Cover Story: Anything But Square, Carnegie Mellon Comes Full Circle
By Jonathan Potts and Mary Megliola Franzen, Carnegie Mellon Today, February 2006

Kat AgresThe Arts & Humanities

Think of a circle. Not that complex, right?

Now examine it from the perspectives of geometry, early astronomy, physics, architecture, poetry and philosophy. Not so simple anymore.

But that is exactly what William Alba, the new director of Carnegie Mellon’s Science and Humanities Scholars (SHS) Program, will be asking his students to do this spring in his “Revolutions of Circularity” course. Part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS), the SHS program gives select undergraduates the opportunity to pursue an H&SS or Mellon College of Science major, while exploring other disciplines at Carnegie Mellon.

“The circle is a strong visual element that seems simple—even a child knows what it is—and yet it's been invested with all kinds of cultural implications throughout the centuries,” Alba says.

In Alba’s words, the circle is the perfect collaborative form—reaching its fullest expression in Carnegie Mellon’s humanities programs. This unique approach offers H&SS students an education unlike anything available at other research universities or traditional liberal arts colleges.

“Our faculty include some of the nation’s leading humanities scholars and we have the same interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach that animates the rest of the university,” says H&SS Dean John Lehoczky. “We are uniquely poised to offer our students the opportunity to combine disciplines and look at the world in a new way.

Kat Agres“Our Humanities Initiative, which includes the Humanities Scholars Program, the Humanities Center and the Center for the Arts in Society, is designed to strengthen humanities education,” Lehoczky explains. Complementing the Humanities Initiative are other collaborative endeavors, including the SHS program and two interdisciplinary undergraduate degrees: the Bachelor of Humanities and Arts (BHA) and the Bachelor of Science and Arts (BSA).

“Building communities in an increasingly global era is a large part of the Carnegie Mellon experience,” notes David Kaufer, head of the Department of English.

All over campus undergraduates are combining disciplines and creating highly individualized courses of study. Rather than being forced to choose between their strengths—for example, chemistry and art—BHA and BSA students find novel ways to explore both. The BHA program provides a home for the philosophy major who also is a gifted cellist, while the BSA degree attracts the aspiring scientist who wants to combine chemistry with a passion for studio arts. In short, the boundaries and old rules are fast disappearing, replaced with new avenues for satisfying academic curiosity and an emphasis on real-world examination and problem-solving.

Not only does this approach provide students with rich educational opportunities, it also establishes Carnegie Mellon as a destination for scholars outside the university who come to campus for conferences, collaborative research and education programs. Last spring, the Humanities Center featured Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Menand of “The New Yorker” at its inaugural conference, “The Humanities and Expertise.”

Kat Agres“The Humanities Center focuses on themes that are of broad social and cultural relevance,” says David Shumway, a professor of English and the center’s director.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is ready to support those efforts. Last year the Humanities Center received a $500,000 challenge grant from NEH to establish an endowment that will fund the center’s future work. Under terms of the grant, the NEH-funding is contingent on the center’s raising an additional $1.5 million by 2008.

Ultimately, Shumway hopes to provide fellowships to faculty members and visiting scholars to develop and teach courses in the Humanities Scholars Program, open only to select H&SS undergraduates by invitation. The program combines the disciplines of English, history, modern languages and philosophy.

Forty students are currently enrolled as Humanities Scholars. They may choose from among the university’s degree programs and also follow a four-year course of study involving comparative research across disciplines.

Clara Reyes, a third-year student and inaugural member of the Humanities Scholars Program, says that her first course in the program, “Understanding Democracy: From City-States to Cyberspace,” was something of a revelation.

“Everyone in that class at some point had the light bulb go on,” observed Reyes, a history and policy major. “It helped develop my consciousness about what’s going on—not only with the federal government but with our local communities as well.”

“The humanists who thrive here are the humanists who feel very comfortable with science and social science and art,” notes Kaufer.

Consider, for example, Kat Agres. A cellist, she earned her BHA in 2005, combining her musical training with cognitive psychology.

“Anywhere else, it would have taken five to six years to do both majors,” says Agres, who also oversees the Hip-Hop Project.

At Carnegie Mellon, Agres studied under the principal cellist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, while conducting an independent research project in music therapy. As part of that project, she played the cello for cancer patients at the Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh. “It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

In Carnegie Mellon terms, she’s come full circle.