It’s declaration season. Choosing a concentration can be thrilling, boring, or incredibly stressful. As sophomores and some first-years decide which departments to enter for the rest of their time at Princeton, we asked a couple of Nass members to reflect on the path they took to declaring and the meaning of their department.
I came into Princeton obnoxiously sure in my choice to be an English major. “I’m just one of those people,” I used to say, “who chose their major in seventh grade and never looked back.” At a STEM-heavy public high school, my choice of literature was how I’d defined and differentiated myself. But after a year at Princeton, I quickly found everyone seemed to like books, and the ego boost of being special wasn’t enough to keep me tied to a concentration.
Even after that realization, I stuck with English because of some preconceived notion that it was a flexible department that was more concerned with contemporary issues than other literature and language majors. But a serious look at the department quickly revealed that it would most likely narrow, and pigeonhole, my interests rather than allow me to really explore questions of identity. I was sitting there with an intended English major and a French minor and an increasing desire to incorporate my mother tongue, Korean, into my studies. Choosing Comparative Literature was perhaps the easiest and most natural decision I’ve made at Princeton.
Practically speaking, I can now study abroad for two semesters, and in countries that aren’t just English-speaking: one of the biggest factors in my decision. I can incorporate Asian American Studies or Creative Writing into my departmental track. Most importantly, I feel like Comparative Literature has expanded my academic possibilities, has given me choice. For that, I’m excited and grateful.
I decided that I would major in history during my sophomore year of high school. I enjoyed learning about the world—especially the Classical era—and figured history was broad enough to encompass most if not all my interests. With this reasoning in mind, I kind of floated through the history department until this semester, where I really came to understand how history differed both from other departments and from my previous understanding of it from high school.
For a few months, I wasn’t sure how or why I ended up where I was academically, other than by a (somewhat) arbitrary decision I had made four years prior. However, through experimentation with classes from other departments, I’ve discovered that my congruence with the history department stems not from my enjoyment of historical material per se, but rather the way that material is gathered and analyzed through historical methodologies. A history paper is not a politics nor anthropology nor classics nor ENV paper. This seems quite obvious at first glance, but I don’t think the distinction meant anything to me until—startlingly—very recently. Going forward, I’m excited to see where the department leads me.
Mollika Jai Singh
My ex-boyfriend once (only a little unfairly) called the intended concentration on my Princeton application “White People Studies.” The truth is I never really considered Classics—I had just written a damn good application essay about my high school Latin teacher and thought a matching intended concentration would help me get in.
My original considerations were, of course, the unholy trinity of A.B. degrees: SPIA, Politics, and Econ. I figured having a foundational knowledge of why the system I wanted to work in or around (the U.S. government) is the awful way it is would be useful. Cue Western Humanities Sequence. For a class that aims to “stimulate plural perspectives,” it was tragically disappointing to someone seeking to look critically at the Western intellectual tradition.
Learning that a former WHUM star student found herself unable to work on philosophy of race despite being in the Philosophy department—and ended up in African American Studies—I went searching: I cold emailed the only Desi woman I could find on the AAS website’s student section. On Zoom, she told me that she gave up on SPIA and Politics because she didn’t want to only have an education in resistance.
Resistance is an important skill, but I should be able to save my resisting for working with SPEAR or Princeton Mutual Aid, not explaining to my classmates why the existence of people like me is just as important as that of people like them. Realizing I want to focus on reading and writing creative nonfiction about South Asian American women, I thought English might be the department to do it in. To be brief, a glance at its course offerings and visit to the recent department open house confirmed that English would not cut it.
If there is any department on campus that takes the literature of the people of color in the U.S. seriously, it’s African American Studies. I desperately need to be taken seriously.