majoring in 21E: frequently asked questions by Cami M. '23
what it's like to study humanities at a stem school
Lord knows that I’ve beat this dead horse and milked this subject for all its worth, but I still gets lots and lots of questions about being a humanities major at MIT.
So I thought I’d wrap it all in a neat little blogpost in an attempt to talk about it.
What is 21E?
I am not the first blogger to major in 21E, nor will I be the last. I actually decided to switch to a 21E major because I talked to the twins, Danny and Allan, about it and they have a great blogpost on 21E here, but I’ll reiterate it anyway.
MIT offers a really cool unique thing known as joint degrees, a combined study in humanities with either science or engineering. 21S is a joint degree between science and humanities, 21E with engineering and humanities.
This means you get to choose one humanities field to concentrate in and one science/engineering field to concentrate and combine them to make one big happy major. The split between humanities and science/engineering is 60% humanities and 40% science/engineering. Typically it is about 8-10 humanities classes in your concentration and 6 science/engineering classes.
What are you doing in 21E?
Like Danny and Allan, I am a 21E major with concentrations in 6-3 (computer science) and CMS (comparative media studies).
Why did you choose to do 21E?
I spent a lot of my time going back and forth deciding whether or not I was going to fully major in computer science with a minor in CMS, or double major in CS and CMS, or do a major in CS with only a concentration (3-4 classes) in CMS.
It was rough.
I knew three things, though:
- I want to study Comparative Media Studies.
- I want a computer science degree.
- I don’t like the computer science degree requirements.
Note that #2 and #3 directly contradict each other. This will be tough.
So I agonized over my decision — should I suffer through a degree I don’t like for the sake of getting it?
I knew of 21E, but I had my worries. Would this would make me less desirable as a candidate when pursuing computer science careers? or am I thought as lesser than for not fully pursuing the computer science degree at MIT? Am I “giving up” or taking the easy way out?
It was really harrowing and difficult and I went back and forth about it In spring 2020 I declared 6-2. Summer 2020 I declared 21E. Fall 2020 I pivoted to 6-3. Summer 2021 I declared 21E again. I had talked to Danny and Allan several times about it and ultimately didn’t really decide until this past summer.
After taking the hell class that was Intro to Algorithms this past spring, I realized that taking computer science classes that didn’t interest me made me miserable. The summer after, I worked at Microsoft as an Explore intern where I did software engineering and PM work, realized I wanted to do PM work, got a return offer, and realized I was a kick-ass tech employee even if I did horribly in my computer science classes at MIT.
Now knowing I was, in fact, employable and going to be okay, I decided I didn’t need to suffer through 12 more classes of computer science jargon and decided to just make the leap.
This is because when I write my major on my resumé (and how I write it on my resumé), I write it as such: Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and Comparative Media Studies.
While I personally don’t consider it deceptive, a lot of people just assume I’m double majoring rather than doing a joint program, which I’m fine with.
But I found that 21E hasn’t actually damaged my job prospects whatsoever. In fact, I’ve been happily employed every summer at MIT with great prospects and opportunities and a steady income.
What are your thoughts on 21E?
I noticed a complete change in my quality of life once I declared 21E. This semester I’ve been really, really happy. I’ve been taking Games and Culture, Intro to Videogame Culture, Spanish IV, and Artificial Intelligence.
My semester so far has been a mix of passionately talking about games and their place in media studies, playing videogames and thinking about them critically, reading books and poetry in Spanish, and learning how to code intelligent systems.
It has been incredibly rewarding and I’ve just found myself so immersed and interested in my classes, actually motivated to do my readings and participate in class as opposed to mindlessly sitting through content I don’t care about.
I get these random pangs of nervousness or insecurity about the major, though. Sometimes when my friends are telling me about their homework like having to code something up or do a pset or do a lab, I tell them I have to play videogames for a couple hours, read a book, and go to bed. I then ask myself: Am I pushing myself hard enough? Am I not doing enough at MIT because I’m not suffering?
