To be honest…with Christina Kirk

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To be honest, stereotyping majors is useless and usually degrading.

Regardless of your major, I’m sure you’re familiar with the demography associated with it. Business majors are football players. Physics majors are awkward loners. Political science majors are charismatic and truculent.

But how many people truly identify with these generalizations? And, if you do, how much do you want that to define you as a person?

Among the questions I dread being asked, “What are you studying?” ranks among the top three. As a humanities major with a pre-med minor, I have endured both the dismissal of humanities as viable fields of study and the assumptions of idealism and naiveté of pursuing a career in medicine. Rarely have I received a wholly positive response, except from peers. It seems almost customary to give unsolicited and often discouraging advice to college students. Perhaps this advice would seem less useless if it was not grounded on assumptions and stereotypes.

In one encounter with a relative I mentioned my interest in forensic psychiatry only to be immediately met with, “Those jobs aren’t like Criminal Minds, you know.” I stifled my indignation at the ridiculous assertion that I had based my professional interests on television programming rather than research and suitability to my skills, and, instead, responded with “I know. Reality is a lot less glamorous than what those shows present.” He ended the conversation with a quick comment about how I should try to major in engineering since so few women are in the field, meaning I could easily get jobs and easily find a man. Money and men – what more could I possibly want?

The utter lack of multidimensionality is insulting and quite exclusive. If some aspect of your identity breaches these normative ideas, you’re often seen as an outlier or believed to be a misfit who lacks the skills, personality or looks for the gig. Especially for majors traditionally considered dominated by a specific gender or race, breaches of norms are seen as anomalies.

If you’re one of the exceptions, people tend not to believe your interests are organic. Female STEM majors or male theatre majors are assumed to be taking advantage of the job availability or salary benefits facilitated by the fields’ gender gaps. Being defined by rarity rather than qualities like hard work, talent or genuine interest is utterly dismissive, and it perpetuates demographic homogeneity. Minorities that are not well represented in their fields are treated as exceptions to a rule. Alternatively, anomalies can become tokenized, proof of some achievement in diversity. Non-white students are frequently emphasized in publicity campaigns or forced to take on roles they may not want in order to prove to the world that the field of study is not as homogeneous as assumed. Stereotypes make majors seem predetermined, creating the stiff, unchanging populations that plague sectors of academia. Academics remain bland and stagnant if ideas, experiences, personalities and identities are too similar.

I do believe that college students are becoming progressively more aware of the dangers of stereotyping. As diversity measures are increased and people of different identities can explore fields that were previously deemed untouchable, stereotypes are steadily broken down. Still, this change in perspective is a conscious choice.

I can already sense people saying stereotyping is helpful for humans to categorize information about others and act accordingly. That’s true to an extent, but we are at a liberal arts college in suburban Missouri in 2018. We don’t need to make rash blanket assumptions about anyone and anything we come across in fear of being mauled by a lion or murdered by a rogue hunter. We have the time and resources necessary to have nuance. We’re allowed to hold out and get to know people and construct as realistic evaluations as possible. Let’s use those nifty critical thinking skills to view others as complex and nuanced individuals, not as automatonic spawns of fields of study.

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