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Pigeonholes: For the final time, what’s up with the arts-science divide?

Program stereotypes, breadth requirements, and what we learned from our columns
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Pigeonholes is a collaborative inter-sectional column from the Arts & Culture and Science sections, exploring issues across academic boundaries. For the final entry in the column, Valeria Khudiakova and Alexa DiFrancesco reflect on the journey that brought them here.

We’ve spent the last six months on a journey to step outside our comfort zones and write about the other side of the arts-science divide. 

For Valeria, that’s meant looking at our changing relationship to physical space while stuck indoors and the power of revolutionary art from marginalized communities. For Alexa, it meant diving into the psychology of how we experience time and trying to watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos for the first time.

For our final entry, we sat down to share our thoughts on the whole process.

Why do we get pigeonholed into our disciplines?

Valeria Khudiakova: Do you think there is an art-science divide in wider society? Why or why not? 

Alexa DiFrancesco: From my experience, people who studied STEM are respected more than people who studied the arts, whether it be from those already in the workforce or from teachers or classmates. 

I’m not inclined to understand science or math; I’ve found that I’ve had more respect for people who do. I don’t know if that’s because the artistic side comes naturally to me though, so the STEM counterpart seems harder. What about you?

VK: I agree. Early on, I was pigeonholed into choosing either one or the other. I was good at languages and history. I was also good at math, but I’ve always been more encouraged to pursue the arts and the social sciences, and I didn’t want to ignore the STEM side of me. There was a lot of indecisiveness because I felt like I had to choose. 

AD: I feel like people think of art as a hobby as opposed to a way of earning an income — it’s not viewed to be as ‘stable’ as a job in STEM.

VK: It’s generally true that you’ll earn more money if you have a degree, but no undergraduate degree leads to a job necessarily.

AD: I know you were talking about how you personally felt like you had to choose between arts and science. At U of T, you can double major with one major in arts and one in science, and then decide if you graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BSc). 

That still feels like a divide because you’re choosing what your undergraduate experience is categorized under, even though your time was divided between two diverse subject matters. I wish there was a way of showing both disciplines on your transcript rather than choosing one. I feel like that’s all employers are going to see: the BA, the BSc, or the Bachelor of Commerce.

VK: How has your view of both your native discipline and those foreign to you been challenged by the column?

AD: I’ve appreciated my abilities and discipline more. I can write an arts article in a maximum of three hours. I wrote what I wanted to read, and readers would understand my perspective without me trying. 

That being said, writing for science is the hardest thing. I remember viewing it as a set of facts that I had to copy down and summarize. I did that at first, and the feedback that I got made me realize that I had to apply my own perspective to it. It took me back to high school where I had to interpret different sets of facts and data — part of the reason I went to university for arts was to escape that.

VK: For me, there was a lot of impostor syndrome because a lot of science writing is just stating facts or breaking facts down into something that’s more understandable for the audience. This column has helped me to appreciate all the different facets of my own discipline. A lot of schools classify psychology as an arts subject while, at U of T, it’s actually a life science. 

I find that really weird because I’m not the biggest fan of biology; writing about biology is different from studying it. I feel like there is an artistic side to psychology and a more scientific side. But my discipline is unified by scientific thinking; writing for this column has helped me appreciate that.

Has this column changed us?

VK: After your time as a columnist, are you planning on changing anything about what you choose to learn about, or will you stick to your discipline?

AD: I’ll be sticking to my discipline. At UTSC, there’s a second-year course called ENGB52 — Literature and Science; it examines scientific theories within different pieces of literature. I tried taking that course, expecting to be enlightened by the time it finished. I dropped out a month in because I couldn’t handle reading scientific language. 

In theory, I do want to appreciate science — I appreciate people who appreciate science; I think they’re the smartest people alive. But I personally cannot do it, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m focusing on my degree on top of re-learning a foreign subject. I don’t think I have the time or energy to give science the credit it deserves. 

VK: I’m also sticking to my discipline because I get the best of both worlds. If I choose the more artsy part of it, I’ll have to do another cognitive or biological psychology course next year to fill that requirement. 

I’m still happy with what I’m studying; I’m taking NEW241 — Introduction to Critical Disability Studies, which has allowed me to reflect on different social justice issues, which I feel is an important part of our writing. It unfortunately plays a lesser role in scientific writing because a lot of it is focused on factual reporting. There’s a lot of equity-related issues in STEM that I feel like The Varsity has been great at addressing, but I’d like to see more on that. 

VK: Do you think U of T is doing a good job at encouraging disciplinary mingling with policies like breadth requirements? 

AD: They help by ensuring that students are exposed to different disciplines. I’ve fulfilled the mathematics one by taking statistics courses. I’ve also fulfilled the natural science criteria through an environmental course. 

As an English student, I can’t fulfill all breadth requirements within an English-degree umbrella. If you’re in a different field that allows you to get away with stuffing all your breath requirements in the container of your subject matter, then they’re not as beneficial.

VK: I’ve changed programs six times. I was a math and physics double major who was also dabbling in chemistry. MAT137 — Calculus with Proofs really broke me though, so I dropped the program. PHY152 — Foundations of Physics II was also going too fast for me.

AD: I feel like even if students experience a bad class that would tank their GPA, how many people would have the courage to try a new subject? I think more students would remember that they need a certain amount of credits in their major to graduate by their anticipated time. 

VK: In my first year, I took English and German to fulfill the ‘Creative and Cultural Representations’ breadth requirement. I ended up specializing in psychology, so a lot of those courses were for the ‘Thought, Belief and Behaviour’ criteria or ‘Living Things and their Environment’ breadth requirements. 

By changing programs, I had all of them covered. The only courses that I took for breadth were in disability studies and women and gender studies. They challenged the way that I saw my own discipline because a lot of psychology research is very ableist and essentialist.

AD: You could ask me for one piece of information from breadth classes, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you less than a year later. I admire how you were able to use the knowledge you’ve gained from them to better understand yourself and what you’re passionate about.

Could U of T do more to encourage interdisciplinary learning?

VK: What is U of T doing right, and how can they improve? 

AD: A cool discovery I made is that U of T has certificates; I’m looking to complete one in global affairs with my double major. I like certificates because they consist of two credits. That makes it really easy for students to learn about a different subject matter while still getting credit for it when applying to jobs.

VK: That’s really cool. I’ve heard about the certificates, but I’ve never really looked into getting one because I didn’t know what complements my degree. Another option can be to get a citation. If you take two credits in a language at the 300-plus level, you can get one. 

I only have half a credit in German, but if I took GER100 — Introduction to German and another German course, I’d be getting a citation. But that doesn’t mean that I can read research and communicate in that language.

AD: Final question: what made you apply to this column?

VK: I was looking for an opportunity to engage in something that’s more artistic. There was a lot of guidance with this column that allowed me to dabble in arts writing while not committing to it — I’m not even on the arts & culture mailing list.

AD: I wanted to experiment too. I wanted to mix artistic expression with scientific facts. That’s my favourite kind of writing: data woven with artistic prose and personal opinion. Before this column, I only considered writing to be artistic prose because that’s what I’d read in novels or online journalism. I’ve learned what makes a good writer isn’t expressing feelings in a flowery way. 

Sharing information is a skill in itself; it’s proving to people why they should care about what surrounds them, and that’s so overlooked. In that sense, artistic writers get more credit than scientific writers. They’re both artistic — just different kinds of artistic.

VK: Arts and science writing are unified by the overarching goal of communication. That’s an art.

AD: Right now, we’re expressing ourselves in a way we hope will make sense on paper. Even this interview is an art.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.