Editorial: CMU’s “Interdisciplinary” Efforts Fall Short of Promises

“Interdisciplinary” is a buzzword that almost all colleges use in their advertising materials, and in its original meaning, it is something that all colleges should rightfully aspire to be. To me, at least, interdisciplinary means taking a broad spectrum of classes, and learning how they all interact. No field operates in a vacuum (although some very literal, physicists might disagree), and being able to draw connects between multiple areas is what has provided many new insights in the past.

 

However, Carnegie Mellon suffers a severe lack of real interdisciplinarity. This dearth manifests itself both socially and academically, by dividing students on almost-arbitrary lines and discouraging exploration.

 

I can only speak from my experience as a humanities student. Dietrich College offers many cross-disciplinary opportunities; however, they remain within Dietrich. How often is there a collaboration between the School of Computer Science and Dietrich, or Mellon College of Science and Dietrich? I took a History of Computing class in SCS, and while it was very informative and interesting, it would have benefited from a more rigorous approach on its historical side. Similarly, in a gender class, we read about bias in science, with specific examples from biology. Hearing a biologist’s take on the issue would have been an enriching addition.

 

Even just taking classes outside of Dietrich has given me strange looks and made me feel unwelcomed. I’m sure it is unintentional, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. When I took 15-112, people looked at me like I was a masochist (which may be true), and asked why I would do that when it’s not required. I got similar responses when I took Physics 1 for Science students. Having intellectual curiosity outside of your home college is unusual, at best, and frowned-upon, at worst.

 

Yes, there are many “initiatives” and “centers” that have sprung up on campus. However, they general involve combining two traditional disciplines in a very specific way. The new IDeATe program is a perfect example. It’s nice that computer scientists and artists now have access to new classes and equipment. But is this really the spirit of interdisciplinarity? Maybe one day, all of the slight overlaps will converge, but as it currently stands, the so-called interdisciplinary programs are usually bi-disciplinary, at most.

 

Anytime a department veers too far from its home space, it gets separated and boxed in. Information Systems is technically in Dietrich, but they use computers for more than writing essays? Better split them off and provide barriers to entry for those outside the chosen few.

 

This administrative shuffling enforces social norms. When meeting someone new, often the first thing that is asked is what their major is. This is then used as a superficial label that shapes all future interactions. As the Tartan recently joked in their own April Fools issue, a history major with a minor in computer science would be happy to be ripped apart, just for people (and specifically employers) to see that they aren’t their major. Although it was satire, we at readme know that the best satire strikes at the cold hard truth.

 

In conclusion, is Carnegie Mellon truly “interdisciplinary?” In my opinion, the answer is no. There are scattered initiatives that bring together a few fields here and there, but the overall culture is not one of broad intellectual experimentation. The word is thrown around on admissions materials because it is one of those words that no college would dare deride, but in practice, it offers little to enhance the Carnegie Mellon experience.

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