Don't Mind the Gap: Interdisciplinary Programs at RIT
by Ryan Black | published May. 8th, 2017
No one likes being put in a box. We're multi-faceted beings, with interests and curiosities that span more than what our diplomas will say after the words "Bachelor of.".
Accordingly, higher education is increasingly reflective of how interdisciplinary people's interests and professions have become; it mirrors how many fields of study have become interconnected. At RIT, at least two majors — Digital Humanities and Social Sciences as well as Motion Picture Science — have sought to take advantage of the university's unique colleges and strengths to such ends. Each of these majors explores the spaces at the intersection of the arts and sciences.
The Motion Picture Science (MPS) program is a major unique to RIT that prepares students to be technologists in the film and television industry. More specifically, MPS students study to develop the technology that permits cinema or television to be made.
"They can build systems for filmmakers to use," explained Dr. David Long, an associate professor in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences and the program chair of Motion Picture Science. "They can think of new ways to communicate the stories that the directors and writers have."
The practice of MPS, according to Long, very often takes the shape of finding the 'sane' technological means of implementing an otherwise 'insane' artistic vision. Those in MPS tend to have an aptitude for engineering, but also enjoy film as an industry, a form of art and a medium of communication.
"They are inherently stretching both directions," he pointed out. "It’s really what makes them uniquely capable to fulfill these specialized roles in the motion picture industry."
For the longest time, technologists in cinema were often traditionally trained engineers, who only apprenticed in cinema once they entered the industry. Long himself experienced this at Kodak as a chemical engineer. It was then and there that he realized there were likely to be students who wanted that knowledge out of school, so they could jump right into the film industry.
Long also contextualized MPS' place in higher education in relation to the trend of “STEAM” — science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with the arts as well.
"So we are ‘STEAM’ by definition, it’s not even a cool trendy thing, it’s what we have to do or we don’t exist.”
“We work for creative folks, artists, directors, cinematographers and screen writers; we’re the technologist permitting their vision to happen," noted Long. "So we are ‘STEAM’ by definition, it’s not even a cool trendy thing, it’s what we have to do or we don’t exist.”
One of the clearest intersections of the arts and sciences in MPS is in post-production processes like color correction and visual effects work. The visuals of a film need to convey the emotion and sensibilities of the story being told.
“It’s funny to the layperson — like to my parents — to discuss that there’s even such a role in filmmaking," said Long. "They go, ‘What do you mean? Doesn’t the camera just make it look pretty?'"
Questions and Answers
RIT is also home to one of the few undergraduate Digital Humanities and Social Science (DHSS) programs in the nation. The unique intersection of the arts and sciences in DHSS is found from using computing and new media design tools to answer questions from the humanities and social sciences. This can take form in using tech-like databases or scientific visualization to better acquire and convey data pertinent to the liberal arts.
Many avenues of DHSS also aim to examine the implications of engaging with technology to the breadth and degree that we do as human beings.
“I think there’s a lot of questions — that are shared questions — that humanities and social sciences can help tech answer.”
“I think there’s a lot of questions — that are shared questions — that humanities and social sciences can help tech answer,” said Dr. Lisa Hermsen, a professor of English and founder of the program. Dr. Tamar Carroll, an assistant professor of History and the program's director, pointed to the societal conversations happening around subjects like the sharing of private information and surveillance capitalism, as examples.
“A lot of these questions social scientists take on," said Hermsen. "But you are able to take them on in a more robust way if you actually know the technology — if you’ve had your fingers in it.” She noted that students themselves exercise such an approach with endeavors like their capstone projects.
One such student is Everett Kline, a fifth year DHSS and Multidisciplinary Studies major, whose project is "A Matter of Refuge," a modification for the open-world video game "Fallout 4."
"The idea is to simulate a refugee camp," said Carroll. "It's getting people to think critically about the ethics involved in something like the Syrian refugee crisis, but through playing it out in a game." Kline explained that he aims to use a setting disconnected, but relatable enough to our reality, like "Fallout 4'', to explore such subject matter digitally.
"It's a game that helps people explore their own understanding of empathy and help apply logic to it towards other people — more specifically refugees in a safe, constructed environment," said Kline. He aims to create an application that makes users think about the implications and difficulties of making decisions in such a context.
Why these Programs Are Unique to RIT
Long and Carroll each noted that their respective programs are largely indebted to the fact that RIT has a wide array of colleges and disciplines they can leverage. MPS happens only at RIT because there aren't other universities that can pull from both Imaging Science and Film programs.
DHSS capitalizes on the strengths of the College of Liberal Arts, Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences and the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. According to Hermsen DHSS at RIT is more interdisciplinary than other similar programs because of it; DH minors at other universities don't actually reach out to different departments. DHSS is actually the first major at RIT not overseen by a single department.
"What we wanted to do is say ‘because it’s so interdisciplinary, it doesn’t belong in a department',"
"What we wanted to do is say, ‘Because it’s so interdisciplinary, it doesn’t belong in a department,'" she recalled. "That was kind of a difficult sell. Yet, because all three colleges saw the need for this, I think that was key."
Long also attributed MPS partially to a unique spirit of cross-disciplinary collaboration at RIT, pointing to The MAGIC Center and President Destler's encouragement to look on the other side of each college's walls.
"Imaging Science is in the College of Science and we’re in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences," he pointed out. "We’re two different colleges, we 'shouldn’t' naturally talk to one another, there should be silos, but we bridge that gap."
Hermsen similarly noted that we often make the mistake of thinking RIT's colleges are silos, when they're really not. They may be distinct, but the fact that we have all these individualized colleges makes RIT almost the perfect place for multidisciplinary studies.