I get asked a lot what it’s like being a physics student at a liberal arts school. Up until recently, I haven’t really had a good answer to that since nearly all of my first year was spent studying things that weren’t physics or mathematics. This year, however, has been quite different. I’m currently in Question block, the course where I determine my guiding “Question” after 5 back-to-back blocks within those two areas of study. Now by virtue of exposure I’ve developed more concrete ideas on the question. There are a few things that I find to distinguish the liberal arts experience of a physics student from that of a more traditional academic context.
1. You’re always thinking about physics. Within the block plan, you’re completely immersed in whatever it is you’re studying. There’s no symphony recording to analyze, no novels whose themes you must analyze, and certainly no economic policy to be criticized during those months of physics and mathematics filled with numbers, constants, and variables. Instead, everything related to your previous (and, as I anticipate, future) studies are put into a physics and math context. A symphony is suddenly wavelengths of varying frequencies and intensities, a novel’s emotions become neurological interactions explained by the movement and patterns caused by the electrical properties present within cells, and an economic policy becomes a misguided analysis of poorly constructed explanations of patterns within data. Some might read this and think, “wow, what a hollow and vacuous lens to peer through,” but I find it to be quite the opposite. When your mind is converted into a full-time playground for numbers, particles, forces, and celestial objects, previously constructed assumptions become challenged in a very critical way, causing them to either be dismantled or enhanced by the riches of certainty. Both of these are good outcomes. The physical properties of the universe become your muse, your source of comfort, and your teacher of philosophy.
2. Your tutors are always there for you. When you’re in a class of at most twenty people and your instructor has very few external academic obligations, you can pretty much guarantee that they’re extremely accessible. Unless there’s something pressing happening, if it’s a week day, they have office hours (emphasis on the plurality of the word “hours”). Even if they have to be somewhere else for the majority of the day, nearly all of them are overtly-punctual almost to a fault, as I’ve witnessed classmates complain about waiting an hour for a reply from a tutor who usually responds within thirty minutes (I must admit I’m guilty of making the same complaint).
3. You make some very close friends. Students studying physics are a notably small minority academically within those attending a liberal arts institution, especially one like Quest. It looks like that might change within the coming years, but we are currently far from a populous group. As a result, you end up seeing the same people take their seats on the first day of class for a surprising number of consecutive blocks. This is more of a virtue than a vice. For starters, you’re able to sidestep the awkward get-to-know-everyone phase of a class. The introductory “name, where you’re from, and some other arbitrary detail about yourself” dealio that every tutor does on the first day of class becomes laughable after the second or third straight block with the same faces. Some people pop in and out depending on if they’re more inclined toward physics or pure math, but ultimately you’re with the same core group of 15-20 students. And since you’ve been working with them for a few months already, you know how everyone operates and how everyone best approaches a problem. You know who can dismantle a challenging integral by hand, who can explain abstract concepts in a very accessible way for everyone else, who can alleviate crippling mental fatigue with a well-timed joke, and who can deliver the most satisfying high-five after slaying an arduous multi-hour problem. All of these roles become crucial certainties in order to maintain a pattern of success under the block plan.
This is a very brief summary of my thoughts on being a physics student at Quest. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far and I don’t anticipate that changing. When I think of how intellectually rich it’s been, I always come to the conclusion that studying under other academic structures wouldn’t produce the same fundamental understanding of the mechanisms at work and the skills of critical analysis. So the next time I’m asked what being a physics student at Quest is like, I’ll know exactly how to respond.