Campus Life class spotlight

What is culture (at MIT)?

A peek into MIT HASS classes through a sample essay written for an anthropology class

The following was written as a response to the assignment “What is culture?” from 21A.504 (Cultures of Computing). My friend is taking the class, and I thought the prompt was so interestingly broad. As an alumnus with too much free time, I decided to examine MIT and some of its cultures in this short essay.

The word “culture,” combined with a classroom setting, often brings to mind abstract concepts of material and immaterial symbols, the development of societies, and the field of linguistics. While all of the above has been integral to the development of understanding our history and our civilizations, “culture” for me ties to the culture clash of growing up as an Americanized child of a Chinese immigrant. From the food, language, and holidays to the superstitions, expectations, and biases, I’ve spent my whole life observing differences between Eastern and Western culture. In the present day, “culture” is used in many diverging contexts and on varying scales. Narrowing the focus to only MIT’s campus, “cultures” can be used to group similar individuals together or define a work or living environment. 

At MIT, nearly everyone is peripherally connected to Course 6. My introductory fun fact is usually that I never even took 6.0001, when nearly everyone I know has, regardless of their course. With the reputation of the department’s research, faculty, and alumni, why wouldn’t anyone jump at the chance to study computer science here? Course 6 culture is most strongly associated with “selling out”: prioritizing financial gain over pursuing a career driven by passion. This assumption blurs the nuances of each student’s financial and cultural situation, as most generalizations do. Other components of Course 6 culture include coming to terms with 42 points being the A cutoff, selling your soul to HackMIT, and spending hours debugging a lab or LeetCoding. This definition of culture combines the current suffering of Course 6 students with their expected future success and is very similar to the more general “tech bro” culture. 

Outside of academics, one cornerstone of the MIT experience is the UROP experience. Having been in a lab that integrated many new graduate students and postdocs over the past few years, I heard a lot of questions and discussions about “lab culture.” I was lucky to be in a lab where it held a positive connotation: we congregated (pre-pandemic) for fun activities outside of the lab, our PI was a great leader and friend, and they even let me make a meme channel in the lab Slack. I’ve also heard about lab cultures that aren’t so rosy, which featured immense pressure to produce results, absent PIs, and cutthroat rather than collaborative lab members. In this case, the culture is less of a set definition of what the lab is and more of a general impression of how it feels to be part of that community. It’s difficult to describe and needs to be experienced firsthand.

Finally, dorms are one of the first places where we as students join a community and often play a large part in our experience of MIT in general. Each dorm is fiercely proud of its culture, down to each individual hall, wing, floor, or house. I’ll always tell people New House and Desmond are the best dorm and house to pick. Dorm culture mostly revolves around how close people are in a living group, whether the lounge boasts quiet studying, clamorous shouts over Smash, or group excursions into Boston. With the renovation of Burton-Conner and the opening of New Vassar — especially after a pandemic that prevented us from cultivating relationships with the underclassmen — anxiety over the death of certain dorm cultures is at an all-time high. In general, though, there isn’t any evaluation of “good” or “bad” dorm cultures, only whether a person fits with the culture of the dorm. 

We see many threads between these three uses of “culture,” like common behaviors, mindsets, and experiences. However, these traits have sometimes been used to quickly stereotype those who belong or may appear to belong to a certain group of people. It seems to be another reiteration of our human tendency to categorize what we see in the world, for better or for worse.

This article is part of the column Class Spotlight, which will discuss or recommend interesting, yet not popularly known, classes at MIT. Students or professors who hope to submit further entries or classes for consideration to this column may email