Subject Snobbery

SWYN HAF investigates subject stereotypes

Cambridge engling mathmo preconception prejudice socially inept stereotypes survey

It’s doubtful that when coming to Cambridge you expect to arrive to an egalitarian uptopia with all the Eton old-boys happily hugging the local hoody population and everyone singing along to ‘kumbaya’. What is surprising however, is that the main source of prejudice is not how large Daddy’s yacht is, but what subject you study. The private, if not public responses to the university’s intention of scrapping the Education Tripos revealed the prevalence of what I’ve called “subject snobbery”.

I’d managed to remain blissfully unaware of this phenomenon for the most part.  I mean, there’s really only one joke about linguists as far as I know, and being called cunning isn’t necessarily an insult.  But when the news about the EdFac started giving rise to comments along the lines of 'well we’re not a polytechnic after all', the liberal in me was aroused.  How long had the education students been suffering this prejudice?

I asked some of them about it, but didn’t encounter the resentment I’d been anticipating – yes, people sometimes raised their eyebrows, sniggered or just snorted 'why?'  when you told them what you were studying.  But a quick explanation and that was that. The worst anyone admitted to was giving a few stuck up mathmos the odd evil if they got too cocky.  Which got me to thinking – it’s not like Education is the only subject that comes with a stigma attached, is it?  Maybe the “stuck up mathmos” are just going on the defensive.  They must be sensitive to the stereotype of their own subject.  A few of them might call other triposes intellectually inferior, but they get called socially inept.  A psychologist could probably have some fun analysing that.

Time to speak to the victims of “subject snobbery” I think.  The first mathmo I asked inadvertently confirmed my theory (I like to think).  When I asked (over a drink, to loosen up that reticent tongue) whether he had ever encountered prejudice on account of his subject, he answered, with rehearsed quickness: 'No, it’s not like I’m a land economist'. Interesting coping strategy: deflect the negative attention onto another subject. Simple, and requires less effort than the reasoned arguments of the educationists.

I also sought out a physicist, prying him away from quarks and electrons and numerous can’t-see-them-but-really-actually-quite-important-physician-only contraptions, because I don’t think anyone hears “physicist” and thinks “Robert Pattinson (or if he doesn’t do it for you, 'insert name here')”.  And so I encountered coping strategy number three – disassociate yourself from the stereotype by agreeing with it.  This physicist, who for his own safety remains nameless, responded to my questioning with the timeless 'to be honest with you, I look around in my lectures and I’m disgusted; all these socially inept people with head colds.'  This one really depends on the accuracy of your own self image for its success, I think.

But to be honest, I’m glad to have a few options for when I eventually and inevitably do come up against some arrogant historian with a chip on his shoulder about linguists (not that I hold grudges).  Because subject snobbery, I’ve realised, is everywhere.  Once you start thinking about it, snippets of people’s conversations start taking on whole new levels of socio-psychological meaning.  Two of my friends recently made this exchange: 'Have you ever met a Historian who does any work?'  'Yes, but then he switched to a different tripos.'  I could have butted in, saying I knew one hard working person who was actually switching to History, but I didn’t.  If making a dig at another subject was my friend’s way of coping with the fact that she’d been sitting in someone else’s room for two hours and distinctly not working herself, then I wasn’t going to take that away from her.

Having said that, I thought a quick survey might be in order, to assess just how peculiar or prevalent the preconceptions I encountered about certain subjects were.  To be honest, there were no big surprises – Medics and Vets are expected to have the most rigorous timetable (by a farmer’s mile – their only contendors are the Natscis, who win 27 per cent of the vote).  Again unsurprisingly, they, at 39 per cent of the vote, are expected by their fellow students to be most employable, followed by linguists at 23 per cent.  So, are Medics and Vets studying the most academically worthy subject?  Maybe, maybe not.  But they’re not gods – they come only third in terms of how sociable their peers expect them to be.  As a matter of interest, Mathmos win no votes in that category.  And linguists come first.  Sadly for my aims in writing this article, Educationists only feature in the results at all under the “most sociable” category.  But I caution against generalizations.  In fact, I think I have the perfect myth-buster for anyone who wants to use Education to make themselves feel better about their own less than 100% dedication to their subject.

I don’t want to name this student, because admiration leads to jealousy, but suffice it to say there is one student of Education and Religion who, though she only has 12 hours contact a week, gets up at seven every day, works all morning and usually has at least one lecture or supervision, meets a friend for lunch, gets on with it all afternoon, spends the evenings when she is not giving private tuition preparing for an upcoming dance show, plays women’s rugby, is involved in two global projects – the Global Student Education Forum and the Global Poverty Project, and goes out with friends at least twice a week.  I see no reason why this should be any more surprising than a medic I can think of, who despite 20-25 hours of contact a week goes out with friends at least twice (and writes for a student newspaper, and crops up in the occasional play).  And then there is an infamous mathmo I can think of who goes out at least twice a week too (shocking, I know).

Which leads me to the slightly anti-climatic conclusion, that really, there can’t be one.  Everyone will know exceptions, everyone will know a walking stereotype.  The important thing, I guess, is coping with people’s subject snobbery when it hits you, and I think in that area, anything is fair game – or at least, that’s how people act.