Turn Tartan! in the Classroomby Shardul, 25 Jan 2018
Apologies for the long blog hiatus for which ‘college applications’ may or may not be a valid excuse. In line with the wholly unanticipated trend of this blog, here’s yet another post that is written immediately after some form of travel; this time, it’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home to Carnegie Mellon University where I just spent an exciting weekend Turn[ing] Tartan!
(N.B. I haven’t received an admissions decision yet, hehe. The purpose of my visit was rather to scout around a university I didn’t know too much about.)
Dietrich College is the college of Humanities at CMU. And Dietrich takes the word ‘humanities’ a little more literally than other universities, I think, because the Dean described the courses at Dietrich as “dealing with all that is human, from the brain to the mind to society to culture”. That includes conventional humanities programs like English, world languages, political science, and history, but also brings in neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, data science, and economics.
Miscellaneous facts: language studies and linguistics students get grants from the State Department to spend a semester abroad in immersive, concentrated language programs. And students of public policy, international relations, and economics can spend a semester in Washington, D.C., working with the White House or the Supreme Court or any of the innumerable government agencies in the area, and studying at a CMU extension just across the street.
Paraphrasing the Dean further (this was at a info session with a panel of students and administrative and academic faculty), Dietrich is the most ‘open’ college at CMU. He said something along the lines of “Students coming into other colleges at CMU are likely to have their careers all planned out, but at Dietrich, we love you if you’re interdisciplinary, we love you if you’re undecided.” Case in point: CMU’s drama program produces Broadway stars by the dozens, and computer science graduates often have straight paths to jobs with tech giants. If CMU’s programs in drama, music, computer science, and electrical/computer engineering are like a laser, then Dietrich is like a broad flashlight; there’s certainly less of the strong single-minded focus, but there’s more versatility, more directions you can grow in once you know where you want to go.
Which makes Dietrich the hub of essentially all interdisciplinary work at CMU. Behavorial economics, or computational linguistics, political journalism, … There’s also the BXA program which gives degrees like ‘Bachelor of Sciences and Arts’ or ‘Bachelor of Humanities and Arts’, effectively combining two majors with interdisciplinary (and apparently rather comprehensive, to the point of sometimes taking five years to finish) projects, coursework, and research.
And of course, Dietrich has the Logic and Computation program.
Logic and Computation
The Logic and Computation program is a pretty flexible program. At its core, it has courses in mathematical logic and analytical philosophy, and electives can include courses in linguistics, theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, mathematics, and philosophical methodology. Unlike other Dietrich programs that are interdisciplinary within the college, L&C is interdisciplinary mostly outside the college with computer science and mathematical sciences. (With all that, you’d think Logic and Computation would be in the College of Sciences, but it’s actually in Dietrich under the Department of Philosophy. (At least it’s a B.S. degree.)) According to the Dean of Dietrich, CMU’s L&C is the nation’s #1 mathematical logic program (of course), but what I was pleasantly surprised to know is that Indiana University (where I’ve been accepted!) comes in at #2.
However, there’s not a lot about the program online, so it was nice that I could have a one-on-one chat with the Philosophy department academic advisor. She said the L&C program is really the soul of the Philosophy department, ever since it was started by the famous logician Wilfried Sieg sometime around 1990, but there are only three or four graduates every year. Combined with the fact that there are ten faculty specific to the Logic and Computation program and a handful more in the Computer Science and Mathematical Sciences who teach related courses, that means that the student-faculty ratio if you’re in this program is actually less than 1. Core classes often have class sizes around ten, and in the words of the advisor, “you’ll get to know each professor personally over your four years”. Further, many higher-level courses are also attended by graduate students, giving undergraduates a lot more experience and exposure to research than otherwise possible.
Research is definitely a large part of the L&C program. Along with the senior thesis (for which one advisor has to be from the L&C program’s close-knit community, and others can be from anywhere), summer research is as easy as just emailing a professor (and has a surprising amount of grants from the Air Force and the NSA) and careers in academia are the most common, followed by industry research.
We also spoke about possible informal ‘concentrations’ within the L&C major. Because of the nature of the electives, the advisor said that it’s very easy, interesting, and rewarding to tailor the major to a student’s specific interests. (The sample course combinations on the program page are perfect examples.) The major can also be easily combined with a second major or a minor in many other programs, popular choices being computer science, linguistics, cognitive science, and mathematics. But, she said, the coursework tends to be heavy on the theory and logical/analytical reasoning, unlike the practically directly applicable work of the mentioned fields; to see whether L&C is a good choice, the first-year “Concepts of Mathematics” course functions as a “litmus test” in the sense that students who enjoy and are comfortable with that course have a similar experience with L&C. Luckily, “Concepts of Mathematics” was open to visitors, so I decided to drop in.
First off, “Concepts of Mathematics”. Of course things were just starting out because it was only the second week of the semester, but I felt it was a moderately-paced class nonetheless. The day’s topic was defining and providing rough proofs and examples of fundamental set operations. (The general curriculum focuses not so much on actual [discrete] mathematics as on proof-writing and methods of mathematical reasoning, which suits me well.) It was a traditional lecture, with the professor speaking and writing on the board for most of the fifty minutes and pausing for questions, and a little over a hundred students taking notes, but it wasn’t boring. “Set union is represented by this symbol… <professor draws symbol on board> That’s ‘slash cup’ in LaTeX.”
Another class I attended was “Nature of Language”, whose general curriculum focuses on analyzing the functions and functioning of language from a theoretical perspective. The professor started by stating that one function of language is to assign different symbols to different concepts. Then he showed a picture of a tear (as in a teardrop) and a deer, and noted that since the concepts were different, the symbols (i.e. sounds, not orthography) must be different too. Thus the difference between [t] and [d] is meaningful in English. Thereafter the class was fairly interactive, even with around eighty students, with students commenting on various minimal pairs for phonetic features and the professor giving the appropriate terminology and building a rudimentary IPA chart on the board. In all, quite an interesting class, and one that I would certainly enjoy if I took it. At the end I asked the girl sitting next to me: “Hi, do you know the professor’s name?” – “Um, uh, <smiles embarrassedly> Warren? Warner? Hey, it’s only the second day of class!” (Turns out it was Werner, close enough.)
Both these classes were part of the L&C curriculum, so my third class (of which I attended only half) was “Principles of Computing” aimed at students with “little to no programming experience” to teach basic programming concepts through Python. Although I don’t think I qualify as “little to no programming experience”, the class was engaging, and unsurprisingly smaller because I expect all the computer science students would have the required programming experience before coming to college.