Blagoblagz*: Why I’m a History Major at MIT (Guest Blog!) by Chris S. '11
By Dora '11, who is a Physics and History double major and is super awesome. Part I in the "Why I'm a Humanities Major at MIT" series.
* for lack of a better title, I have taken the liberty of using the title of the word file Dora sent me. thanks for this awesome blog! :)
by Dora ’11, course 8 and Ancient and Medieval Studies double major at MIT – AMS is like 21H (a regular history major) with a special twist.
It is 1120 A.D., and the fates of four empires hang in the balance as the world poises on the brink of possible war.
Since the very early beginnings of their histories , the bordering peoples under Alexander the Great of Greece, Napoleon of France, and Frederick the Great of Germany, had made a pact to share the fruits of their research and resources in a peaceful coexistence that had propelled their various nations to glory. But recently, contact has been made with Catherine the Great of Russia, discovered to have fully populated an entire continent by herself, with cities peacefully reaching unknown heights of culture and wonder.
First contact went something like this:
Catherine: well hello there
Napoleon: doing pretty well I see
Catherine: you’re not doing so bad yourself
Catherine: we shall see who will roflstomp whom!
Or, so scholars believe. In fact, the only thing modern historians are entirely certain of is Catherine’s employment of the word “roflstomp” to describe the act of severely pummeling an enemy to the point at which rolling on the floor laughing may become appropriate, and her impeccably correct usage of pronouns.
All right, so, you got me. There was no ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny between Alexander, Napoleon, Frederick, and Catherine. Alexander the Great didn’t even live in the same era as the other three leaders, and certainly none of them were alive in 1120 A.D. The above situation was actually the incredibly tense moment at which I stopped playing a particularly harrowing game of Sid Meier’s Civilization IV with two friends and – here’s the really good part – my professor of medieval literature.
How, exactly, did this all happen?
To really answer the question, I would have to go back to my high school days. Back then, there were two subjects I loved equally: physics and history. I toyed briefly with the idea of going to a liberal arts college to study history, politics, and international relations, but couldn’t really pass up going to a school like MIT and still sleep easy at night. With my first step into the Infinite Corridor as a real MIT student, I came to peace with the fact that I would have to forsake one of my passions for the full pursuit of the other.
But fortunately (or, as some might argue, unfortunately), MIT has the HASS system, which for most, mandates us to take eight humanities classes before we graduate. As I was setting out for a daunting yet exciting semester of waves and vibrations and special relativity the fall of my sophomore year, I decided to reacquaint myself with an old friend and poke around the history department’s subject listing. Immediately, I was stricken by the sheer number of really interesting classes that were being offered. I finally chose to take 21H.406: Julius Caesar and the Fall of the Roman Republic, if only for the fact that it met at an open block in my schedule, and that it was a small, seminar-style class that hopefully could accommodate one more student.
I enjoyed every single one of the history classes I took in high school, but they had always had a distinctly class-ish feel to them. The teacher would lecture on a particular theme or event – for example, the American Revolution – touching on the relevant points: causes, battles, effects, and I would take bullet-point notes to stash away in my notebook. My first 21H.406 lecture, however, was entirely different. I was hardly aware of the ninety minutes flying by as I listened to the professor tell the story of the civil war between the generals Marius and Sulla as they battled for power in Rome– and that was exactly what he was doing: telling a story. I was experiencing history as I never had before, not as a set of events and facts that had occurred in the past, but as a narrative, comprising of dynamic players that were as human as we are today.
21H.406 quickly became my favorite class that term, and I found it to be a much needed break from all the math and science. Now don’t get me wrong: it certainly was no easy ride, and I still have vivid memories of reading Cicero deep into the wee hours of the night. I made flashcards for each of the fifty terms per test, of which there were two, and spent countless hours stressing over how to distinguish the various ancient sources for identifications. I probably annoyed more than just a couple of friends trying to recount the exact timeline of late Republican history over cookies and cake. History at MIT, I quickly learned, is no joke (chris here: that’s so true), but also an immensely satisfying and educational experience.
So, going back to the original question: how did I end up mass-producing swordsmen to use against my professor of medieval literature? Well, I couldn’t bring myself to stop taking history after 21H.406, and ended up taking 21H.346: France 1660-1815: Enlightenment, Revolution, Napoleon, and 21H.433: The Age of Reason: Europe from the 17th to the Early 19th Centuries the following spring. I returned to ancient history last fall, taking 21H.007J: Empire: Introduction to Ancient and Medieval Studies. This class stood out to me in particular, since it was also the same class as 21L.014J (the “J” at the end means that it’s a joint class) in the literature department. It was in this class that I met that venerable professor of medieval literature, who boldly declared one afternoon that he had attained the highest level of achievement in Civilization IV. As an MIT student, I couldn’t pass up the challenge.
