Course Selection Aspirin

10 mins read

The pre-enrollment period is approaching. Scrolling through all the intriguing course titles, such as “Radical Jesus” or “Sacred Plants, Holy Fungi, and Religious Experience,” it just seems impossible to narrow them down. As I cannot handle more than four courses a semester, I keep switching tabs back and forth, comparing the course descriptions in detail and hesitantly bidding farewell to some. Still left with a bunch of potential spring semester classes, and a sense of being lost in the middle of the course catalog ocean, the real conundrum hits me: what am I gonna major in? What am I gonna do after I graduate? What am I gonna do with my life?

When I applied to Swarthmore, my intended major was neuroscience. I always had this vague curiosity about why people behave in certain ways and thought studying the human mind would suit me well. Just imagine! Isn’t it fascinating how a mere three pounds of pink jelly in our head sparks a heartwarming compassion, a lifesaving innovation, or a blood-boiling revolution? I wanted to venture into the uncharted territory of the human psyche and was confident that neuroscience was the first step. However, after attending the Advising Fair during Orientation Week, my conviction quickly gave way to an equally strong desire to study cognitive science. Studies in neuroscience were focused on the biological mechanism of the brain. It tackled questions such as “what areas of the brain are responsible for motor and sensory coordination?” or “how is neural plasticity embodied in the biological system?” On the other hand, I gravitate more towards abstract questions like “what kindles imagination?” or “why are some people more motivated than others?”, which are inquiries that will not be quite answerable in the words of neuroscience for at least the next few decades. Instead, I realized that pursuing a special major in cognitive science would help me slake my curiosity through various perspectives in philosophy, psychology, and computer science. So I chose to go for an introductory cognitive science course during my first semester. 

At this moment, writing my article in the very room in which I take Intro to Cognitive Science right before the class starts at 8:30 a.m., I feel sorry for my professor because I am about to formally announce that the biggest lesson I’ve learned after covering roughly two-thirds of the entire syllabus is “I do not want to major in cognitive science.” It is absolutely not that the early class time brutally rips me away from my sweet dreams and that I can’t sacrifice my basic physiological needs for a B.A. in cognitive science ⏤ on the contrary, I wake up earlier than the early birds. Neither am I saying that I learned nothing other than this realization. In fact, the class itself is like a scavenger hunt in which we discover spellbinding new facts about the unconscious tendencies of our everyday actions: I learned how different self-representation can affect how we behave; I did a spooky demo, in which the nose of the Mona Lisa disappears when you position it along your blind spot; I read a paper about how the human cognitive system heavily relies on metaphors; I even published an article inspired by a fancy cognitive science concept called “timescale chauvinism” two weeks ago! It’s just that, despite all the fun that the subject offers, it mostly explains HOW people behave in those mind-blowing ways, not WHY. It’s cool that cognitive scientists have discovered the metaphorical basis of human cognition! But why does that happen? And why does that matter? Cognitive science didn’t seem very interested in the questions that bothered me the most.

My decision to search for a new major solidified when I listened to the physics colloquium last week because it encapsulated how I want to learn about why things are rather than how they are. Professor Asja Radja, from Bryn Mawr College, gave a biophysics lecture about patterning mechanisms on single-cell surfaces. Her research focused on the physical modeling of the morphology of pollen grains and phaeodaria. It was interesting to learn how the sugar mixture produced inside the cell formed undulations on the cell membrane, but I kept wondering why she specifically chose to study pollen grains and what implications her study had. After several questions about the specifics of how she was conducting her research, I finally asked this question to Professor Radja and was too dumbfounded by her answer to ask my second question. Her answer went something like this: “I received a grant to study pollen.” At first, I was embarrassed that I had asked this question. Nobody seemed to care about why we should study pollen grains. Then, I realized that studies in the scientific realm must focus more on how things work the way they do and not always on why it is important to study them outside of an academic standpoint. That was the reason why I found my cognitive science class less enjoyable. Again, it is not that science is nerdy gibberish that lacks understanding of the reason why. Since it investigates the mysteries of nature, continuous inquiry into the reason why inevitably had to reach a dead end. To give a clear-cut example using physics: why does the apple fall off the tree? Because of F=ma! Why does F=ma hold true? Because god designed it that way? Goodbye, cognitive science. To me, the reason and the meaning behind the study were more important than what the study is.

Abandoned by (or abandoning?) my potential majors, I started to think about the things that I liked to do. The first thing that popped into my mind was my foundations in sociology class. I loved questioning why some things were legalized while others were not. Debating whether African countries should be called “underdeveloped” or “developing” was simply breathtaking. Unraveling the role of the capitalist system in our lack of concentration made me feel so excited. And all these discussions spoke to me about why people behave the way they do. Other than that class, I enjoyed gardening at the Good Food Garden; I missed hiking the Allegheny Front Trail, surrounded by the red and yellow paintings of nature; I looked forward to my weekly sustainability book club meetings. Thinking of the planet Earth void of green beauty made me feel upset. I felt the need to protect the Earth. And I also felt my course selection headache go away: I just needed to keep an open mind and search for the classes that speak to what interests me the most, ask me why, and help me find joy in what I’m doing.

I still have no idea what I’m going to major in, what I’m going to do after I graduate, or what to do with my life. But reflecting upon my winding journey at Swarthmore so far makes me excited about the path that lies ahead. No matter where it leads, I am going to enjoy each step with a wide-open mind and ask why. But before that, I’d better go knocking on professors’ offices to peek in and seek advice.

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