The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is an electrical and computer engineer’s dream school. The Electrical and Computer Engineering program at U of I boasts a student population of almost 2,000, with over 100 faculty members, and almost 20,000 living alumni. It holds the largest library of engineering materials in the country, and the largest general library of any public university in the country. Graduates and faculty of the program have produced some of the greatest achievements of the last century, including sound on film, the transistor, the integrated circuit, the theory of superconductivity, the LED, MRI, the plasma display, among many others. While the school as a whole, which stands as the flagship institution of the University of Illinois system, is excellent, what stands out the most is the exceptional engineering school which excels in almost every area.
As a student of electrical engineering, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to attend such a great university. Having completed my first semester of graduate studies at the U of I, I can now say with certainty that it is cold in Illinois. We are in the midst of winter, but we are also obviously looking forward to warmer weather because we have just begun the second semester of school, also known as the ‘spring semester’.
The start of the spring semester brings with it a special, and relatively new, experience for me. It is an experience that I have been anticipating for the past couple of months, but one that has me a little nervous. I actually kind of view it as a social experiment, through which I hope to develop a better understanding of people and the world in general. But let me begin with an observation that sets the scene for the interestingness of my spring semester experience.
University campuses can typically be divided up into ‘areas’, or ‘zones’, that correspond to the general areas of study: social sciences, physical sciences, biological sciences, medicine, law, humanities, crop sciences (if the university is located in the middle of nowhere), engineering (the coolest of them all), etc. This is, of course, not always the case, but in my experience at two large universities it has been essentially true. Allow me to illustrate.
The University of California, Irvine, where I did my undergraduate studies, is probably the most extreme example of “major segregation” that you can find. Situated in the middle of the master planned city of Irvine, the university was laid out in the shape of a wheel. If you were to visit the campus you would find at the hub of the wheel a large park, intended as a place where students can go to relax and reinvigorate themselves before another round of wonderful, enlightening classes. Then, if you were to walk in any direction outward along the spokes of the wheel you would find yourself entering one of the five main areas of study, or the administration area. This layout is clearly observable in the map of the campus, reproduced below, where each area is color coded for your convenience. (Note: I did not do the color coding, that is how it appears on the UCI website.)
In the map of UCI, purple represents the engineering area, bounded on the north by the red (the dreaded social sciences), and on the west by the yellow (the not so dreaded physical sciences). Note the clearly defined boundaries between each area of study. Although not apparent on the map, the boundary between engineering and social science is actually nothing more than a bridge that connects one area to the next. This division of territory is desirable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is convenience. If a student is focusing their study on a particular area, let’s say religion (or maybe French or liberal arts), then a majority of the classes that that student is going to take will be from the more general area of study to which they belong, in this case humanities. This being true, it is simply easier on everyone if all of the classes of a particular area of study are located in close proximity to one another. Professors that are doing research in similar areas are close to one another, students don’t have to travel far to visit those professors, everyone is happy.
In addition to the convenience factor, there is a practical reason for the separation. The individual schools/areas, which are usually relatively autonomous within the university, have responsibility for their area of the campus. They individually run the administration and upkeep of the buildings, seek out funding for their programs, and if they can manage, build new buildings (in their area) to accommodate growth. Obviously I am making some generalizations here, but please bear with me if you disagree.
To the casual observer it might appear that convenience and practicality are sufficient reasons for dividing up the campus into zones. But, to anyone who has spent some time at university it is apparent that there is another more subtle, but very real and powerful, reason for the divide. While examining the map of UCI you may have asked yourself, “Why are the dividing lines between adjacent areas so definite?” “Surely,” you might think, “there wouldn’t be that much harm in a little bit of overlap from one area to the next.” You might even be tempted to rationalize this observation by concluding, “UCI must be the exception, rather than the rule.” Well, let’s take a look at another example.
