All I want is to be a little part
of the things that I love.
All I want is to make a little start
at the things that I love.
Seems there’s lots of things that I could love.
– Old Man Luedecke
I was standing in my kitchen early in winter term of my junior year, trying to decide if I should take Organic Chemistry 2 – the logical, culturally approved choice for a “science person” – or if instead I should create an independent study in Nature Writing to explore this genre which had long inspired me. I had struggled in Organic Chemistry 1 to retain interest or motivation, and the thought of another term of it made my spirit droop, while the prospect of delving into my favorite authors and writing about the world without taking data felt like freedom. The chemistry, I thought to myself, would look better on my transcript, better to grad schools, more in line with my…uh…major? Wait a minute! I was getting a degree in Human Ecology, darn it, and I wanted it that way! Nature writing was just as much a part of that as Organic Chemistry! At that moment something in me shifted, and I understood and embraced human ecology in a way that I hadn’t before. I believed in it fully, instead of tolerating it as a weird appellation on a good education. I felt slightly foolish, like a church-going atheist whose soul has just been saved. Hallelujah!
As I wandered the woods and fields of Mount Desert Island, Maine, scribbling in my notebook, and through the pages of the books of nature writers, I did in fact find myself thinking about chemistry – in the context of evolution, of intelligence, of color. I also thought about art, about history, about human cultures, about biology and architecture and Australia and joy and the local water treatment plant. When one begins to explore the world, through any door, the territory is unending.
Fast forward two years from my moment of epiphany in the kitchen. My diploma, declaring my BA in human ecology, sits safely in its leather sheath on my desk. I am preparing to apply for jobs. There are lots of things I think I might like to do, but my primary dreams for the next twelve months include wilderness horse pack trips, field science, and writing. I sat down and made an equine résumé – my years of owning and training a horse, bolstered by my outdoor and leadership experiences at College of the Atlantic. It looked solid and I was proud of it. Then I made a science résumé. As I was forced to make some cuts from the “Relevant Courses” list so that it would not bump the line about receiving the Goldwater Scholarship down onto the next page, I was startled – and proud – to see that this too was a respectable document which portrayed a significant truth about me and my abilities. I paused. How many résumés had this degree given me? I reviewed my transcript again, this time pulling out literature and humanities courses. The spread, while not as comprehensive as my science courses, was nothing to sneeze at.
I then began to wonder: which was more valuable? The number of different résumés that my degree had given me, or the fact that I saw the ways in which the elements of each “different” résumé were interchangeable? After all, wouldn’t my physiology class support my ability to take care of a horse, understanding more about its body systems? And the tutorial in French would come in handy if I ever led a wilderness trip with international clientele. In Principles of Comedic Improvisation, with is mantra of “Yes! And –,” I developed confidence in front of an audience and an ability to work with others that will serve me well as part of a research team. Art classes improved my writing. History classes left me with a better understanding of policy. Ecology taught me philosophy. I can divide my education into different themes, and they stand firm, but really each course and experience was just as much a supporting element of my degree as every other.
However, that doesn’t always translate well to the world of disciplines and majors. Human ecologists face the perennial problem of trying to explain that a lack of clear-cut disciplines on our transcript does not imply that we ourselves lack discipline, or that the A in our BA means that we live in fear of statistics. At the top of each of my résumés it says “College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME, 2011: BA in Human Ecology*,” and below, “*Please see Cover Letter for a discussion of this degree.” One cannot be a passive human ecologist. The world won’t let you. In fact, it is the reverse – to bear the title is to commit to a lifetime (at least until you get another, more normal, degree) of explanation and interpretation. Many human ecologists, I think, grow resentful at the perceived constant need to “measure up” to other standards – we fear that our degree doesn’t “look good” to outside eyes, and we rush to smooth things over by explaining that “yes it’s a weird degree, but look I’m really just a _____-ist;” all the while growing embittered about “the system” and our relationship to it. While I can relate to that quite well, it occurs to me that to fall into such a trap is hardly different than fretting about my pant size or the car I drive. Personally I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worried that my human ecology degree makes me look fat. So instead I say, yes I’m really just a human ecologist. Yes, I can do math. Yes, my degree is unusual; I’m very proud of it.