Humanities Scholars Program has high hopes

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences does not always receive the most attention at CMU. For this reason it would probably surprise students from other colleges to learn that there is a rather interesting and exclusive program going on within the confines of H&SS. Still in its infancy, the two-year-old Humanities Scholars Program (HSP) serves as the program for over 30 students across the University. Its purpose is to create an interdisciplinary environment for the students and to expose them to classes they might not be able to find elsewhere in the University undergraduate program.

Still young, the program is still developing its role for the students involved. Timothy Haggerty is also quite new to the program; he was recently appointed acting director of the HSP. He stressed that the role of the program is being redefined. ?Right now, we?re in a building stage,? he said.

While the program is still defining itself, it is quite an important development for H&SS. Those outside its boundaries, especially those outside H&SS, may have little idea what the program actually entails. The HSP website provides a three-paragraph overview, the main thrust of which is that the scholars will experience ?interdisciplinary, comparative education in the humanities.? It stresses that the faculty will be from all departments of H&SS. According to Haggerty, part of the goal is to ?create a kind of cohort.?

Humanities Scholars are chosen, according to the website, by a selection committee which reviews all applications to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. The criteria are ?academic accomplishment, writing skills, and a broad interest in humanistic endeavors.? Haggerty believes the scholars are chosen because they have a great interest in the humanities, but perhaps don?t yet know what they want to do; they may not have found any one thing to which they are drawn. Once chosen, the students will experience one class per semester with their fellow scholars, and are strongly encouraged to live in a common space, such as one floor of a dorm hall.

The courses to which the scholars will be exposed span a wide variety of topics. Earlier classes are introductory humanities courses; later ones are based on case studies. David Shumway is the professor for the first course that this year?s scholars will take. Shumway was able to give insight into what distinguishes the courses for the scholars from other courses in H&SS.

?My course traces conceptions of love, marriage, and courtship from the Ancient Greeks to the present. That long historical sweep is very rare among the courses at Carnegie Mellon,? said Shumway. He also spoke of the difference between HSP course texts and traditional humanities course texts. While the course teaches some traditional texts, Shumway added, it also features viewings of Woody Allen?s Manhattan and Michael Curtiz?s Casablanca. According to Haggerty, one of the key benefits of the Humanities Scholars Program is that the scholars are exposed to some of the best professors in the college, and they are able to see how academics from different areas of study will approach a problem in different ways.

A third component of the program, along with the residential and academic components, is a set of outside activities, such as speakers and events. In conjunction with Shumway?s course on love, courtship, and marriage, the program hopes to sponsor an event that will feature a lecture by writer and professor Laura Kipnis, who wrote the book Against Love.

Beyond all the various components of the HSP there are, of course, the students. To their peers, they may seem just like anyone else at this university. Alisa Brown, a sophomore, is one of the first-ever group of Humanities Scholars, from last year?s entering class. Her own take on the courses provided by HSP is that they are quite directed at the students of the program. ?The difference between other humanities courses [and HSP?s courses is] that these courses are extremely interactive and that the subjects are thought out for the purpose of teaching us and only us,? Brown stated in an e-mail.

The coursework is also labor-intensive. When discussing the benefits of the program, Brown wrote of the demanding schedule, ?I do believe that I have become a lot more used to managing, analyzing, criticizing, and understanding large texts while also writing extremely lengthy papers. I have never written so many papers in my life! There are several majors in H&SS that do not involve a lot of literature, but this class requires a lot of reading and writing. You truly have to be interested in the topics, though.?

While the academic component of HSP may be the part that dominates students? lives, their lives are also changed by living together. By having the students in HSP live in the same area in Housing each year, one might believe, the University runs the risk of isolating them.

Brown disagrees. ?I don?t feel at all that we were separated from interacting with other students. I think that on the most part, the students in HSP are all involved in several other things, allowing us to be friends with other people through those separate activities and interests.? The scholars are quite close to one another for the most part, according to Brown. Haggerty describes the joint effect of the HSP?s academic and residence components as creating a ?happy coincidence? in which the students share both a living space and a class.

The HSP is quite exclusive and quite new, but one would still expect the level of knowledge about the program to run higher among students in H&SS. One such student, and one who is particularly involved with the school in her role assisting with the Adamson Writers series, is junior English major Allison Pottern. She gave some insight into how those outside the program view the students within. Pottern views the program as a sort of ?honors program for humanities students? and her perception of the seminar-style classes was on target. Pottern?s outlook on the group is somewhat shaped by the fact that she is one year older than the first set of scholars. ?I?m kinda bitter that they started it the year after I came here. It seems like just the sort of program I would have fit into and as a freshman, I bet it would be a great way to make friends quickly.? Pottern went on to say that while she made many friends in her living area, most of her friends were not in the humanities; she thinks the HSP might have remedied that.

Haggerty hopes that the close ties between Humanities Scholars will lead to greater innovation. He stresses the value of being able to work in a community, where each person knows and respects the others? opinions.

Haggerty summarized this view with the observation: ?There are relatively few geniuses who work on their own.? He continued by stressing that the program is part of a growing trend at Carnegie Mellon in which different disciplines merge with others in the classroom. Haggerty believes that Carnegie Mellon, as a school that encourages these joint efforts, holds ?a great opportunity for people who have a great entrepreneurial spirit.?

It would seem that though the rest of the University is unclear as to the nature of the HSP, the program is viewed positively from both outside and within. It provides a chance for students in H&SS to engage in a more intensive education in a unique environment that as much as guarantees that they will become close with one another. Whether it will be a success or failure remains to be seen, however, as Haggerty says, ?I think this is an experiment. What will the students get out of it? We?ll have to ask....? Until then, it?s up to the students in the program to determine what the future of the Humanities Scholars Program will be.

Michelle Bova