A Problem in Search of a Metaphor

I am considering applying to Carnegie Mellon’s 5th year scholar program. It is full funding (+stipend) for an additional year of study for

“a small number of exceptional students to remain on campus for one full year following the completion of their normal course of study”.

In that year, I would

“pursue a broadened educational experience while continuing to enhance the Carnegie Mellon community […]”.

Applications aren’t due for a few months, but I am already brain-storming about how I could “enhance the Carnegie Mellon community”; that is, what my 5th year project would be. My current idea is so new to me that I still haven’t come up with a good metaphor for the problem it addresses, but here goes.


Carnegie Mellon is like a series of private gardens, where students, once planted, remain fixed within their walls. This segregation (sometimes called “silo-ing“) has intrinsic value: it gives the inmates of each of those gardens a community with-whom they identify, sometimes exclusively. But in a cross-disciplinary world, it also detracts from the community of communities which is my college.

This sorting into gardens happened months before any of us matriculated, when we were accepted into our schools. We did not build these walls. However, starting in our first week, we added our own bricks to the already impressive edifices with our college cheers:

College of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS):

*clap* *clap* *clapclapclap*
“We’re well rounded”
*clap* *clap* *clapclapclap*
“We’re well rounded”

College of Fine Arts (CFA):

“CFA! CFA! We look good every day!”
“CFA! CFA! We look good every day!”

Tepper School of Business (TSB):

“TSB! TSB! Someday you will work for me!”
“TSB! TSB! Someday you will work for me!”

Mellon College of Science (MCS):

“MCS! We’re the Best!
“MCS! We’re the Best”
“We know stuff that matters!”

Bachelor of Science and Arts (BSA):

“Two for one!”
“Two for one!”

Again, these cheers helped build community. But the taunts that make them spicy (“Someday you will work for me!”, “We know stuff that matters!”, “We look good everyday!”) are stereotypes which corrode our community of communities.


I want to lower the walls of our private gardens. Subject focus is part of what makes us Tartans, but there is nothing in our culture which demands that, once planted, we must not only work but think within the walls of our colleges. I believe that CMU is growing towards a culture of interdisciplinary thinking (a belief buoyed by the 7000+ hits for the word “interdisciplinary” on CMU’s site), but before we can have that culture, we need a narrative about ourselves which supports it. I want to provide that narrative, a tartan mirror, reflecting who we are as a whole, today and now.

A Tartan Mirror

For my senior+ year I would recruit a group of undergraduates who have taken Empirical Research Methods (and so know how to conduct form interviews) and who want to help reshape our community’s narrative. The group would be called Tartan Mirror.

We would conduct hundreds of interviews of CMU students, and ask them about what makes them Tartans. I know we are part of a community, but what does that mean? What are our similarities in thought patterns, aspirations, goals, that we all share? What clubs are popular? What majors? Who do we think we are?

Each day of interviews, we would post a few quotes about what it means to be a Tartan on the project blog, and also document our methods for anyone else who was interested in such a project.

This blog would be the immediate enhancement to CMU.

We would transcribe the recordings and retain the notes from this project, creating a repository of information about who Tartans are right now, in this time and in this place. This would be a resource, a time-capsule, for future scholars to draw from to find out where they came from. This is the long terms enhancement.

The medium term enhancement would be a publication of selected moments of the interviews (selected by the Tartan Mirror staff) in an anthology, similar to This I Believe, which would only be published (with names obscured) 5-years after my senior+ year, so that nearly all undergraduates interviewed would have graduated.

This proposal is very tentative. I will probably change the methods, the focus, maybe scrap the whole thing. But I think best in writing, and wanted to put it somewhere. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear. Have a great evening!

Inspirational Quote:

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” ~Albert Einstein

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