It was also when I was taking 21H.007 that I realized how much I enjoyed taking history, how I knew I wanted to take at least one history class every semester for the rest of my time here. I soon reached the conclusion that I wanted to double major in ancient and medieval studies with minimal further reasoning: I was already finishing up my physics requirements, and seeing as I knew I would spend a lot of my remaining credits on history classes, why not make them count for something? I’m not going to lie; what might have been a pretty easygoing last year at MIT has turned into a frantic race to complete all my requirements for a double major, and I’ve considered, on more than one occasion, sacrificing a to to ensure that my required classes have no conflicts next year. It’s an entirely hair-pulling, sleep-depriving (both in general fretting and workload) ordeal, but let me tell you: it’s entirely worth it, and I absolutely don’t regret my decision. If anything, I would wish that I had made it sooner, so I could better plan my classes and take some other history courses that weren’t directly ancient and medieval.
For one thing, some of the closest bonds I have been able to make at MIT have been in my history classes. Contrary to what the public perception of MIT is, there are lots of people here who love the humanities, and who approach subjects in humanities with the same excitement and fervor that they approach their technical fields. It creates exchanges, conversations and debates slightly different to, and in my opinion, more enjoyable than some of the conversations I’ve had with my friends who were history majors at liberal arts institutions (though, when push comes to shove, I can always match those liberal arts majors fact for fact in terms of historical understanding. An education in history at MIT is definitely comparable to an education at another institution!) (chris here again: kids, this is also very much true). Since MIT is undeniably a tech school, I’ve become really close friends with the small group of people who share my passion of history, since we all take the same classes together repeatedly and have had bonded over the material. We often discuss the history that we’ve learned together for hours on end (the various debaucheries of ancient Roman emperors never get old as inappropriate table talk), and looking back, I can definitely say that I have met some of my best and most compatible friends here at MIT through my history classes.
Through history, I’ve also created valuable relationships with many members of the history faculty. Perhaps this is partly a by-product of the fact that I now spend all of my free waking hours in building E51, where the history department is housed, but in the small, personable humanities classes here, it’s pretty much also impossible to not know your professor. Instead of the large, oftentimes intimidating science lectures that we all invariably experience at least once during our time here at MIT, it is definitely a refreshing change of pace to walk into a normal classroom and have the professor smile at me and ask, “Hey, Dora, how’s it going?” You come to learn that your professors are really awesome and fun people who also happen to assign whole books on the study of death in the Civil War for next week’s reading (True story. Utterly depressing, but was one of the most intriguing books I’ve read while at MIT). And I’ve definitely spent longer than I have intended to in my thesis advisor’s office when the conversation somehow leaves the significance of Augustan propaganda to enter the realm of what happened last week on House (I consider it a symbiotic relationship: I forsake watching to write my thesis, but then he catches me up).
So, what is humanities, especially history, at MIT to me? It’s tremendously valuable experience to have, and one that has allowed me to grow in so many ways as a student. Because of it, I have become a much better writer and I now know how to build a solid case supported by evidence and how to express that clearly and logically in a paper. This not only manifests in the history papers that I write, but also in my technical writing as well. I have also been able to forge some of the best and closest relationships with professors, something that is much harder to do in the larger science lectures. I have engaged in heated discussions with a small group of students, ones that I’ve kept in touch with even after the class ended and who I am now good friends with. To sum things up, even if it’s not technical, humanities at MIT carries a distinctly MIT feel: challenging, stimulating, and entirely fulfilling. In many ways, I am sure that I would not appreciate the same classes to the extent I did had I taken them anywhere else.*
And as for that Civilization IV match? Plans for the final showdown are in order, and regardless of whether or not I end up being roflstomped, I will never forget that time I played against my professor of medieval literature in a game of pixilated world domination. And I can say with a good amount of certainty that that’s one experience many students at your typical liberal arts school will never have.
*For instance: It was my medieval literature professor who expanded my vocabulary with the term ‘roflstomp.’ Perhaps it isn’t a traditionally GRE-recognized vocab word (yet), but I guess literature professors will always be literature professors, no matter where you are!