Guest essay: Why math majors should take creative writing — and vice versa

We cannot paste a series of different classes together in a four-year plan and call that education “interdisciplinary,” argues Julie Van, a recent graduate of the University of Washington.

The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I took a chance.

Though I was a math major, and saw myself as anything but a writer, I decided to enroll in a study abroad program in Italy focused on creative writing.

Surrounded by an overwhelming number of English and creative writing majors, I immediately felt inferior. As we shared our writing in small groups each day, it felt as if everyone else had such mastery and control over language while I was still grappling with finding my voice. I couldn’t help but think: What meaningful contribution could I make as someone without a formal writing background?

That changed when I realized our instructors wanted us to incorporate our personal interests into our work. As a result, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the intersection of art and its underlying mathematical structure — from the use of vanishing points in Francesco Borromini’s architecture at Palazzo Spada to the optical illusions in the frescos of Sant’Ignazio Church.

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It was a summer marked by perpetually black-ink stained fingers, hastily penned words in my well-worn notebook, and poems scratched on napkins. I endured the blazing Roman sun and rough callouses from cobblestone roads, but writing proved to be a transformative learning experience — not only for my own sense of self-discovery, but for the opportunity to share my perspectives with my peers.

Such interdisciplinary experiences shouldn’t be so rare — and difficult for students to find. My experiences have shown me the disconnects in our education system. Too often, students box themselves into strict dichotomies. Either you are a “math person” or you are not. So you like writing papers? Therefore you must likely be a “humanities person.” But individuals are much more complex than that, and our world is full of nuanced problems that require an intricate interrelationship of knowledge.

Most schools, like the University of Washington, have general education requirements. They’re intended to ensure all students take some classes outside of their majors. While this is a necessary start,…

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