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How the Other Half Lives

At Bwog, we know that not all Columbia students are the same. And we know that most people’s classroom experiences are not the same. What we wanted to find out was just how different they can be. So, in a form of cruel experimentation, we sent an English major to an engineering lecture, and an engineer to an English class. This is what happened.

An engineering student attends a lecture on James Joyce’s Ulysses

Full disclosure: I have an unfair advantage because I read the first four pages of Ulysses two summers ago. Someone was shaving or something…

Why bother when time’s not real anyway?

Anyway, when I walked into the classroom, I was pleasantly surprised that it was brightly lit. And didn’t smell like armpit. There was a shockingly large number of people over the age of 60. I’m not entirely sure why they feel that returning to school in pursuit of an English degree is the best use of their waning time or money, but hey. Oddly, most of the students are female. So this is where they’ve been hiding.

I was midway through counting the number of people wearing scarves (~18) when the class began. As the professor began discussing the assigned chapter, which she referred to as Circe even though it’s 15 (apparently English majors really don’t like numbers), things got real. The prof quite persistently made references to The Odyssey. The word “unknowability” was used. A potato was discussed. Potatoes are Irish, so I guess that makes sense. There was talk of mirrors and the theme of “sight,” which past experience tells me is a theme in every written work ever.

The Circe/15 chapter is notable because it is in the form of a play (a play within a novel—madness!) and because it is more than slightly sexual. The professor began putting slides of naked women up on the projector, presumably because English majors are sexy. This discussion of sexual deviance and fetishes went on for some time, and the word “sex” was likely uttered more times than it has been in Mudd throughout the building’s existence.

Because sex is not abstract enough for a humanities lecture, the professor then posed two questions: “What does it mean to finish something?” and “Do details matter?” After elaborating on the questions, she launched into a discussion of time (but not before uttering the phrase “individualized psychic phenomena,” which I won’t even try to unpack). During the discussion of Time, it was questioned whether we can apply actual chronological sense to things that have occurred in the past (or is it all just the same, taking space inside our heads?) and if anything exists other than the present. This didn’t seem to jive with my limited knowledge of general relativity, but I wasn’t about to ask questions.

These mini discussions were bending my empirical mind in strange ways, and what was weirder was the fact that the class seemed to be enjoyable, both to me (I’ll admit) and to the regular attendees. After it ended, I reflected that I couldn’t remember the last time I found a lecture genuinely enjoyable. I chuckled, and then walked out the door. I had a problem set to do.

We weren’t talking about these kind of pages.

An English major walks into an operating systems class…..

The rooms of Mudd don’t have adequate lighting. This upsets me. As we take our awkward side seats (most suitable for surreptitiously texting), I am reliably informed by the SEAS contingent of Bwog that this class has something to do with memory. I know memory! Memory is important in Ulysses! It’s a theme!

It smells a little funky in here. Might be the lack of proper air circulation and lighting. I am one of maybe 3 girls in here. The professor’s wearing a microphone?! This doesn’t happen in English lectures; the professor’s voice just naturally rises in enthusiasm for parallax! WOW: not one but TWO projector screens. Oh god what if he sees my look of bewilderment and knows I’m not supposed to be here?

First incomprehensible phrase uttered. What’s a multilevel paging scheme? At least they’re talking about pages. This is so familiar. I read pages too.

Hold on.
Oh. Not the same kind of page.

After a few moments of careful deliberation, I am reasonably confident that we’re talking about web pages. I’m starting to see that engineering works by taking normal, everyday words like flag and bit and doing terrible things to their original meaning.  Hehe, “dirty bit.”  The pgd seems really important, as does the pte. BUT WHAT DO THEY STAND FOR?

25 minutes in and still don’t really know what a page is. Also: what da fuq is segmentation.

Programs! Codes! Now we get into the nitty gritty. Here goes…… What? I didn’t even understand that enough to write it down phonetically. And now the professor’s so excited he’s actually showing facial expressions!  With enough scary words floating around, I turn my attention to people watching. Everyone’s more polite about their lack of attention than in humanities lectures. The funky smell is kind of gross now. Oh, SEAS contingent is taking notes, this must be important. Virtual AND physical addresses? RAM?? Wait I know what RAM is from that time my computer was threatening to shut down on me. So we’re talking about computers! Aha.

The sum total of my knowledge so far: we are talking about computers, which maybe (?) have pages that I don’t think are like pages in a book. Their size is important. RAM. Memory is also important. You use charts to learn things about pages. Linux. There’s a victim now! So much personification. Is the victim dirty? I’m confused. Lots of sudden diligent note-taking. Apparently you want different kinds of storage. This seems to relate to money. Ahhhh, money. Jobs. A sense of contentment.


I can feel the restlessness climbing as it gets closer to 11:25. The sun is starting to shine into the room. Even the sleepers have woken; all classes are really the same during the last three minutes. This has sufficiently gone all over my head. I couldn’t even be terrified because I didn’t understand enough to be terrified. So all in all, a positive learning experience. Except for the fucking pages. I still don’t know what they are.

