Transatlantic Thoughts: Club professionalism drains CMU students

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/
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Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments

Last week’s article in this column concluded on the lack of common ground among Carnegie Mellon’s students. This week, I’ll try to explain more in-depth how this general problem plays out in the clubs and associations on campus.

When you look at the list of clubs here at Carnegie Mellon, it seems to correspond to what you could expect from an undergraduate campus: a couple hundred very diverse associations, apparently covering every field of interest. While student life is different from campus to campus, and you cannot compare them on an absolute scale, I think that some of the negative parts of the Carnegie Mellon spirit have tweaked the way people engage in extra-curricular activities, leading to a general lack of fun in student life, therefore increasing the “my heart is in the work” phenomenon causing workaholism that I described two weeks ago.

First, let us ask why people join clubs here at Carnegie Mellon. Each person has their own reasons, but for a good generalization, we can look at the recruiting arguments given to freshmen to encourage them to join clubs. The most important and recurrent argument (at least from what I’ve heard) is that students will learn new skills in a specific domain, often related to a professional activity. The most important word here is professional: joining a club is a way for you to take advantage of an extra-curricular activity to gain work experience and learn professional standards of quality.

For instance, look at this paper: the typesetting, illustrations, and production processes are similar to those of a professional newspaper. And the contents too: apart from seveal articles concerning Carnegie Mellon, the science, news, and Trump-bashing articles are similar to those disseminated by national news. Another example of this imitation game is the Lunar Gala. The event is impressive, the costumes and dresses have nothing to envy from professional fashion designer; and to measure up to the standard of this the organization also requires a tremendous amount of work with custom scene installation, video recording, lights, etc. Speaking of that, one of the most well-known clubs on campus is ABTech, whose goal is to provide professional-like technical services to events on campus.

And the relation between these organizations is professional too: clubs buy services from other clubs, as ABTech and cmuTV bill each of their service in student-organized events. This miniature version of a market economy seems to work very well and teach a lot of people how to be responsible technicians, events organizer and other kinds of trades, but is it really what extra-curricular activities stand for? As a naïve former undergraduate, I can’t help but wonder: where is the fun? After one year here, I am still searching for it: maybe all the fun is concentrated in the fraternities, but if I understand correctly the majority of people do not join a fraternity during their time on campus.
Related to that aspiration to mimic professional activities, I noticed an inflation of pedantic titles for “leadership” positions in organizations. Even as a writer in this newspaper, I am climbing the ladders of a ridiculous hierarchy ranging from “junior staffwriter” to a regular “staffwriter.” If these terms are perfect to fill the “interests” section of a CV, they contribute to transforming extra-curricular activities to another form of work. And I suspect that CV-filling might be one of the main reasons why people join clubs because academic performance alone is no longer enough to prove students can think outside the box and provide creative energy to a prestigious company.

It is an excess of seriousness that characterizes Carnegie Mellon’s student life. This seriousness certainly has good sides, like the impressive number of charity and service clubs that really show that students are engaged in encouraging positive change. But seriousness also comes regarding the nature of events and activities proposed by clubs. Almost every event proposes some kind of competition, of a battle between groups of people for a prize, with the aim of winning some sort prize, often in the form of cash or goodies. This competition, which is already present in academic work, becomes omnipresent and creates what I think is a perverted state of mind.

This leads to the ridiculous need of prize incentives for everything, even a housing department survey last year which offered Fitbits to people that responded to it. The problem with this kind of incentivizing and competition is that it kills any concept of community: you cannot create a lasting bond between people whose only shared interest is the perspective of winning something against other people.

This brings us to the omnipresence of money in extra-curricular activities: Carnegie Mellon’s student life is largely over-funded. While this seems to be a good thing, it actually worsens the excess of seriousness and professionalism. Indeed, because clubs are over-funded, they rely heavily on costly solutions to organize their events, often hiring external companies to help. For instance, cmuTV (funded by Carnegie Mellon) pays more than $35k per year to hire a video production company to set up buggy recording. The result, with 15 cameras and two giant screens, is very impressive, but one can wonder about the necessity of such a setup.

My opinion on this over-funding is that Carnegie Mellon is desperately trying to kickstart a rise in extra-curricular activities. While a couple hundred clubs might seem impressive, there are more than 10,000 students, meaning that a significant fraction of the student population doesn’t engage in an extra-curricular activity. Instead of looking at the real causes of why people don’t join clubs, which is that academic requirements are too time-consuming and stressful, the administration preferred to just pour money into the problem, hoping that it would resolve itself. The latest example of this money pouring strategy is the “UPLift Challenge.” It actually presents all the characteristics that I’ve discussed in this article. It’s a challenge (competition), a lot of money is involved (project funding), a lot of pedantic titles are used (just read the thanks section of provost Jahanian’s email), and it fits well on a CV. But do you honestly think that a “Campus Swingset” is really addressing the deep problems that undermine the students’ health and wellness?

Continuing to look away from the academic-related problems that undermine the mental health of a lot of students will take the Carnegie Mellon community nowhere. And while extra-curricular activities are the reflection of the general state of mind in the university, I think they play a great role by offering a good balance between work and fun. More cohesive events and actually letting students find ways to cope with modest means to achieve projects more modest in scope might help student life thrive at Carnegie Mellon University, without spending so much money on it. Because communities cannot be built upon a shared burden of stress and hard work, it is time to focus on the right problems if we want to move forward.