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Context, UA offer "MIT, in Reality" lecture series

By Jeremy Hylton

In the absence of formal Context subjects, the "MIT, in Reality" lecture series stands as the most visible arm of the Context experiment. The lectures, held every Tuesday at 4 pm in 6-120, draw a wide range of members of the MIT community, but not as many undergraduates as had been hoped, according to Peggy Andrews of the office of the dean for undergraduate education.

The series hopes to expose students to research being done at MIT and social issues related to it.

The idea for the series was developed during last spring's Undergraduate Association election. "Something a candidate for [UA president] said struck a chord in my head, and I thought it would be interesting to do a joint lecture series," explained Andrews.

Co-sponsored by the Context Support Office and the UA, work on the series began in early summer. Andrews and UA President Manish Bapna '91 developed a list of topics for the series. They worked with the related departments to arrange for the actual lectures.

"The idea was to expose undergraduates to work that is being done at MIT, but at the same time to some of the social, environmental, political issues connected with that," she said.

A "mild disappointment"

Andrews sees the low undergraduate attendance as a "mild disappointment." Faculty and graduate students comprise the majority of the audience.

More undergraduates attended Tuesday's lecture entitled "Eating, Weight Gain and Mood" by Professor Judith Wurtman of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences than other lectures. Andrews believed that the topic was of particular interest to undergraduates and that the announcement of the lecture in Introduction to Psychology (9.00) lectures boosted attendance.

Sloan School Dean Lester C. Thurow's lecture on economics and technology, however, was not well attended. "The room, surprisingly enough, was not packed, but what he had to say about his topic . . . was really first-rate," said Andrews.

Despite the low turnout, the series has been a success with the undergraduates who do attend the lectures, according to Bapna. "Undergraduates that I've spoken to that have have gone to it have loved it," he said.

Several factors have contributed to the lower-than-hoped-for-attendance, Bapna said. The postering policy enacted this fall has limited the amount of publicity that can be generated, he felt. The series also competes with the numerous other campus activities.

"One can't expect on a weekly basis for any series to be too much of a draw just from the fact that the number of events at MIT is so numerous that the actual pool of students that can come to the event is so limited," Bapna said.

Andrews also questioned how much the topics appeal to undergraduates, though the UA did conduct a straw poll to help determine topics of interest. In addition to Thurow and Wurtman, lecturers include Institute Professor of Economics Robert M. Solow and August F. Witt, professor of materials science and engineering.

"Maybe the key to the future is to relate lectures to things that strike the student personally," explained Andrews. Birth control and contraception, global warming, and animal rights are being considered as topics for next semester's series.

Students will also play a greater role in selecting topics for the series. "We'd like to incorporate that into a much more solid and concrete process for next year, with possibilities including sending out a survey to all the students," Bapna said.

When preparation for the series began, Andrews worked with department heads to recommend lecturers of interest to students.

The lectures are publicized in related classes in advance of the lecture. Bapna said he would like to see entire classes attend the lectures in the future.

Future of Context seen

in lectures, seminars

The Context experiment offered formal classes last year, but Andrews felt the future of Context rests in programs like the MIT, in Reality lecture series. The series will continue next year, and Context is hoping to offer additional lecture-style activities during Independent Activities Period. Living group seminars and an undergraduate colloquium are also under consideration for the future.

A year ago the Context Review Group concluded that lectures and seminars, rather than formal subjects, would hold broader appeal. The Context subjects had trouble attracting students because they did not satisfy degree requirements and many students were already overloaded, Andrews said.

Though the Context experiment has turned away from offering formal subjects, Andrews believed Context would continue to influence the curriculum. "It's certainly here to stay because the faculty believe students need to be exposed to it," she said.