Arbitrary depictions of fields of study via Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Why does the engineer write better than the English major?

    1. CC '14 says:

      @CC '14 I wish I could give this comment 752 thumbs up.

    2. I think says:

      @I think it actually corroborates well with the English-major’s complete disorientation

    3. anon says:

      @anon Engineer doesn’t really write better than English Major. In short: the writing is maybe more straightforward than English Major’s, but English Major’s writing flows more nicely and you get a better sense of the class’s dynamics and the progression through the class period. Engineer’s piece talks about the course contents with a small reflection on the experience while English Major is largely about the experience with bits of the contents fit in.

      But I’m an engineer. I’ll leave the actual analysis to an English major.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous I disagree. In fact, I was going to post the very same observation that you replied to! The engineering student’s excerpt was a pretty enjoyable read. The subtle jabs at the intellectual masturbation all too common to English classes made me giggle like a toddler with a lolly on a carousel at disneyland. “And if anything exists other than the present… didn’t seem to jive with my limited understanding of General Relativity” epitomizes the non-sensical fluff that you have the privilege of musing about in English Class. Yet, as he stated, the engineer obviously found this newfound ability to shoot the shit far more entertaining than listening to a lecture about kernel implementations.

      2. Dei says:

        @Dei (speaking as a creative writer and a psych/ling/comsci/phil major and Asian lit minor, biased a bit here,) I think it has more to do with style; the English major writes correctly, but with a distinctly “contemporary and colloquial” style. The Engineer writes with the precision of a novelist, minus the dialogue. Neither actually writes better than the other. Rather, the commenters are trying to compare stream-of-consciousness to a more journalistic (in terms of diaries, of course) style, as if one is quantifiably more correct or better overall than the other :P

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I’ve always been curious why it’s generally considered socially acceptable to have an “OH NO THE MATHZORZ” attitude while feeling the same way about literature isn’t. Not to dump on the English major – she’s definitely jumping straight into the deep end – but I can’t imagine imagine the takes on the subjects reversed.

    1. before we all jump in to our respective rants on academic discourse, says:

      @before we all jump in to our respective rants on academic discourse, I think the English major was pretty respectful of the math stuff. The words and phrases she was hearing were just completely foreign to her, and she made light of that fact. The SEAS kid only ran across some confusing jargon a little bit, and was only a little bit peeved. Math/comp sci is very much like learning a new language. The mathematically inclined have the benefit of being familiar with both discussed here. (I say this as a humanities person)

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous “she”

        alright, y’all go ahead with your assumptions

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous @Anonymous: She says she’s one of the only three women in the classroom…

        2. Um.. says:

          @Um.. ” I am one of maybe 3 girls in here. “

  • seas cs 2013 says:

    @seas cs 2013 I LOVED THIS SO FUNNY

    1. com(sci)raderie says:

      @com(sci)raderie Haha, hello my fellow comp sci survivor. I also thought the article was really cathartic – it is heartwarming to know that even just one humanities major out there now appreciates just how absurdly easy their ‘discipline’ is in comparison.

      As an engineer who has taken several humanities classes, I certainly do – I’ve never earned less than an A in a humanities course, all the while spending on average only 1/8 of the time investment I appropriate to an actually substantive (STEM) course.

      And it certainly aint because my english be all that good – it’s probably because I’ve invariably found such classes filled to the brim with barely-literate, babbling athletes.

      Well, let me qualify the implication of my undoubtedly contentious assertion – I don’t mean to say that these field-hockey, nok-hockey, baton-twirling, back-shaving and backgammon pros didnt bring anything to the table in discussion. Because most of the time they did, except these items had to be confiscated since they presented a choking hazard to said athletes. :P but no, I don’t actually think that these students have the mental acuity of an 8 year old – I “kid”.

      1. CS Alumn says:

        @CS Alumn You’re kidding kinda hard there…I’ve never felt like I was another level of intelligence when in the humanities classes I took. More so that we just spent our energies elsewhere; talking to them about something they were interested in would show me they were just as impressive as I. If they didn’t bring in anything to the table that would speak to me more about their discipline not their mental acuity and, let’s face it, there of plenty of undisciplined CS students too. Many don’t bring anything to the table during class but do when it counts – test time, project time, study session time

  • blushing says:

    @blushing I clicked the link and learned something I can never “unknow”. How naive I was about the ways of love just 3 minutes ago.

  • Proud CC '13 English major says:

    @Proud CC '13 English major Best thing Bwog has published all year. Make it a regular feature!

    1. anon says:

      @anon Coming soon to a Bwog post near you: I’m an English major… Get me out of here!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “The word “sex” was likely uttered more times than it has been in Mudd throughout the building’s existence.”

    Biggest laugh I’ve received from Bwog in ages…

    1. CS Alumn says:

      @CS Alumn This one got me –
      “25 minutes in and still don’t really know what a page is. Also: what da fuq is segmentation.”