And then I stepped back and laughed because I realized that MIT had broken my brain so badly that I had started to conflate suffering and pain with learning, as if crying every day in my classes were some kind of badge or proof of me being an MIT student.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be happy while learning something, and 21E has helped me remember that. I sit in my classes eager to go every day, to hear all the tidbits of wisdom my classmates and professors have to offer.
I’m honestly the happiest I’ve ever been as a 21E major and I’m so glad I finally made the leap.
What have been your favorite humanities classes so far?
CMS.621 – Fans and Fan Culture was an excellently taught class by Ed Schiappa and it helped me evaluate the reasons why we become fans of things and the role of media in our day to day lives.
CMS.616 – Games and Culture (blogpost pending) is a class on the role of video games in media studies, how the subject has evolved over time, and its place in our day to day world. We learned a lot of really interesting topics like the nuance of rules, the importance of a games platform, and what defines a game. This class has altered my perspective on a lot of the video games I’ve played and helped me think a lot more critically about the games space.
What’s the average class size?
For my CMS classes they’re about 15-30 people large. For my language classes, it’s around 10-15. Popular HASSes like Intro Psychology are much larger though, like around 100 people.
What’s the workload like?
Frankly I think the work is as much as you want to put in, depending on the class. There are very few CMS classes that absolutely require hours upon hours of work; most of the time it’s just what you are willing to dedicate. But simultaneously I think how much effort you put in determines how much you get out of the class, as well.
For my games classes I’m taking right now, I probably spend about 2-3 hours on them a week outside of class for reading articles and things. But for weeks when we have papers due, that hour number increases to maybe 5-7 hours a week.
How would you rate the quality of hum classes/UROPs/opportunities to STEM at MIT?
I think humanities classes here are actually doable. I was having a conversation with Aidan C. ’23 the other day and we talked about how the amount of effort and time you dedicate in a class often times does not denote your success in the class. I put in 20+ hours a week to my algorithms class and got a C- whereas my friend spent maybe 5-7 hours on it and got an A.
With humanities classes, it’s a lot more effort based, as I mentioned in the previous question.
Whether you like that or not is really dependent on your preference, but I really enjoy that participatory and effortful nature of a humanities class and I find them very rewarding.
I also think there are more “introductory” humanities classes that are well taught over STEM classes. The intro STEM classes here are pretty intense and fast-paced, whereas the intro humanities classes here are a lot more forgiving. Some people may think they’re a bit too forgiving and don’t offer good constructive feedback, but you can always take more advanced classes either at MIT or Harvard if you really want that stronger criticism.
I think there’s a lot of really cool opportunities in humanities at MIT. We have a cross registration program with Harvard which already makes us pretty powerful. There’s scholar programs like The Burchard Scholars Program to support students in School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
In fact you can see a whole list of scholarship programs here. My friend is an Emerson scholar, meaning she receives merit-based scholarships for private lessons for flute. There’s lots of really cool things you can do.
Are the humanities classes at MIT more focused with a tech/sciencey view?
I think this really depends! Because we are MIT we do have a lot of interdisciplinary classes, so we have a literature class called Darwin and Design which looks at design features and evaluates Darwin’s influence on it, or we have science communication classes. We also have writing classes about climate change and things like that, or how to write and design science fiction novels.
But simultaneously we also have pure humanities classes like Fans and Fan Culture and Reading Poetry and Critical Worldbuilding and others. There are definitely some technically minded people in these humanities classes, but I don’t think all classes are necessarily super tech-aligned? It really depends.
- In spring 2020 I declared 6-2. Summer 2020 I declared 21E. Fall 2020 I pivoted to 6-3. Summer 2021 I declared 21E again. back to text ↑
- Intro to Algorithms back to text ↑
- Intro Psychology back to text ↑
- School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences back to text ↑