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Life in Lore: Techie, fuzzy … fluffy?

The weather is getting warmer, the caterpillars are beginning their annual reign of terror, ProFros are wandering campus. Meanwhile, my roommate has been fighting tooth and nail with an unspeakably dreaded enemy: her thesis.

As a junior with a senior roommate, I’ve found it incredible to see how much time and effort she put into her political science thesis, which required reading hundreds of intense primary source documents concerning human rights, creating a social science dataset from scratch, statistically analyzing that dataset and writing a nearly 100-page report.

It’s a feat to behold, which is why I was so disappointed when, one day, she told me how a series of interactions led her to feel like her thesis was being underestimated — because it had been labeled as the thesis of a “fuzzy.”

Most Stanford students quickly become familiar with the terms “techie” (generally, a STEM student) and “fuzzy” (a humanities or social sciences student). These terms are as broad as they can be harmful; they encourage stereotypes like “Fuzzies can’t do math” and “Techies never read.” Sometimes they pigeonhole students into one discipline because they feel like they don’t identify with the skills or abilities of another.

This brings me to Margaret Cavendish, a 17th-century, multi-talented “Renaissance woman” who felt no such sense of attachment to one area of study. The Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a scientist, philosopher, animal rights supporter and experimental writer. She was the first woman to be allowed to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in London. She essentially invented science fiction, and she wrote six books on natural philosophy.

For the most part, however, Cavendish wasn’t taken seriously until well after her lifetime. She was given the nickname “Mad Madge” for her eccentric style of dress and unusual set of interests; a fellow scientist at the Royal Society described her as “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman” for her efforts. Cavendish, and many other trailblazers like her, had (and still have) to contend with the label of being a “woman” as they fought to be taken seriously.  She had to prove that what she was doing mattered, because it was being done by a woman.

Though work is still being done to improve gender discrimination, we have made strides to include more women in academia across many disciplines. But at Stanford, I see a microcosm of this dangerous labeling happening again, with the divide between “techie” and “fuzzy.” Humanities majors grow accustomed to defending the validity of their work; for STEM students, that validity is assumed. Students like my roommate, who put hours of ingenuity and effort into understanding the human experience, have to constantly explain how their work could actually make a difference.

To understand the absurdity of this labeling system, let’s consider a hypothetical new label, one less engrained in existing Stanford culture. Imagine a world where we would consider anyone studying something we deem irrelevant a “fluffy.” A “fluffy” would be characterized as someone in any discipline, STEM or humanities or social sciences, whose work doesn’t have a direct application towards making some difference in the world. That could be someone coding the next Flappy Bird. That could be someone designing a new luxury brand of kombucha. And yes, that could even be the person studying medieval English literature. Would you be willing to accept that kind of label?

Before all you software developers, kombucha designers or medievalists leave me any outraged comments, think for a minute: Isn’t that ridiculous? Why should anyone have to justify what they’re doing, or be given the label “fluffy,” simply because some arbitrary divide implies that their work isn’t practical?

To which I respond: this is how “fuzzies” feel all the time, because we suggest the same irrelevance whenever we call certain studies “fuzzy.” My roommate feels the need to justify her work, even though a human rights survey like the one she created was incredibly necessary in her field. Other humanities students studying literature or history are making strides in understanding complex and important issues, and they’re putting a whole lot of time and effort into those studies, just like their counterparts over in STEM.

Cavendish was written off because she was a woman. Let’s not automatically assume irrelevance — or label students “fluffy,” to use this new term — just because they study the humanities. Instead, let’s give equal respect to techies and fuzzies alike … especially the ones fighting to finish a senior thesis.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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