Twofish's Blog

March 10, 2007

Survivor’s guilt

Filed under: academia, life, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 3:29 pm

Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve talked to people about my ideas for transforming undergraduate physics education, and gotten the reaction that the system was too strong and that things basically wouldn’t change. I’ve been thinking about how to respond to that, and the irony is that those were exactly the same points that I made to Margaret MacVicar in the spring of 1991.

In the spring and fall of 1990, MacVicar and I met a few times. I was the database coordinator of the student Course Evaluation Guide, and I had written a set of database reports that gave the departments and the schools (mainly the School of Engineering) some extremely detailed breakdowns of the questions. MacVicar had become interested in those, and she talked to me about the reports she needed. I remember that she looked at what I could provide, and said that it needed to be expressed in “dean’s language” not “computer programmers language” and had some suggestions about how to organize her report. I also remember at one meeting asking what

She needed those reports because she thought that the departments were understating the actual number of hours that people were spending on science courses and overstating humanities hours. (They were.) And she needed data so that she could use the regional accreditators to force MIT to increase its humanities options. We met a few times, and I remember her asking a series of questions to see if I was interested in money, power, or glory, and when it was obvious that I was interested in glory, she talking about her ideas for a revolution. I thought she was crazy and desperate, but she was the dean, so I kept that to myself. I remember at one point asking her what she thought would happen with the new President, now that Gray was leaving and the new person hadn’t been selected. She seemed very nervous when I asked that question, and gave an answer that didn’t say anything. “Of course, I’ll serve in any role the new president requires of me” was her reply.

I was able to generate the reports that she needed, and I remember a meeting in the Undergraduate Education Office in Building 20, when she was presenting the reports to representatives of the departments. I stood there with the CEG evaluation coordinator, and the audience was quite hostile.

Nothing ever became of this. In March of 1991, I got a letter from Vice-Provost Jay Keyser. which was sent to all of the graduating seniors, asking about any thoughts about my four years at MIT, which coincidentally came in the same pile of mail as my rejection letter from the MIT physics department. Needlessly to say I wasn’t happy, and I sent him an angry, ranting e-mail which I cc’d to MacVicar. The point of the letter was that everyone at MIT had told me to focus at MIT, but I was finding that studying the humanities was putting me at a disadvantage in applying for graduate schools.

As far as MacVicar, I wrote something that made exactly the same points people were making to me. I remember saying something to the effect of “Dean MacVicar is a wonderful person with good ideas, so it is a shame that nothing she has done or is doing will amount to anything substantial because the academic system is too strong. She can try to do whatever she wants to try, but in the end, nothing will change.”

About a week later, I was talking to the UASO contact for the Course Evaluation Guide, and she mentioned that MacVicar had cancer and that it was very bad.


Jay Keyser called me into his office, but it was pretty obvious from the conversation that he was just trying to see if I was about to go crazy or not, and he didn’t seem to take any of the points that I made in the letter seriously. I never interacted with MacVicar afterwards, so I don’t know even if she read the e-mail or what she thought of it.

So I left MIT… Got a nice boring job, and looked forward to a more or less nice boring life.

Then about five years ago, I came within a hair’s breath of dying. I don’t want to talk about exactly want happened. For the purposes of discussion, you can imagine that I was involved in a near fatal car accident. That will explain things like why I’m in constant pain. It won’t explain why MIT was involved or why I make a lot of references to Batman, but something happened. I survived, and survival brings guilt.

Death is easy. Life is difficult. The dead have moved on, leaving the living to try to make sense and bring meaning to something that is senseless and has no meaning.

There is a very strong element of chance of what happens, and asking whether or not one succeeds is ultimately determined by fortune. The important question is not whether one reaches one’s goals, but whether or not by trying, one makes the world a better place than if one had done nothing and if there is any better and easier alternative in doing what one is trying to do.

I think I probably would have felt better had MacVicar said something like this to me.

Looking back, the thing that I find frustrating about the current discussions of the General Institute Requirements at MIT, is that as far as I can see, it is *EXACTLY THE SAME DISCUSSION* that the Institute had in the late 1980’s with the HASS requirements.  The arguments are exactly the same, the political dynamics are exactly the same, and outcome, a political compromise to reflect the differing powers of the departments, is likely to be the same.

There are a few important things that I think I’ve learned

1) Nothing substantive will happen if you rely on internal bureaucratic and political mechanisms to conduct the debate.  In order to get any substantive change, you have to look not at MIT as a closed system, but rather at MIT in a wider social and educational context.  Rather than ask “what is the best educational system that MIT can provide”, I think it would be better to ask the question “what sort of educational and social system do we want to provide for the world” and then ask what MIT’s place in that system should be.

2) Nothing will happen if you require consensus and agreement.  The big problem with using the General Institute Requirements as the forum for discussion of these issues is that people need to agree about things that people basically don’t and can’t agree on.  A better approach would be to look at things where people can get useful things done without having to come to any agreement on what needs to be done.  The paradigm should be to plant seeds, exchange ideas, and define the issues.

3) Power traps you.  It may seem obvious that having a position of authority makes it easier to get stuff done, but that it not necessarily the case.  The trouble with having an academic position is that it limits what you can say and think (ask Larry Summers), and it also makes it difficult to communicate with sources of power.  The thing that I think that Dean MacVicar was realizing was that she needed had lost contacts with the undergraduates, and needed this sort of political base in order to stare down the departments.

4) The “gatekeeper syndrome”.  There is a problem that MacVicar ran into that is curiously the same one that the US Department of State has run into with democracy promotion.  The main contact that the MIT administration had with the undergraduates was through the elected Undergraduate Association.  The problem is that the student leaders in the UA got a lot of their power by controlling access between the undergraduates and the administration, and were very careful about letting people bypass them.  The problem that this led to was that there were not “deep communication links” between the administration and the student body.

One final thing, which is a weak point in bureaucratic institutions….

One of the rules of bureaucracy is that people who feel strongly about a subject should be ignored.  I think this is ultimately a weakness.  Jay Keyser didn’t take anything I said seriously because I was screaming, but the fact that I was screaming meant that it was important enough to me to be thinking about it fifteen years after the fact, and it’s likely that I’ll be concerned about these sorts of issues of the rest of my life, and there is a good chance that I’ll infect someone with my ideas so that things continue after I die.  The thing is that if you spend a long time working on a topic, you start learning things, and trying different approaches.  One of the reasons that I am blogging about this is I learned that if you restrict discussion, you aren’t going to get the social resources to get anything useful done.

I don’t know what will happen, but I think something useful will come out of this.

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