Before darkening the doorstep of their first Humanities class, each freshman of Reed College is required to have read the Iliad. They will spend the next 2 or 3 years, marching across time, dipping into the canon, tasting and sampling all the way to the 20th century. This class is a non-negotiable requirement, a foundation, a context for what is taught.
I entered college largely under the strength of my creative writing and grabbed every opportunity to broaden those skills. I took paper topics and fictionalized them, finding ways to create stories out of academic arguments and did it well enough to get away with it more than I should have. That is until Professor Tomsich.
Professor Tomsich, a history professor, was my conduit for second year humanities and after turning in my first paper, a fiction story, he called me to his office. I was sure that I was going to spend the weekend rewriting the paper the way the assignment had intended me to.
“Jennifer, it’s clear that you are a skilled writer, and I give you credit for managing to fulfill most of the requirements of the assignment. However… let’s make a deal.”
The deal was, for the rest of the year I had to write each paper in a different discipline. No repeats. Art history, history, politics, philosophy, anything but what I was already good at. The reward was if I did well enough, I was then allowed to write the last and longest paper as a fiction piece. One whose structure we were to discuss ahead of time and he approve.
For the rest of the year I found myself in sections of the library that I had dismissed as irrelevant. I found myself buried in art history books examining Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare,
learning about gothic symbolism. I began noticing the connectivity across disciplines in a specific time. That the very texture of history in these moments not only deeply informs the art, ideas, experiments, and society, but their present, their perspective we can never fully understand later and that this is where the magic of the historian shines.
Enamored, I thought, “Maybe I should switch majors, to history.”
Then I was buried in Nietzsche, struggling for a epiphany moment which never came, and ended instead with a book thrown at a wall in the reading lounge, startling the collection of minds at work.
And I thought, “If only I could study with Professor Tomsich for the next two years…”
I knew that this wasn’t the case and that fiction, plays, words would always spin their seductive stick webs around me.
Towards the end of the year, when the official declaration of majors took place, my pen hesitated, just for one second before filling in English/Literature. And what I did not know, what I wish I could whisper to my younger book-hurling self is, “You can do both.”