of Ninja

“I had a psychology professor call me one day and ask me if we were a cult,” says Calhoun. “He said, ‘I have a bunch of your students, and they all sit together, and when I ask a question, they all raise their hands together, and it’s really freaky.’”

She laughs delightedly. “And I said, ‘It is a little creepy, you’re right. But for many of them, it’s the first time that they’ve ever met other people who could care about the stuff they care about.’”

Neil Chatterjee says that as soon as he decided to transfer into the program, he started running into people who felt the same way he did about offbeat aesthetic and technical matters: “How much they hated Arial [the font], that kind of thing. Really dorky discussions. It takes a sort of extreme nerd to test such thoughts.”

“DMD students are always a little bit weird,” says Nathan Schreiber EAS’02 C’02, who also majored in economics and whose sometimes-hilarious Terrell Quimby comic strip won the College Media Advisor’s award for best comic of the year. “It’s a pretty tight community. The curriculum is a little bit overwhelming. You’re just all over the place. But you can usually look around and see someone with a crazy haircut, and you know they’re in DMD.”

No more than 20 new students are admitted each year; this past year there were just 73 in the whole program. Competition is extreme, and Calhoun is adamant about not taking students who won’t be able to handle failure—because in DMD, some failure is almost inevitable.

“I call it the Fragile Ego Major,” says Calhoun. “Because no matter how good you are at one of these, you’re going to be really bad at one aspect of it. Most people are not equally left-brain and right-brain. And you have to confront that.

“One of the challenges with DMD over the past five years is finding the right students,” she adds. “There probably won’t be, at any given time, more than 300 kids in the country who want to do this. And there probably won’t be more than 50 or 60 who are capable. It’s asking for very strange skills that most people don’t have.”

“We make sure our students are well-grounded in computer science,” says Badler. “If anything, that’s the part students have done the most grousing about. I firmly believe that’s the ‘It’s good for you’ stuff.

“Most of our students are very talented artistically,” he adds. “That comes naturally to them. Math comes harder—and working harder on that is healthy. But I think we have a good mix of courses.” Badler also believes in pairing his undergraduate DMD students with Ph.D. students. “There are mutual benefits,” he explains. “The Ph.D. student gets an effective pair of hands to work with, and the undergraduate gets a research project where the problems are not known. Selfishly, it helps our research enterprise; less selfishly, it gives undergraduate students a sense of what it’s like to be an engineer.”

Some of the more engineering-oriented students struggle far more with fine-arts courses than with computer science. “Art classes really kicked my butt,” says Kevin Martin. “But in the same breath, they were the most interesting and fulfilling.”

Julie Schneider notes that she gets “two distinctive kinds of students” in her fine-arts courses. “One is code-writers, computer geeks. Then we get artists, who are right-brained, who love anything that involves creating on a computer. They do code-writing because they have to, but their first passion is how it looks.” She admits that she is “still waiting for a good story-writer to come along.”

Calhoun agrees—up to a point. “The one thing we’re not focusing on right now in our curriculum is, ‘Is the story any good?’” And yet, she adds: “Most of the kids who have been in the program have always had this internal audience in their brain, and everything they do, they’re playing to that internal audience. It’s probably a sign of psychosis! They’re constantly analyzing for content and how people will react to something. So when they first get in communication classes, it seems so self-evident to them—they just can’t believe that anybody is sitting down and discussing why some people cry and some people laugh at Titanic.”

The communications component of DMD is “devoted to answering the question: How do people react to media—and why?” explains Paul Messaris. Under-standing those reactions, he says, “makes our students better creators of media.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

FEATURE: The Cult of DMD
By Samuel Hughes