Are You a STEM Major? Here Are 8 Ways to Enjoy Your Humanities Requirements

Many STEM majors dread taking their required humanities courses. But that need not be the case! Here to help you find classes that will excite and inspire you is writer-turned-nutritionist and Noodle Expert Kendra Whitmire.

If you thought that majoring in STEM or medical field would inoculate you from the humanities, you were probably unpleasantly surprised to learn about the history, anthropology, and English classes in your future.

Unless you’re at one of the rare requirement-free schools, like Brown (which has an open curriculum), you will mostly likely have to take at least one course in the humanities and social sciences — history, art history, literature, languages, philosophy, or something along those lines — as part of your general education coursework. In all likelihood, you’ll have to take a few humanities and social science courses.

Why do these requirements exist? It turns out that STEM majors stand to gain a lot from interdisciplinary education, especially in the humanities. Even at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a school well-known for its emphasis on intense scientific research (“technology” is part of its name), a full quarter of an undergrad's coursework must be in the humanities.

Despite the many benefits that humanities courses can provide, many students struggle to find ones that suit their academic interests and talents. Being strategic about selecting the right class — one that is interesting, challenging, and useful — may help you to think about school, your chosen discipline, and even the world, in a new way.

Here are eight steps that you can take to find the best courses for you.

1. Understand the benefits.

Humanities classes offer you the chance to sharpen skills in key areas — critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, abstract thinking, communicating, and writing, to name a few.

While many science courses are lecture-based, a lot of humanities courses center on class discussions (participation in which is often a crucial component of the final grade). This means that you’ll have to read texts and peer-reviewed journal articles, and be prepared to take (and defend) positions on them in class. You’ll have to speak publicly and be able to think on your feet.

All of these are crucial skills for STEM students, as doctors, engineers, and researchers are often expected to write and review articles, give presentations, participate in panel discussions, ask insightful questions, and think critically about others’ ideas and arguments — often providing feedback in real time. A lot of this outside-the-box thinking can lead you to develop innovative ideas and apply them to a given STEM field. If you engage fully, you’ll likely finish your humanities class with a heightened ability to communicate and collaborate with colleagues, managers, subordinates, and clients.

2. Consider your major and career goals.

The reason colleges implement general education requirements is to expand your knowledge and provide you with a well-rounded foundation for your education. Some subjects may complement your major better than others.

For example, a class related to the visual arts might be really informative for an engineer interested in technique and draftsmanship. If you’re working toward a medical or genetics degree, learning about ethics might give you a better sense of the cultural and social implications of and debates about your work. Maybe you’re interested in working on problems related to nuclear energy in Japan — and in that case, Japanese language classes could make you much more desirable to an employer. If you’re a math student, consider a philosophy course in logic.

3. Examine the course listings.

Now that you have a better idea of what you want from a course, it’s time to look at actual offerings. Rather than simply reviewing course titles, it’s important to read the detailed descriptions. Many colleges designate certain courses as “writing-intensive” or “discussion-based.” Some language and literature courses require time practicing in a language lab; film classes typically include weekly screenings. You’ll want to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses (not to mention the demands of your schedule) before committing.

Many course catalogs are vague. Some classes have names like “Topics in Literature.” This generally does not denote a sampler course in which you’ll be tackling several different subjects, but rather suggests that the content of the course changes from semester to semester, often depending upon which instructor is teaching that term. For example, the focus the class listed above might be geographically- or chronologically-bound (say, 18th-century British literature) or it might be genre-based (for instance, the history of the graphic novel). It’s important to inquire with a given department what that semester’s offerings are. Chances are the department’s administrators distributed a list with all the relevant information, but that list may have just gone to majors and minors.

4. Check out syllabi and reading lists.

Another way to help you determine whether or not a course is the right one for you is to review the syllabus. You may be able to contact the professor or department administrators and ask for examples from previous semesters (that is, if the syllabus is not readily available online). This will provide you with an idea of what is expected of you as a student — how much you’ll be reading each week, how many papers you’ll be writing, and how you’ll earn your final grade. Use this information to your advantage: If you don’t feel comfortable writing long papers, try to find a class with a final exam in lieu of one or more of the papers.

You should also review the book list. Does the reading sound interesting to you? Doing homework is a lot easier if you enjoy it. Does it seem like a manageable amount? Falling behind in readings and having little to contribute in class discussions are no fun, and they may harm your grade.

To get a sense of different texts, you can look at excerpts online, or head to a library or bookstore to peruse the readings in person. Typically, college libraries place course books on reserve, and many campus bookstores have lists of the texts required for different courses offered in a given semester.

5. Get the scoop on your prospective professors.

Professors are always important — they set the tone for the classroom — but the stakes are especially high for STEM students. After all, this may be the only course you take in a given department. You should make it as great as it can possibly be. Do some legwork after you get the course listings.

Reach out to friends (or friends of friends) who are humanities majors. They may have had a given professor — perhaps more than once — and can fill you in on how she conducts class. You’ll probably be able to tell based on someone’s description whether or not you’ll feel comfortable in a given class.

Another option is to ask administrators whether your school hosts aggregated data on course evaluations. A few schools make students’ feedback and statistics public to students online, which may help you narrow your choices.

6. Schedule strategically.

When you discuss your requirements with your advisor, you should ask whether or not it is important that you take your humanities courses at particular times (e.g., first semester junior year). Unless there are specific prerequisites, you probably have some wiggle room — but keep in mind that professor leave schedules and other requirements may have an impact on when certain classes are available.

It’s generally a good idea to get your general education requirements out of the way early in your college career. Advanced-level classes sometimes skip semesters, so you’ll want to maximize your flexibility during junior and senior years to accommodate these infrequent offerings. A great way of doing this is by knocking out as many general education courses as you can as early as possible. And this has an added benefit, too; if you really love a humanities class, you’ll still have time to work additional courses in that field into your schedule. Maybe you’ll even get an unexpected minor out of it.

Another thing to consider is which classes you’ll be taking concurrently at any given time. If you’ve got to take a notoriously difficult class, like organic chemistry, perhaps, then you might not want to tackle that alongside "Moby-Dick."

If you’re really worried about a humanities course monopolizing a lot of your time, see if your college will allow you to take one over the summer.

7. Talk to other students.

Perhaps even more valuable than your advisor is your network of fellow students. As I mentioned above, it’s helpful to have friends who are majoring in literature or film studies share their experiences, but chances are there are upperclassmen in STEM fields who have been in the same situation as you. They will be able to tell you what they thought of their humanities courses, plus they can give you a sense of the various levels of difficulty you can expect.

If you’re a freshman and don’t know any older students in your department, then your advisor can be a great resource. Feel free to ask her whether she can hook you up with a slightly older peer or even a humanities professor to help you make your decision.

8. Put it all together.

No matter what your major is, or what your greatest strengths are, you’ll be able to find a way to enjoy your general education requirements and gain benefits that transfer to your major. As long as you put some time into making your decision and take advantages of all the available resources, you’ll be able to get a sense of the readings, homework, grading requirements, and professor. This process will increase your chances of choosing a class you really enjoy.

Let’s not put the cart before the horse. Check out the college search tool on Noodle to learn more about what academics are like at various U.S. institutions. Still not sold on the humanities? Check out this article on why every college student should take an English course, and find more advice from Noodle Expert Kendra Whitmire.

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