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Merritt Reflects on a Decade in Dean's Office

By Anders Hove
Executive Editor

If you had asked him a couple years ago when he would leave the dean's office, Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Travis R. Merritt would have told you, "when they have to carry me outta here." As it turns out, Merritt, who will retire this fall at age 62, will be leaving on foot.

While he will soon plant his feet elsewhere, Merritt has no plans to leave MIT for good. "I'm leaving the dean's office in the sense that I'll be officially retired from the Institute," Merritt said. "I'll keep my hand in and keep up and active with the dean's office as sort of an unpaid consultant, sticking my nose in where people will let me, or invite me."

Merritt changed his retirement plans for a number of reasons, including MIT's new early retirement plan. But the change was largely motivated by Merritt's desire for what he calls "a more full life."

"I'll spend more time with my family, with my four daughters who live in the Northeast, and my grandchildren. I'm looking forward to doing more of that. I also hope to do more scholarly and creative writing," Merritt said.

During his 10 years in UAA, Merritt has put off most travel plans, including an oft-proposed trip to the Greek islands. He has also missed a favorite hobby: creating leaded stained glass. "If I can get an apartment with room, I will take that up again now that I'll have time. I always told myself I didn't have time before."

Being dean changed vantage point

Merritt left the Department of Humanities in the mid-1980s to assist the dean's office with the new freshman advisory program. Because of his prior administrative experience, Merritt said he understood "that a lot of what deans do is go to meetings." Nevertheless, the change involved more than just a different title.

"I didn't know what it would be like to view an MIT education from the center of things," he said. "MIT is the most decentralized education in the universe. Sitting over in Building 14, we thought we were it.' We were running our own little college. From the perspective of Building 7, it's possible to get a more complete picture of what an MIT education is and can become."

In spite of the broader view, the focus of the first half of Merritt's dean's office work had more to do with operations. He helped run the freshman advisory seminar program, administer the Independent Activities Period, and coordinate Residence and Orientation Week.

R/O was perhaps the most draining. "R/O took incredible energy - partly working with students and partly hold yourself back so you don't run roughshod over students and impose your will on them," Merritt said.

Teaching is his biggest concern

Undergraduate teaching is Merritt's passion. His work at the dean's office gradually shifted during his tenure to efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching.

In seeking this end, Merritt has worked with the faculty on redesigning the freshman program and trying to reward good teaching. Merritt believes one of the biggest remaining problems has to do with the lecture format of teaching.

"A lot of teachers and students don't know how to learn collaboratively. [Many times] it means passing knowledge through a tube to the students. That's hard to beat because there's a real foundation in fact for treating education that way. One of the things that MIT's founder William Barton Rogers talked about was this teaching device called a lecture. Now they've become dominant."

While there remains much to improve about undergraduate education from the standpoint of administration and faculty, Merritt feels there is room for progress among students as well. "Students don't fight back," Merritt said."They're conditioned to think the faculty are gods and that they're too busy to talk to undergraduates."

Merritt has been at the forefront of several efforts to improve both the quality of teaching and the format of classes. Merritt helped found Concourse, an alternative freshman-year program, as well as the Freshman Advisory Program. In spite of these changes, Merritt is not satisfied with the freshman experience.

"I'd like to see something done to shake MIT students out of their intellectual passivity, especially during freshman year.," Merritt said. "There's not enough to write home about. The recitations are not small enough; it's exposition. There's not enough feeling among undergraduates that they have a stake in their education."

Merritt has floated several ideas for correcting these problems, including a "college" of MIT, improved incentives for teaching, and the "very small group movement," a proposal for shrinking class size on the model of tutorials in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Teaching was one of Merritt's biggest concerns when he left the literature section of the humanities department for the dean's office. "I have pangs of regret and misgivings" about leaving" literature, Merritt said. "But I'm not going to be banished from the Institute in terms of teaching on a volunteer basis."

Nostalgia for the humanities core

One of the major difficulties with the humanities program has been the low level of difficulty, Merritt said. Aside from a few papers, he finds, most classes in the field amount to little more than glorified bull sessions. Merritt attributes this to the belief among humanities faculty that the rest of MIT is already intense enough for students. Humanities faculty do not provide the sense of their subject as a systematic field of study, he believes.

"The people who teach humanities, arts, and social sciences subjects have not understood that when you're playing in a hardball league, you have to play hardball," Merritt said. "They play minister or angel of mercy, so [their subjects] are like a cultural side dish, a respite."

Merritt regrets the disappearance of the humanities core, a system of basic subjects taken by freshmen. The system gave freshmen an idea of the humanities as a systematic, organized discipline, like physics.

"Like the Nile, it had a main course to it. That began to fall apart - just as the Nile goes into a delta - back in the 1960s. There's no sense of what MIT believes an educated person ought to know."

Academic R/O shaped by tenure

Given his concern with education, it's no surprise that Merritt has also been an advocate of increasing the importance of academic R/O. Merritt helped develop many of the orientation programs that have become symbols of R/O Week. One program, Project Move Off Your Assumptions, or MOYA, was named for Merritt's colleague Moya L. Verzhbinsky.

"She calls in from time to time to see if we still do it," said Merritt. "The question for me is whether what we're doing is really exciting and carries novelty, and I don't think we really have an answer. So we enliven it with running the marathon and Tech Trek. It needs to be more like dance. There's not enough excitement.

Widely known for Charm School

Merritt is perhaps best known on campus for founding Charm School, a day-long program held during IAP. The activity actually grew out of a since-disappeared R/O program on sexual issues, "How to Give a Woman an Orgasm."

"The idea was to release some of that awareness building from its R/O confines," Merritt said. "The thing for me is to get students engaged in things that are good for them."

The popularity of Charm School has led to heavy local and national news coverage, as well as requests from other schools for information on the program. Merritt, however, is more concerned with the health of the program at MIT.

"There should also be a sustained student infrastructure. We need a student organization that will sustain it and keep the faculty involved," Merritt said.