally thought I would get. I’m very lucky to be able to pursue AMS alongside my interest in science, and I’m extremely grateful to the professors who opened my eyes to the wonders of the humanities in the first place (shout out to Prof. Broadhead, Prof. Frampton, and Prof. Bahr!).

For those of you still looking for a humanities class to take for the fall, here are some interesting ones taught by some of my favorite professors. They are all in AMS because that’s where my heart is but there are also offerings in many other departments so make sure you check them out!

21L.001 Foundations of Western Literature: From Homer to Dante (CI-H)
21L.460 Medieval Literature: Old English & Beowulf

21H.239 The City of Rome in the Age of the Caesars