Humanities misunderstood at CMU
What do you think of when you hear the words “Carnegie Mellon University?"
Phrases such as “tech school,” “computer science,” and “stress culture” come to mind, as well as “art school,” “drama,” and “Broadway.” When I visited Carnegie Mellon as a prospective student, I sat in McConomy Auditorium packed with high schoolers and their parents who were in the process of making important life decisions. The speaker ended his introductory remarks by touting how Carnegie Mellon was both a peer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and The Julliard School.
When I first told my friends and family that I would be spending the next four years of my life at Carnegie Mellon, the first words that came out of their mouths were: “You’re studying computer science?” When I said no, they continued: “So engineering then?” No again. “Oh, you’re doing art, right?”
Nope. I applied to the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, undeclared and undecided about what I wanted to do with my future. After taking my required freshman courses and discovering that I love to write, I declared as a Professional Writing major in the Department of English.
As a student on campus, I have experienced different reactions to being a humanities major. I have heard people talking about how Dietrich is the underling of the university. I’ve seen derogatory memes of the Facebook page, “Carnegie Mellon Memes for Spicy Teens." Even among my own friends, I have experienced “major-shaming," complaints about how I don’t take midterms and finals or spend six hours on coding assignments (newsflash: I have done both).
But when I explain to my friends what being a major in the humanities is like, some begin to understand that different fields simply warrant different learning structures. Small things that I’m used to — like 60 pages of reading a night, ten-page essays, and taking small classes that require attendance — are foreign to many non-humanities students.
According to Carnegie Mellon’s most recent admissions for the 2017-2018 freshman class, Dietrich is the second largest college at the university, with 303 enrollees behind the College of Engineering’s 434. However, only a small percentage of students in Dietrich fall under the “humanities” half of the college: the Departments of English, History, Modern Languages, and Philosophy. Of the Fall 2017 admitted class, only 15 percent were in the humanities, while nine percent were undecided, and the remaining 76 percent were in non-humanities majors such as information systems, psychology, and statistics and data science.
Dietrich is renowned for its interdisciplinary studies, merging technology and humanities with majors like Statistics and Machine Learning (a joint major with the School of Computer Science), and the new minor Humanities Analytics from the Department of English that incorporates studies in computer science and robotics. The Department of Statistics and Data Science continues to expand, becoming one of the fastest-growing statistics programs in the country.
All these developments are great, and I’m glad that Dietrich is a space where students can combine their varying interests. However, as previously argued in The Tartan, the continuing “STEM-ification” of Dietrich, while welcome and progressive, could threaten the more traditional humanities departments of the college.
The humanities community at Carnegie Mellon is small, but it is rare to find people who are not fully passionate about what they study. There is also less of the stress culture that is ubiquitous in other fields on campus. Yes, students are overwhelmed with schoolwork, clubs, and other responsibilities like all students, but there is less competition, less of a need to brag about how little sleep you had last night, which Silicon Valley internship you got, or when the last time you left the architecture studio was.
I have highlighted many differences between the humanities and other fields at Carnegie Mellon, particularly STEM fields, but my purpose is not to define the large chasm between them. We are all students at the same university that appreciates a wide range of disciplines. But in order to create a community that appreciates one another, we must first understand the differences in that community.