Being a Historian at MIT

SPRING 2017
Alison
L.
Science, Technology, and Society

I’m a graduate student at MIT, but my experience here is not the norm. I state that with confidence because I… am a historian.

As of writing this post, I’m a fourth-year doctoral candidate in an interdisciplinary PhD program shared among the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology & Society departments—HASTS for short.

There are only about 30 of us in the program. We make up less than one-half of one percent of a graduate student body that hovers around 7,000 individuals. For reference, about five percent of these 7,000 grad students are based in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences—SHASS. (Are you tired of the acronyms yet? Too bad. MIT loves a good acronym.)

It’s precisely because we represent so little of the graduate student body that I wanted to explain why I chose MIT and tell you about my experience here.

You might think I was drawn to MIT, despite my humanistic professional ambitions, because I had an affinity for science or technology. You’d be mistaken.

I was 17 the last time I took a math or science class. I attended an undergraduate university with an open curriculum. So I took classes in Latin and Ancient Greek to fulfill a Classics major and complemented this program with electives in Comp Lit, American Civilization, and Religious Studies.

Compared to MIT undergrads, whose course requirements ensure they take classes across the disciplinary spectrum, my intellectual range is embarrassingly limited. I only discovered MIT’s HASTS program because I was following the trail of a professor who’d written a book that changed my intellectual trajectory.

I still remember that initial sense of confusion when I landed on her faculty profile page and saw the cardinal and gray MIT banner. Happily, the interdisciplinary program where she taught fit my research interests perfectly.

I interviewed on campus in March 2013 the day after a Nor’easter dumped two feet of snow on the city. Blizzard conditions precluded me from actually seeing the campus; nonetheless, I’d already warmed to the idea of doing graduate work at MIT.

The graduate students had such varied projects underway, ranging from an anthropological study of Brazilian bioenergy to a history of encounters between humans and sharks. I was inspired by the diversity of scholarship allowed within a single program and decided to enroll.

If anyone is wondering about my own research program, I’m happy to report that my committee signed off on a dissertation about the social and political utility of dinosaurs in the modern United States. Yup, they’re letting me write about dinosaurs.

Among the student body we humanists are sometimes treated like unicorns, by which I mean the mythical creatures, not the highly valued start-ups. I remember introducing myself to an engineer at a social event meant to bring together grad students from across the Institute. He reacted with surprise and maybe even delight, exclaiming: “You do exist!” Yes, we exist.

And though there are not many of us, being a humanites scholar at MIT is not a lonely experience. (Though, for the record, writing a dissertation is a lonely endeavor wherever you do it.)

By the numbers, it’s actually an ideal place to study. In my program, for example, the faculty members outnumber the graduate students. Plus, there are some ways for us to integrate into the more stereotypical MIT world. We get to know the undergrads by working as TAs for their required communication-intensive humanities classes. Many of my colleagues conduct their anthropological fieldwork in MIT labs.

And there are opportunities to combine the scientific and humanistic perspectives—currently I’m helping my advisor revise a traditional history course to be team taught by faculty in the History and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Departments.

Sometimes, though, it does feel like the Institute has forgotten us. Mens et manus, MIT’s cherished motto that so wonderfully captures the intellectual and physical labor of those folks who do bench work or spend long hours building in the machine shop doesn’t quite describe the humanist’s academic experience.

Sure, sometimes collecting library books amounts to cardio, but that’s not the sort of embodied labor that the motto (which is emblazoned just about everywhere on campus) is proclaiming. This sense of isolation is enhanced by the fact that our department sits at the literal fringes of MIT.

The integration of HASTS into the rest of the Institute would occur much more naturally if we were in the closer quarters. Plus, disciplinary cross-pollination would be an added benefit of this arrangement. (Though I know this sort of academic utopia doesn’t really exist.)

My complaints about isolation are so very minor and, likely, rooted in the impostor syndrome that almost every one of us at MIT bears. Still, my experience at MIT is not representative. Then again, when I reflect on MIT as a place that eschews norms in favor of experimentation and innovation, it seems that training in an atypical discipline here at the Institute is (for someone lacking skill in scientific or technological spheres) entirely the “MIT” thing to do.