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Cities, code, media

6 min read, April ‘20

For a few months, I've been using the phrase “cities, code, media @ MIT" to describe myself in Professional™ online settings. The time has come for MIT first-years to declare their majors, so I figured I would share what exactly my tagline means and some of my thoughts around this academic/social construct.

screenshot of screenshots arranged in a google slide, circa 2020

School-specific context

At MIT, you're asked to declare your major during the second semester of your first year or become an undesignated sophomore. I think the main purpose and student benefit of this is that you get assigned to a department and an advisor within it.

Later, you can change your major, add a second major, add a joint major, add a minor or two, etc. As far as I know, the feasibility of changing your major depends on how many requirements in the new major you have left and how much more time you're willing/allowed to take.

I'm glad that MIT doesn't have the concept of “getting into” a major, or restrictions like only being able to study inside one school/college (e.g. School of Architecture and Planning, College of Computing ~whatever that is~) within the university.

Where I am

My current plan is to major in 11-6 (Urban Planning with Computer Science). This is a joint major, not two separate majors. The program was created 2-3 years ago and its curriculum is—to paraphrase a senior double-majoring in 11 and 6—a hodgepodge of IoT for cities and “thinking about ethics and social issues within the context of computing.”

As part of the HASS (humanities, arts, and social sciences) requirement, all MIT students must concentrate, or complete three or four classes, in one HASS subject. I'm planning to concentrate in CMS (Comparative Media Studies), though I might minor in it. This mostly depends on whether I want to take two extra CMS classes versus other classes.

How I got here

Applying to college

When I applied to MIT in October 2018, I wrote that I was interested in studying 6-7 (Computer Science and Molecular Biology) and STS (Science, Technology and Society). These choices are very reflective of what I was interested in at the time, which in turn reflect what I had been exposed to as a high schooler.

Screenshot of my response to MIT essay question #1

When I was in middle school, I was really into linguistics (I think that's how I found out about MIT? hello, Noam Chomsky?) and learned that many people don't even hear about linguistics until college. Specific fields aside, it struck me that there were lots of things I didn't know existed simply because I wasn't exposed to them in my limited environments.

For college applications, then, my “intended major” was pretty arbitrary. I firmly expected my major to change (if it didn't, had I really discovered enough?). At the same time, I knew that intended major mattered for some applications and that it made sense to pick something I had demonstrated interest/accomplishment in. Even though I was interested in journalism, for example, I didn't have much to show for it.

The majors I applied with included: Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, Computational Biology, Biology, Data Science, and Science Technology & Society. A few times I got an acceptance letter and was like, “Wait, I applied to their engineering school?" or "What, I said I wanted to major in straight-up biology?"

Before college

After I got into MIT, I thought I wanted to major in 6-14 (Computer Science, Economics, and Data Science) (also a joint major, not a triple major) and minor in 21A (Anthropology).

I figured that people who studied economics must care about ethical and societal issues. Clearly, this was before I learned about The Finance Industry and the mind-boggling extent to which elite universities churn graduates into it! Students who study 6-14 can and do care about social issues, of course, but that's fundamentally not the priority of this academic program designed for quantitative finance.

During college

Going into my FPOP (freshman pre-orientation program), I wanted to major in CMS. During that week of doing community service with organizations in greater Boston, I talked to an FPOP counselor who was majoring in 11-6 and minoring in CMS, as well as other counselors studying course 11. Honestly, as soon as I heard about the combination of 11-6 and CMS, I knew it was what I wanted to do!

For my first semester classes, I chose two required courses (classical mechanics and introductory biology), a graduate course in Course 11, and a communication-intensive class with mostly junior and senior CMS/Writing majors. This was a fairly unusual schedule (unusual enough to be written about in the MIT Technology Review), but my goal was to see what these departments and fields were truly like, and I didn't think an intro class would accomplish that as effectively. Obviously, it's easier to do this in the social sciences/humanities—neither of the classes had pre-requisites.

(In hindsight, the two particular classes I chose and their professors weren't aligned with my interests and personality, but this didn't impact my choice of major/minor.)

During IAP, I got a UROP (undergraduate research opportunity) in the Senseable City Lab, which is in Course 11. (This was after getting rejected from some other UROPs, and I'm grateful I ended up with this one!) This spring, I'm continuing my UROP and taking another Course 11 elective and the CMS intro class. These didn't change my major/minor either, but they're helping me figure out what my interests within 11 and CMS are and identify professors I like (or don't like).

In the weeks leading up to major declaration (I didn't even know what month this was happening until, well, this month, as it's happening), I asked some upperclassmen in 11 and 11-6 questions like:

  • What are the departments like? Are the advisors helpful? Do students within the department get to know each other?
  • Why did you choose course 11? What in the field are you interested in?
  • How do you describe the combination/intersection of 11 and 6 to others?
  • What are the required course 11 classes like?
  • Does it make a big difference to do one’s senior thesis/project in 11 vs 6?

Once you're set on your major, it can be hard to come up with questions (“What is there to ask?”), but what prompted mine were:

  • There are several combinations of majors and minors whose content could fulfill my interests, so the culture of each department then becomes a differentiator. How do the departments of Urban Studies and Planning (Course 11), Political Science (Course 17), and Science Technology and Society (STS) differ?

    • Even though they all have public policy courses and researchers, for example, Course 11 has one of the largest graduate programs in its field in the world, whereas Course 17 is tiny overall. STS tends to use legal frameworks to examine issues more than the others.
  • Almost every time I say I'm majoring in Urban Planning with Computer Science, I struggle to explain what that entails and why. How do others articulate their interests? Concretely, what's possible to do at this intersection? (One of the upperclassmen I talked to is working on cybersecurity for urban infrastructure and elections!)
  • I've taken multiple courses whose content I liked in theory but in practice didn't turn out to be fantastic. Course descriptions are not enough to make optimal registration decisions. What are the required courses like? (For example, maybe a particular class fills in an important gap in my knowledge, so I should take it sooner rather than later. Maybe an elective isn't quite what I thought it was, so I should choose something else.)

'My fans chose it in an online poll' jokingly typed as my reason for selecting a major

I was going to talk about 1) my perspective on majors in general and 2) how I currently describe my career and field interests, but I think those are beyond the scope of this post. Stay tuned! haha jk... unless?

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