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A major dilemma: Professors reflect upon majors’ survival shots on a deserted island

February 2, 2024

Eva Ahn

The roughly ten classes that compose a student’s major at Bowdoin—not to mention double majors and minors—determine much of their undergraduate experience. But even at a college located on the coast of Maine, students still neglect to consider the practical implications of their major choice were they, hypothetically, to find themselves stranded in a shipwreck.

As sophomores gear up to declare their majors on Monday, professors offered their take on how their departments would uniquely serve island life.

Eric Gaze, director of Quantitative Reasoning and senior lecturer in mathematics, noted that thinking about one’s major may not be top of mind in such an emergency.

“Really, if you’re going to be stranded on a deserted island, you should just be spending all of your time working out, getting fit,” he said.

But Gaze and his colleagues noted that each major may bring distinct skills to desertion. Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Michael Danahy noted that a collection of majors would in fact be key to escape from or enjoy island life.

“I don’t want an island of just chemists … if for nothing more than to make things interesting. It’s only when you bring different people’s interests and expertise together that you get a thriving community on this island,” Danahy said.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Aliosha Barranco Lopez on the philosophy major 

If stranded on a deserted island, Barranco Lopez said that philosophy students would be able to think through loneliness and social structure with a unique degree of insight and attention to ethical norms.

“Philosophy often deals with existential questions and the human condition. This background can help students cope with the stress, loneliness and fear that come with being stranded,” she wrote in an email to the Orient. “If there are other survivors, philosophical training in ethics can help students make decisions that affect the group—such as ensuring fair distribution of resources and maintaining a harmonious social environment.”

She noted that the logical minds of philosophy majors would be able to make swift and successful decisions.

“This skill can be vital in prioritizing tasks, such as deciding whether to build a shelter first or search for water,” she wrote.

Director of Quantitative Reasoning and Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Eric Gaze on the mathematics major

Gaze postulated that math majors might spend their time on a deserted island reasoning through numerical challenges.

“Weirdly, my first thought was, ‘You’re going to have a lot of time on your hands,’” Gaze said. “So, as a math major, you could spend your time thinking about some cool open math problems, like Goldbach’s conjecture where every even number is the sum of two primes…. Or you could come up with proofs of the Pythagorean theorem and talk to all your compatriots on the island and share your favorite proofs—which is something that math nerds do.”

Gaze emphasized that these questions represent the way math majors logically and creatively solve problems of all kinds.

“One of the big dangers of being on the island would be going insane, and I think having a very robust mental life would be very helpful to not go insane,” he said. “Mathematicians are able to live in an abstract world very easily. If they’re sitting on a deserted island or if they’re sitting in New York City, they’re sort of unaware of their surroundings. You can just get lost in your thoughts.”

Math majors might also be uniquely positioned to plan escape routes from a desert island, Gaze said. Math experts have skills in spatial modeling and data collection that would usefully serve an escape plan.

“If you’re on a desert island, you would want to start collecting data about where the food is, weather patterns, even astronomy. All of that’s very mathematical,” Gaze said.

Gaze emphasized that majors may even find their new location conducive to thinking through mathematical problems.

“A desert island is a perfect place to do math,” he said.

Assistant Professor of Biology Patricia Jones on the biology major

Jones knows actually quite a bit about what it’s like to live on a deserted island.

In her role as Director of the Bowdoin College Scientific Station on Kent Island, Jones spends each summer on a remote island in the Bay of Fundy. Jones believes this experience would set her up for success if she found herself on an even more remote island.

“There’s some exposure to what it’s like to live off the land in a minimalist kind of way, study the organisms around you, learn their names, get to know them,” Jones said.

As a behavioral ecologist, Jones’ area of study aligns with the Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology (EEMB) concentration of the biology major, which Jones thinks would be very helpful for island survival.

“I would use my EEMB concentration in order to identify the plants and animals around me and hopefully know what to eat and what not to eat, some things probably about the toxicity of different plant species,” Jones said.

In addition to using the biology major to find food, the knowledge accrued through a biology major would allow students to analyze the island’s ecosystem and prepare for seasonal changes.

“I might be paying attention to cues that I could get, like if a bunch of birds show up, that’s a sign perhaps it’s a migratory season, summer is ending, they’re migrating south—something like that as a cue it’s about to get cold for the winter.”

Professor of Government Andrew Rudalevige on the government major

Rudalevige contended that Government and Legal Studies majors would formulate a fair society on their island.