The U of I has a similar division of areas. This is most clearly illustrated by the division of engineering from humanities, and the rest of the campus for that matter. As can be seen on the map below, Green Street (marked by a red line) provides a clear, hard boundary between the two areas; engineers to the north, everyone else to the south. In fact, given the availability of most services to the north of Green Street, including the engineering library, the average not-so-daring engineer would hardly, if ever, need to cross the street. That is, unless the engineer was actually a DARING engineer, one who was looking for adventure, he would probably never need to cross the street… which takes us to the point of this article.
What is the other, hidden reason for the campus divide, and what is this special experience/experiment I am involved in?This semester marks the first time in over two years that I am crossing the boundary, as a DARING engineer, to take an English class. It is an event that is not just rare for an engineer, but is almost unheard of for a graduate student in engineering. The reason for the rarity of this event is the exact same reason for the divide between engineering and everyone else on campus. That is, people from engineering and people from the humanities do not mix. What I mean by that is that they are incompatible, they don’t work well together. You know what I’m talking about if you have ever tried putting hot sauce on your toast in the morning, it’s not good. That’s not to say that they can’t communicate with one another, they can. It’s just that it’s a painful process for both of them. It turns out that by keeping the various areas of the university separated from one another, the productivity of the whole campus is maximized. If you need proof then take a look at some of the schools that don’t maintain the division, they aren’t going anywhere.
So anyway, I am going for it. I am crossing Green Street, and entering the English building. Truth be told, I have been doing this for exactly three weeks now. What has been the result so far? Well, just as I suspected, it has been a trying, but enlightening experience. Crossing the street is analogous to entering another dimension (just like you see in the sci-fi movies, which by the way are my favorite). The first time that I entered the new dimension there were two things that struck me as unusual: first, the percentage of females around went from about 5% to what seemed like 60% or 70%, and second, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I realized after a few minutes that the slow motion effect was caused by the fact that people only walked about half as fast as those in my home dimension. Strange things were already manifesting themselves… but to my surprise, it was about to get even stranger.
As I entered the classroom for the first time, I immediately took note of the instructor’s computer. The Thinkpad that usually sat on the desk was not a Thinkpad, but a MacBook. But that wasn’t all, as class started, the instructor didn’t go to the board and start lecturing, but rather took a seat on the TABLE, and started asking us about ourselves. “Where are you from?” “What are your majors?” “What languages do you speak?” The discussion was lively and entertaining until it came to me. A hush immediately fell over the room when it became known that there was an Albanian speaking engineer in the room. The professor proceeded to ask me, “why are you taking this class?”
“Because I want to become a better writer, and I feel that having a better understanding of English grammar will be valuable in that effort,” I replied.
“That is a fallacious idea, isn’t it class? Does a person need to know how the engine of a car works, to be a good driver? No, he doesn’t. In the same way, a person can be a good writer without knowing grammar.”
While there was some truth in what he was trying to say, I didn’t respond by pointing out that I felt his analogy was inaccurate. A knowledge of grammar, whether conscious or unconscious, is a requirement for a writer. Lacking that, one could hardly expect to construct coherent sentences. A more accurate analogy would have been, “Does a driver need know how to turn the steering wheel, or push the gas and break pedals, or change gears, to be a good driver?” Yes, in fact, that is important. Anyway, this was all beside the point because the writing practice and critique was going to be the most valuable part of the class for me anyway.
The confrontation ended with my concession of inadequacy (after all, I am an engineer), and a final comment from the instructor, “well, it’s good to come south of Green Street every once in a while.”
Yes, the divide exists, and it exists for a reason. Frequently I have asked myself, is the divide artificial? In other words, is the divide self perpetuating, or are there inherent differences between carnivorous Republican engineers, and vegetarian Democrat liberal arts majors? I find time and again that I must conclude, yes, there is a difference.
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(Edit: In an effort to be more stylistically correct, and to please my brother-in-law, I added some capital letters in the second to last sentence. I expect that it is still wrong.)