Combining humanities and engineering brings both confusion and the freedom to improvise.
By Alice Dai
When I think about my education, I like to start with Joan Didion, a fellow Californian. In her opening essay of The White Album, she writes of finding herself in the spotlight without any guidance for how to act: “The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it.”
This is my debut column, my spotlight. It’s called “In Between” because I am in between—childhood and adulthood, science and the humanities. I’m a junior at Duke University studying electrical and computer engineering and English. It’s an unconventional combination; the English majors are uninterested in completing endless problem sets, and my engineering friends steer away from courses requiring reading and writing. In between these two academic worlds, I’ve found myself a new sort of educational home—I’ve chosen the unwritten manuscript.
When I think about the choices I’ve made for myself, I think about Joan Didion and her mislaid script. I think that the script that was given to me at birth—where the path of least resistance has always been graduation from school to school, a shiny summer internship, the famed Candy Land of corporate life, and retirement at a reasonable age—got lost, and now I’m writing a new one for myself.
Here’s what I’ve been up to in the liminal space between studies: I’ve been elbow-deep in epoxy resin at 2 a.m., slathering glue on a foam car mold. I’ve spent days trying to get a single arm of a simulated robot to pick up a yellow block. For an entire semester, I scheduled time to do nothing but stare at the ceiling of my dorm room in deference to an artistic writing process.
Nestled right next to my liberal art spaces, through which I seek to read and write and look for my soul, is the pragmatism of an engineering education: the tall buildings on Science Drive, far across campus from the English department, where I learn about robots and computers, where the heart of being an engineer is applying abstract concepts to solve real, practical problems. My college life can sometimes be reduced to a constant zig zag between two specialties that are distant from one another in every possible way.
People further along in their careers rarely get the perspective of someone who is younger telling them exactly why she is confused. What I want them to know is this: The education I’m getting now, the one that I’ve created for myself, the one that I’m still untangling, is the one I wish I didn’t need to look so hard for. It’s the one I wish I had been offered from the start when I entered the privileged echelons of elite education. The prepackaged scripts of being an English major or an electrical engineer are digestible on their own, but stand almost unintelligible when presented together.
Through my unconventional path, I haven’t seen a real effort to combine the humanities and engineering at Duke, but I also understand that’s difficult. Humanities requirements in engineering are nominal at best, but there are also a lot of core basics about engineering that still need to be taught. It’s difficult to create a script for someone like me from the outside because funneling resources into a novel course is risky when students don’t even know the basics. Indeed, how does an institution plan for the unconventional without inevitably making the unconventional normal?
Even so, I like this between space, since not everyone is going to want to be an engineering and English major. What I’ve gotten out of this is the chance to actually take ownership of my education since there is no script for me to follow. I have no idea what I’m going to do in the future. Perhaps I’ll build a robot that writes poetry. But the improvisation required of this middle space, the desire to figure out what this all means to me, how I could turn my interests into a fulfilling life: That’s the point of an education, isn’t it?
Alice Dai is a junior in English and electrical and computer engineering at Duke University.