“Obviously government skills will be important to ensuring representative government emerges and inalienable rights are protected on our desert island,” he wrote in an email to the Orient. “With the econ folks it’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ all the way.”

Professor of the English Language and Literature and Cinema Studies Aviva Briefel on the English major and cinema studies minor

Briefel thinks English majors have the unique ability of keeping themselves entertained on a deserted island.

“This is not survival in the sense of how to get food and water or whatever, which would be another thing—although there are some books that might help—but I think that I would turn my experience in my head into some kind of story. It would make it more interesting,” Briefel said.

Not only would English majors be prepared to craft stories for the many hours spent alone, but they would also have the skill set necessary to document their stories for future reference or, if creative writing is their focus, to share with others.

“I would find a place to record my experiences and write about them,” Briefel said.

In cinema studies, Briefel specializes in horror films. Briefel noted that studying this genre, in particular, has prepared her to deal with the paranoia and fear that may set in as the hours and days pass.

“One of the categories of fear that we talk about in cinema class is paranoia, which is usually not a good thing,” Breifel said. “But if you’re on a desert island and you want to be aware and thinking about whether you’re in danger at a given time or not, then I would say that would make me very alert to my surroundings.”

Associate Professor of History David Hecht on the history major

Although Hecht thinks he might become history if he were stranded on a deserted island, his historical research—which focuses on the history of science, specifically the histories of the nuclear age and climate change—would allow him to adequately assess the danger he was in.

“Having researched and taught a lot about disasters, it gives you a sense of what the possibilities and pitfalls are when people try to respond to a crisis or non-ideal situations in as productive a way as possible.”

Hecht noted that while the history major lacks in survival training, they make up for in knowledge about thousands of years in human experiences—knowledge that might prove valuable in handling an uncomfortable, new environment.

Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Michael Danahy on the chemistry major

Danahy, a self-described “chemistry chauvinist,” reflected that skills learned in chemistry would be key to producing food, medicine and soap on a deserted island.

“The pitch for a chemistry major is that chemistry is the central science…. If you’re on a desert island, a chemist can help you pretty much with all your physical needs,” Danahy said. “We could help with feeding you, making a tasty meal, and if you get sick, an organic chemist is going to be the one who helps pull out the molecules that might be in the plants.”

Danahy reflected that chemists have been key to historical stories surrounding challenging scenarios, citing the chemically-skilled wizard Merlin in King Arthur’s tale.

“Wizards are basically chemists. Chemists in legend are always trying to make something better,” he said.

Danahy also noted that the diversity of the chemistry major, from organic chemistry to physical chemistry, provides its students with different skills for island escape.

“You can find which one really gets you going, but at least we’ve given you exposure to all of the avenues of chemistry.”

Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Katherine Dauge-Roth on the Francophone Studies major

At first, when Dauge-Roth was asked what a Francophone Studies major could do on a deserted island, she wasn’t entirely sure.

“Our major is all about connection and communication, building community and building cultural understanding between people, so the idea of somebody completely alone on a deserted island doesn’t really jive with what we’re trying to impart to our students,” Dauge-Roth said.

Despite the major’s deep roots in people and a desert island’s lack thereof, Dauge-Roth does think that Francophone Studies majors would be able to endure the transition to an entirely new environment.

“Our majors are really used to being in positions where they’re uncomfortable, where expectations aren’t necessarily the same as what they might have thought they might be or what they are in their own culture or their former situation before they arrived on the desert island,” Dauge-Roth said.

Additionally, Dauge-Roth noted that if a Francophone Studies major did end up finding other people, they would have at least double the chance of being able to communicate with them.

“If they happen to run into anybody else, there is that much more of a chance to be able to communicate with them because they’ve studied a language other than English,” Dauge-Roth said. “They also understand how language works, so even if they don’t particularly speak the person’s language, they can navigate that and figure out how to communicate.”

Dauge-Roth also raised the point that the concept of landing on a “deserted island” is entwined with colonial narratives. Since Francophone majors learn about approaching colonial narratives from a critical lens, she thinks students who pursue this major would handle this hypothetical analytically.

“Our majors might know that the whole deserted island scenario is kind of wrapped up in this whole colonialist idea of someone arriving—a European arriving—in a deserted place and, you know, surviving and making the most of it, so I think they might be a little critical of that,” Dauge-Roth said.

As sophomores decide which major to declare on Monday, perhaps they will consider its utility for when they are stranded alone on a desert island.


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