Putting the "Independent" Back in IAP
Although MIT's Independent Activities Period remains one of the most unique winter programs offered at any university, over the past several years IAP has shown a disturbing trend toward regular academics and away from the truly independent activities it was intended to promote. We believe that MIT's administration and faculty should take steps to make IAP more exploratory and more independent of the regular-term academic curriculum.
The faculty and administration have taken steps in this direction after they received reports from various calendar and IAP-evaluation committees. These moves have gone too far, and IAP is losing the variety that made it so valuable.
The biggest change that has come over IAP over the past several years is the increase in academic subjects that departments require that their students take over IAP. In Course II, Course VIII, and an area of Course XII, students are required to take subjects over IAP that are not offered during the regular academic term. Students in those departments have no choice but to commit January to coursework; they have little opportunity to participate in academic subjects outside of their department and will most likely not participate in many independent, non-academic offerings either.
The disappearance of Charm School is emblematic of IAP's decline. Charm School was not just a popular event that happened to capture the national media's attention. Charm School brought people from all walks of MIT together, and those who participated learned solid, practical life skills in a fun and disarming setting. Charm School epitomized what IAP should be about. If a lack of funding or staff cuts are responsible for Charm School's disappearance, then MIT should appropriate staff and resources from some other department to fill the void. Although it would be nice if students would step forward to manage the event, Charm School is important enough that the administration or faculty should continue to support it even without student leadership.
During the past year, many students and faculty members have pointed to the need for a broadening of the undergraduate education, and for an increase in faculty interaction with students outside the classroom. IAP is the perfect starting place for both. Many faculty are on campus during IAP, and most are not teaching academic classes; in other words, they have time actually to work with students and interact with them at a fun or even social level.
At the same time, IAP is the ideal time for students to branch out from their regular academic work into fields they might not otherwise have time to explore. This exploration may very well include academic subjects; students can use this period to check out subjects off the main track of their majors and may pick up a few useful credits. Students should also be encouraged to devote IAP to non-academic activities. Although the regular activities listed in the IAP Guide may serve this purpose well, so do other pursuits, such as sports, recreation, music and arts events, and participating in student activities of any nature.
IAP has helped to broaden the perspectives of a generation of MIT students. This unique period should not be robbed of the ability to provide an important and disparate supplement to the rest of MIT. The teaching of required subjects during IAP and the decline of popular events like Charm School should not be allowed to obscure IAP's potential as a way to bring faculty and students together outside the classroom and to expand students' horizons.