      Literally laughed out loud

  • bringonthehate says:

    @bringonthehate The difference between an English major and an engineer is this: an engineer could take an upper level english class and do perfectly fine, but an English major taking an upper level engineering class would fail miserably. Now does it make sense why engineers are the most hirable people?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous No. Makes sense why humanities majors get laid more often, though.

    2. Aaron says:

      @Aaron I am a Comp Sci grad (finished four years ago actually) and did a second degree in Bio-Ethics. So I can say while having a BSc and a BA that I would hazard to guess the vast majority of Engineers would not do OK in an upper year English class (of which I did two… not a fan admittedly). Just as an English major would not do well in an Engineering class. They are two distinct mindsets, both with their own distinct assets. Some are able top bridge these academic gaps, but not many. Realistically, all I am ever going to hire an Engineer like you to do is number crunch. Its fine to be good at math, but you are a worthless asset if you come into a room and try to tell everyone about how clever you are, and that a humanities degree was a waste of time, because no one will listen to you when you say it or take you seriously. I’ll stick you in a cubicle and use you as a human calculator while people with actual social skills make me money selling our services to others because they know how to talk to people. Don’t get me wrong, my Comp Sci degree got my foot in the door, but my ability to talk and interact with people, and argue effectively and methodically (which you can learn from humanities in aces) is what has moved me into a position where I get to tell silly people like you the best you’ll ever do is middle management, and that will only be after you learn to stop wearing ironic t-shirts that you think most people don’t get because they are too witty – when in fact, its because most people really don’t give a sh** if Darth Vader’s hand = MA.

  • fyi says:

    @fyi Operating Systems might’ve been a bad choice for this comparison, since it’s one of the most difficult and painful CS class at Columbia. Even the CS students try to avoid it or spend most of their time suffering if they’re forced to take it.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Please. Everyone knows the only two hard things about computer science are cache invalidation, naming things, and off by one errors.

    2. erm says:

      @erm Ulysses is the most difficult novel I’ve ever discussed in a class, so I would consider it a fair comparison.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous So we learned that CS classes have a lot of esoteric jargon and English classes have comparatively less. Really groundbreaking stuff here

    1. esoteric jargon? says:

      @esoteric jargon? Certainly there is jargon but the fact is that none of those terms were necessarily known to any of the students in that class before this semester. These are terms taught in the class, but it is assumed that you have attended class prior to this class to that the topics brought up make sense.

  • LOL says:

    @LOL These were really funny. Thanks, Bwog.

  • what a douche says:

    @what a douche ” I’m not entirely sure why they feel that returning to school in pursuit of an English degree is the best use of their waning time or money, but hey.”

    Maybe because now that they’re near retirement age, they just want to enjoy their time and money left on this planet by doing something that they find personally fulfilling and stimulating? They’ve been working their entire lives and may have never had a chance to take a fancy lit class. My mother was premed in college, has worked for over thirty years, and now talks about how much she wants to take an art history class after she ends her practice.

  • Joke about Mudd says:

    @Joke about Mudd I was actually waiting for my next class on the 7th floor of Hamilton when I overheard this Ulysses lecture. So the joke about Mudd is a cheap shot, because this happened in Hamilton (like most English classes… duh).

    1. reading comprehension says:

      @reading comprehension He never claimed that the Ulysses lecture was in Mudd.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I agree that it’s probably easier for an engineer to get a good grade in an English course than for an English major to do well in an engineering course. I also agree that it is easier to “bullshit” one’s way through an English course. But I would argue that if one takes English class seriously, there is a whole different level of complexity and difficulty involved when one tries to make coherent and meaningful statements out of subject matter that is qualitative and ambiguous rather than quantitative and definite. There are no “answers” in an English course; this is both a blessing and a curse. For someone who takes the course looking for an easy A, it may be a blessing. For someone who takes the course looking for a truly deep understanding of the significance (aesthetic, social, philosophical, whatever) of a text, it resembles a curse in that one has to apply oneself to the material with a totality of focused and commitment that should include not only all of one’s prior learning but also one’s beliefs about life.
    I’m just saying this because I hear a lot of disrespect and scoffing about humanities majors. As I’ve said, this can be justified. But it would be foolish to think that the humanities are somehow less rigorous or important. The sciences and the humanities are, obviously, both incredibly essential for the progress of human knowledge and human society (I don’t think anyone would dispute this).

    (obviously) an English major

  • martin says:

    @martin Those who forget the past do get to laugh at the same jokes over and over, I have to give all y’all that. I can’t believe no one (except, probably, the author(s) seems to know where this is rooted – 1959, well, most of your parents weren’t born yet, I suppose.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Very funny :) I could relate to both sides as an English/Computer Science double-major. Are they really so opposite, though? I feel like there’s more similarities than people realize. Great idea for an article — I’d like to see the results of other crossovers.

  • rye chu says:

    @rye chu What is Mudd? Are we talking about Harvey Mudd or Columbia? It seems like the title suggests that this is Columbia but it keeps saying Mudd.

    1. humanities says:

      @humanities there is a building in Columbia called Mudd..

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