Monday, January 21, 2013

CMU Culture

I opened up my inbox today to receive a campus-wide email inviting CMU students to discuss the "culture" of CMU in response to an article that was posted in the (undergraduate) newspaper, The Tartan.

It turned out that a student committed suicide in December which triggered this particular article and subsequent discussion on the culture of CMU.

The author felt that CMU has a culture of stress and hard times, that the heavy workload on the student has caused many to feel depressed to that point of suicide. A number of people called out in support of that, feeling that the workload is too much for one person to bear. Tepper also has adopted this culture.

I'll admit, when I first read it, I was scornful. These kids came to CMU knowing it was an academic environment, not a "party" school, and yet complain because they can't "switch off".

But it was after a second read that I realised that the article was not blasting the culture, but rather the lack of support services available for students who are overwhelmed by this paradigm shift. It made me wonder why some people would be so distressed over the workload. We have had, in my year at least, a couple of people drop out mid-program because the stress was too hard to bear.

I mentioned in a post much earlier on that I had developed a level of humility by being in this class of highly intelligent people - I had these expectations built of myself that I would follow what I did in undergraduate: be the top of the class and get straight A's in everything. The first couple of weeks showed me that that probably wasn't going to happen, since grades are assigned on a curve. It devastated me, leading me to believe that I wasn't good enough, but I was so determined to prove I was that I spent every waking moment working on this stuff. Eventually, I realised that I didn't need to prove myself in this regard and I became a lot happier. I still worked, but I didn't despair on my (supposed) lack of ability. I no longer needed to be "perfect". This mindset later became really essential in the internship recruiting season because my value was held up against other people. I took rejection as a positive thing - "there were others who were a better fit" - than as a negative - "I wasn't good enough."

Just over the weekend, I was given an article to read which outlined a woman's research into people's mindsets: some people have the mindset that ability in inborn (you're either have it or don't), and others believe that an ability can be learned. Those students who have the former mindset despair in the face of failure, because they believe it's a reflection on their lack of an ability. Those students in the latter - it's best summed up in a quote that I wrote down and posted on my wall:

 "Those with learning goals take necessary risks and don't worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn."

To me, everyone who comes to Tepper has to adopt this mindset. I know a few people who still have the fixed ability mindset, and they've managed to alienate people with some of their coping strategies (like overwhelming arrogance). A couple of others, like I said, dropped out. But you can't fail at any subject at Tepper unless you really try, and even then I think it's very very difficult, and so a large majority of us have now embraced the mantra "grades don't matter" and subsequently take classes for the joy of learning. Putting the expectation of being the top of the class will lead to the dismay and depression - and, as it turns out, CMU doesn't have very good resources available if a student does go down that path.

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