Humanities fall by the wayside at CMU

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If you aren’t living under a rock, or possibly in the basement of Porter, you won’t find it hard to believe that the humanities are undervalued at Carnegie Mellon. We’ve all heard the jokes about Dietrich. We’ve all seen students forced to meet humanities requirements skim the course list with a resentful eye and a "let’s-get-this-over-with" attitude, gravitating toward the classes that seem low-effort. You might even be one of those students.

Even in an official capacity — think press releases and mailers to prospective students — the humanities only get noticed in interdisciplinary work, in conjunction with a scientific or technical component. Plenty of students on campus don’t care who Francis Bacon was or what he did, but could probably name the English department’s “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon” project as one of the university’s favorite examples of interdisciplinary innovation.

That’s not to say that that project isn’t incredibly cool (because it is!) or that interdisciplinary work doesn’t deserve the attention it gets. It’s just that the humanities only seem to be celebrated in conjunction with work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Exploration and analysis of the human experience appear unimportant. Only when history, English, and modern languages are associated with statistics, psychology, engineering, computer science are they good enough.

It goes without saying that the reverse is totally unimaginable.

What’s less obvious is that, even within Dietrich itself, the humanities take a back seat to the social sciences. On Carnegie Mellon’s admissions website, Dietrich bills itself as “no ordinary liberal arts college.” What does that mean, really? If you think about it for more than five seconds it look bad from every angle, like an institutional-level I’m not like other girls.

Career events and job newsletters billed as “especially for Dietrich undergrads!” promise a break from endless lists of tech startups looking for software engineers. Instead, we get consulting firms looking to hire data analysts from the statistics department. Celebrations of Dietrich student work usually take the form of poster sessions, and inviting all students to participate regardless of major won’t change the fact that posters are a traditional medium of the scientific realm (and that it’s fundamentally easier for a decision science student to present their experimental research on a poster than it is for a creative writing student to show off their poetry).

If, for a second, we accept the premise that the humanities rarely get shout-outs on their own because the university’s favorite projects are interdisciplinary, then maybe this extends to Dietrich, too. After all, as Pres. Jahanian acknowledged recently in an interview with The Tartan, the university really does want to focus on interdisciplinary work.

It might not be fair to make claims from the outside about what image Dietrich’s administration wants to promote, interdisciplinary or otherwise. That said, Dietrich’s ‘about’ page begins: “The Dietrich College is home to faculty and students who often cross disciplines to solve real-world problems.”

We can also look through the university press releases Dietrich shares on its website: on an informal count, Dietrich’s site displays 31 interdisciplinary news stories from 2018, versus 23 focused on the humanities. Maybe it isn’t about prioritizing the social sciences over the humanities after all: it’s about showing that collaboration is the future of both, that we are greater than the sum of our parts, and that neither the social sciences nor the humanities — but the combination of core concepts from both disciplines — are what makes Dietrich special.

Except there were 39 Dietrich press releases in 2018 that focused exclusively on departments in the social sciences, largely psychology and statistics, the most sciencey of all. That’s more than interdisciplinary topics, and almost twice as many as the humanities. This might have something to do with the relative size of the departments (for example, the recently rechristened Department of Statistics and Data Science is one of the university’s fastest growing programs). Except if we’re still assuming that the number of press releases on a given topic roughly corresponds to the public image Dietrich wants to construct... the size of the department shouldn’t matter. So is the administration playing favorites, or just not making an effort?

Two new undergraduate minors in Dietrich — Environmental and Sustainability Studies, and Humanities Analytics — got plenty of hype from the university on campus and on social media when they were recently introduced, in accordance with the focus on forward-thinking interdisciplinary studies. Another shiny new interdisciplinary program, the Master of Arts in Global Communication and Applied Translation, didn’t even get a press release. Is it because the collaborating departments are English and Modern Languages? (“Six Degrees of Francis Bacon,” by the way, has had three press releases all to itself in the past few years.)

Am I just bitter? Maybe. More than that, though, I’m concerned about what messages humanities students are receiving about the value of their work and the students outside the humanities who aren't shown anything that contradicts their preconceived notions. The university may not have created the campus culture that dismisses the intrinsic value of the humanities, but for now, it's complicit.