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Freshmen learning together

A freshman aimed a fluorescent-green water pistol at me out the window as I walked up the path to pika for Freshman Book Night. My attempt to negotiate the entranceway was further interrupted as a couple of dogs attempted to eat me; luckily, they found my jacket indigestible.

Instead, I got to eat dinner -- spirited up by pikan freshmen Riff and Noah -- and an enjoyable affair it was too, with a choice of several brightly-colored and tempting spaghetti sauces, ranging from an adventurous "high-garlic," to safer, blander, "All-American" varieties. The homemade pecan pie afterwards -- eaten perched on the living room bathtub while playing with a rubber snake who happens to live there -- was a winner too: You won't find anything like that in Lobdell, or in many of Boston's better restaurants either.

Oh, by the way, you'll often find assorted toys -- stuffed or otherwise -- scattered around pika. If you too feel an urgent need to retreat to childhood (say, for example, that your thesis supervisor wants you to rewrite several hundred pages of thesis and you have a desperate need to escape), here's a place where you need feel no inhibitions.

But I digress. This was serious business: one of the first freshman academic exercises of the year, a discussion of the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, assigned to be read over the summer. It had initially seemed not quite serious as I sat through the Kresge Auditorium presentation unaccompanied by the pika discussion group the Rev. Scott Paradise and I were to join: The pika upperclassmen had taken the freshmen swimming in Walden Pond, instead.

This didn't turn out to be such a bad deal for them, however. Some of the Kresge presentations were good (Jeremy Wolfe's was wonderful but, hey, we'd better not give him tenure before too many students realize just what commitment, caring and high-quality teaching mean and demand the same from other faculty), but the Kresge show went on much too long and the freshmen got shifty, their attention wandering as the voices from the stage droned on.

The best part consisted of questions from the freshmen -- a sharp bunch -- and they were cut off too quickly. Perhaps shorter official presentations, with more time for grilling -- or possibly roasting -- by the freshmen would have been better. But, perhaps that's what the presenters feared. . . .

As is often the case, the formal part of the day in Kresge was not the highlight. The after-dinner discussions -- similar in format to those following Institute Colloquia -- provided an early opportunity for the freshmen to mix and learn with others from around the campus, and were far more important.

Given the artificial compartmentalization which keeps people working in separate bubbles at MIT apart from each other for almost all of the time, this kind of activity is invaluable on a number of levels. Not only do members of the living groups get to meet their guests, but the guests get to know each other. I doubt I would otherwise have encountered the other visitor and that was worthwhile in itself.

The freshmen had read the book, and participated in two hours of vigorous discussion.

They showed a willingness to confront complexity and attempt to fathom it, talking about all manner of issues, ranging from the design of things to the design of lives. We talked about how phenomena are represented and understood. Questions of responsibility to consumers, to society as a whole, and to each other, also loomed large.

There was an extensive exchange on whether technical skills should be taught together or separately from related design and ethical considerations at MIT. While there was disagreement on this matter, people listened to each other and showed a willingness to change their minds. That all too rarely happens in much more senior academic circles. The enthusiasm and open-mindedness was refreshing. So too was the friendliness and hospitality the visitors were shown. Let's hope MIT provides this resilient freshman class with many more opportunities to think through the really tough issues and exchange views with others on campus as well.

With perfect timing, Bertie bounded over to offer a cup of potent tea, wiring me up to return through the night to basement office and thesis; I'm wondering when MIT will come up with the idea of supplying all graduate student desks with caffeine IV drips, so they can forbid us from leaving our offices at any time at all.

As it was, a Sunday a week ago, I had ventured up to the Student Center coffee house for late-night coffee. It had been an evening of staring at the computer screen and hurling paragraphs in all directions in the hope that they would rearrange themselves less nonsensically. I'd just looked back at the original under revision, and noted I'd managed to delete the few paragraphs my thesis supervisor actually liked. So it was time for coffee.

The coffee found its way -- as usual -- to the offices of The Tech, where an unusually large crowd was assembled, to go on the "Orange Tour" due to start at midnight I quickly learned.

Orange Tours -- to those who don't know -- take the curious to various interesting places where they shouldn't be. This tour -- run for and mainly patronized by freshmen -- met on a dorm rooftop, where a lecture on how to avoid getting your face burned to a crisp in one particularly heated situation we would encounter and how to avoid arrest also included a section on the ethics of hacking: Nothing was to be damaged, we were told.

We were then split into sections and left. Our guide's name was Jack and she took a commanding lead, marching forward like a proud mother goose, her froshlings waddling devotedly behind her. At each port of call, whether in a dark hole underground or on a precarious ledge high above ground, Jack rattled off a series of facts and statistics with all the suave of a seasoned Gray Line host.

An hour later about 40 freshmen (and yours truly) found themselves cramped in a concrete box reached by a rickety narrow ladder, somewhere in the bowels of MIT. The frosh parents, sleeping sweetly in places like the Marriott Hotel only a few hundred yards away, would have had 20 fits if they had known where their children were. That, of course, was a large part of the idea. My thesis supervisor, on the other hand, wouldn't have been in the least bit surprised to know where I was. He knows me.

A police alert had come across the guide's walkie-talkie. The tour leaders have a sophisticated system of communication set up, and if their surveillance of the Campus Police were matched by the police's tracking of criminals, there'd be no more crime on this campus.

We were put on hold for half an hour, emerging into the open only when the all-clear was given.

A series of rooftops followed next. At various places the fines for trespassing were posted: It seems as if the higher the fine, the greater the attraction to illicit visitors. Most exciting was a 2 am crab-walk up a surface described by the function:

x2 + y2 + z2 = k,

where k >0 and z >0.

The views from the various vantage points were spectacular. There was a full moon and the Institute -- reduced from on high to a series of matchboxes -- and the lights of Boston boldly set in the darkness, took on a radiant beauty. "This is cool," exclaimed one freshman as a summit was reached. "This is cool" said another, and then there was silence, the group lost in the awe of it all. This was a religious meditation, and quite transcended the mere act of hacking.

Back at the dorm, the leaders engaged in story telling, repeating the role of ancient tribal elders, passing on the oral traditions to the next generation. The freshmen, gathered around on the lawn, listened attentively, soaking up the culture of which they will now be a part. Whether at booknight or on rooftops, this bunch has a feeling of wonder as well as of curiosity and tradition. Let's hope they have lots more fun, as well as learning.

who

Jonathan Richmond, a graduate student in the Department of Civil Engineering, is a contributing editor of The Tech.

The tour leaders have a sophisticated system of communication set up, and if their surveillance of the Campus Police were matched by the police's tracking of criminals, there'd be no more crime on this campus.

As is often the case, the formal part of the day in Kresge was not the highlight. The after-dinner discussions -- similar in format to those following Institute Colloquia -- provided an early opportunity for the freshmen to mix and learn with others from around the campus, and were far more important.