Humanities graduate expansion afforts falter
By Raymie Stata
Although there has long been discussion about graduate programs in the humanities at MIT, efforts to build such programs are moving slowly.
The History and Social Study of Science and Technology program, a doctoral program in its third year of operation, continues to grow nicely, but ideas for other graduate programs have not been proposed, according to Ann F. Friedlaender PhD '64, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences
However, Associate Dean Phillip S. Khoury said that he is "excited" because he thinks that the possibility of graduate programs is just becoming real to the humanities faculty.
The HSSST program is jointly offered by the faculties of the Anthropology/Archaeology and History Sections and the Program in Science, Technology and Society. Students in HSSST study the reciprocal influence of social forces and technological developments. The program currently has nine PhD candidates and should expand to 18 or 20 in the steady state, said Professor Merritt Roe Smith, director of the program. According to Smith, the program is gaining world-wide recognition for excellence in its field of study.
Despite the growing success of this program, no proposals for graduate programs in other areas of the humanities have been made. Last spring the Writing Program and Literature Section faculties went on a retreat to, among other things, generate ideas for graduate programs. Professor David M. Halperin, director of the Literature Section, said the general consensus during the retreat was that graduate programs in areas of the humanities not directly related to science or technology would "neither be feasible nor desirable," and that other approaches to advanced research should be pursued.
Friedlaender disagreed with this attitude. She pointed out that both the MIT administration and the visiting committee of the Department of Humanities support the development of graduate programs, and that her office has strongly encouraged it. Right now, she said, the real constraint on graduate programs is faculty initiative. "Graduate programs are definitely feasible, but it's up to the faculty to decide if they're desirable."
According to Halperin, instead of considering a graduate program immediately, the literature, writing, and foreign languages and literatures faculties have been discussing the possibility of creating a center for advanced study of cultural issues. Such a center could serve many of the functions of graduate programs by bringing visiting graduate students and scholars to MIT and by creating a place for advanced research and instruction. Such a center would also be a good stepping stone towards a degree granting program, he said.
Halperin said that even without a graduate program there are opportunities for faculty to get involved with graduate students. For example, organizing a conference on lesbian and gay studies this year has given him a chance to work with and advise graduate students, Halperin noted. "In many ways," he said, "I get the good parts of having with grad students without the bad parts."
Nonetheless, Friedlaender and Khoury continue to speak vociferously in favor of more graduate humanities programs, and expect these programs to materialize sooner or latter. "It's not healthy to have a little liberal arts conclave in this giant research institution," said Friedlaender. If MIT is serious about broadening the education of its engineers, she said, then it has to have a humanities faculty that is treated as equals to the rest of the faculty, which won't happen if they are relegated to "service" teaching.
Khoury agreed: "If we're going to continue to attract and keep the very best humanists, then we need to give them an opportunity to teach students in their own field."
Professor Jean E. Jackson, head of the Anthropology/Archaeology Section, argues for graduate programs from another perspective. There is a wealth of fantastic scholars at MIT, she said, and the opportunity exists for a fantastic educational experience.
George M. O'Har, a graduate student in the History and Social Studies of Science and Technology program, agreed. "The faculty here is stellar," he said. "Most schools are lucky to have a Jill Conway; MIT has a Conway, a [Kenneth] Kenniston, a Smith. The quality of the faculty was one of my main reasons for choosing MIT."
Khoury said that there is widespread misunderstanding of what the Department of Humanities wants for graduate programs. "We don't want to be another Harvard or Yale in history or literature," he said, "we are after limited but excellent graduate programs that would serve to distinguish MIT." Khoury said that programs like the HSSST program which relate directly to MIT's traditional strengths is one way to create distinguished programs, but he would also like to see programs, perhaps in music and literature, which do not directly relate to science.