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The real fate of poetry at MIT

I read with interest and dismay Emily Ruppel’s op-ed, “MIT - Poetry = Travesty.”

Interest, because as head of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, it is great to have the opportunity to bring to a wide audience MIT’s rich history and present excellence in the teaching of poetry and other forms of creative expression. Dismay, because I must do so in the context of an article that gives its readers a fundamentally mistaken view of the state of poetry at the Institute.

To those errors first: Ms. Ruppel writes that there are no classes in poetry beyond the introductory level being taught next spring; that this represents a cut in poetry offerings at MIT; and that this is happening for budget reasons.

None of these claims is true.

MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (PWHS) typically offers four classes in poetry per year, one at the introductory level and one upper-level offering in the fall, two upper-level classes in the spring. We are doing so again in this academic year (and expect to do so in the future). If you look in the PWHS catalogue for Spring 2011, you will find two upper-level poetry classes amongst the other courses the Ms. Ruppel disparages (but that many writers among her fellow students find valuable).

So, to the suggestion that MIT is cutting poetry for financial reasons, I would respond, “what cut?”

As an aside: I was troubled by the implication in this opinion piece that writing for digital media is somehow as a category less valuable than more traditional forms of expression. It seems to me that the exploration of the artistic possibilities that emerge from technological innovation cuts right to the heart of the mission for a writing program at MIT.

It is true that there is a shift in the mix of poetry courses offered in this academic year. In the recent past, PWHS has had three writers within its poetry group. This year, a fourth poet has joined our program on a two-year Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship. With four poets, each teaching one course (as opposed to prior years, where one of our group taught two), there is certainly change in the poetic offerings available to MIT students. But I would disagree with Ms. Ruppel’s implied suggestion that this is a bad thing.

Rather, this shift is a reflection of the strength of MIT’s commitment to the poetic arts and creative expression in general. MIT students may now take four courses from four different instructors. Each of those artist-teachers has a distinctive voice. They all approach to the process of writing poetry in particular ways. They all have their own poetics. The world of poetry is enormously diverse — and as the Program Head engaged in these decisions, I value very highly the ability to capture some of that diversity in our course offerings.

The importance we attach to poetry as part of the daily life of MIT is reflected in PWHS’s endowed series of writers’ talks. Of five events this fall, one was a poetry slam (cosponsored with other groups here) and the other four were readings featuring five writers, three of whom were poets.

In this context, it is important to note that MIT’s commitment to poetry is not an isolated phenomenon. The Institute has a record of support for both making and thinking about creative work in the arts that is extraordinary, and too little known.

Within PWHS, MIT students can write fiction under the direction of internationally acclaimed authors; can pursue their love of science fiction with an official Grandmaster of the form; can study playwriting and art making in new digital media; they can produce documentaries and other video genres in classes offered by at least four programs, PWHS included; and, of course, they can write poems under the guidance of wonderful poets.

At the same time, these writers can deepen their understanding of their work through the extraordinary range of classes in the Literature section in which MIT students can engage poetics and narrative and film — broadly, the history of expression in the English language — directly and deliberately complementing the work PWHS does to encourage the creation of student poetry, prose and moving images.

This kind of intense engagement in both inquiry and performance/production plays out across the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. For just one conspicuous example — it lies at the heart of what the Music and Theater Arts Program does, at level of excellence that can be seen (again, in just one of many instances) in the fact that the Boston Symphony Orchestra is now setting out on a two year project to perform all of MIT Institute Professor John Harbison’s symphonies.

And so on. These are just glimpses, a small sampling of what MIT does to ensure that its students and its community have the opportunity to study and produce exceptional creative work across the spectrum of artistic forms, practices and media. Poetry included.

And in that spirit I invite anyone interested to come and write and learn from our assemblage of wonderful poets — two of whom will be offering classes this spring, with the other two returning to the classroom next fall.

­—Thomas Levenson
Head, Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies

Steamrolling

I was frustrated by a number of statements in the “Moving MIT forward” opinion column by John M. Essigmann Ph.D. ’76, Suzanne Flynn, Steven R. Hall ’80, Dava J. Newman Ph.D. ’92, and Charles H. Stewart III, and by other recent dining developments.

The article asserted that there were opportunities to change the dining program. This seems to directly contradict the statements in other student submissions published in The Tech; the process was indeed observed but I question what concrete changes in the core features of the plan (size and scope) occurred due to feedback from students who will be harmed by the plan.

It is important to remember that neither party in this debate over student dining is unaware of the draws and the drawbacks of the proposed program. MIT students are aware of the concept of economies of scale and that running a dining program can be a great expense. I suspect most even favor the idea of an at-cost dining program (fledgling economists practicing the religion of self-interest aside). Similarly, the administration has certainly heard and comprehends student complaints. Clearly, it must understand that when half of Next House signs a statement of opposition, that it has designed a program that is profoundly unpalatable. The administration certainly also understands the effects this will have on FSILGs, dorm culture, and so forth; it may well argue that a fish a not a fish and that these harms are not real. I happily state the idea driving those positions: these harms do not matter.

Simply appeasing current students is a disservice to the future. I am glad that Dean Colombo has met with the UA to hear their concerns, but the solution of offering upperclassmen an out simply means that the program will operate on a short-term deficit before being completely institutionalized and spreading to the remaining dorms; after all, wouldn’t that make the program more successful? I urge students affected to see beyond their remaining years under the plan and look to the future. Anything short of reforming the plan is a failure.

If the administration wants to prove good faith, it should delay the implementation of the program, run a general election in the student body to select one or more students to be granted voting rights on the Committee To Redesign The Plan, and extend that role (or elections) through all phases of implementation. When those votes are soundly ignored next time around, at least there will be no ambiguity as to the administration’s respect for students, and nobody will be able to shake their heads and point at a schedule as a way of silencing debate.

I must also correct a grave error implied by the “Moving MIT Forward” article on the subject of FSILG impact. When the administration made the decision in the late 1990s to force freshmen to live on-campus starting in 2002, it did so against a fleet of objections, all ignored. While the dorm culture impact of the decision may or may not have been minor (I can’t speak to that), I can say that the FSILG financial impact was grave. In order to stay viable, FSILGs needed to step up recruitment, at a time when recruitment would be made harder by the fact that they could no longer offer housing to the bulk of applicants. This impact can very easily be quantified (in part); you can see the precipitous drop in recruitment starting in 2002 in The Tech, and multiply by eight months of rent and other dues, per active class, per year, and add to that the eight months of rent not collected by freshman, per class, to arrive at just a portion of the harm done. It is not a small number.

To be fair to the administration, it was aware of the financial impact, and offered to offset the short-term financial impact to FSILGs to help quiet debate. To be more fair, though, it was also a bait-and-switch operation, formed on a faulty premise that only the administration bought (and has since been shown to be false). You can read about in The Tech article “FSILG Assistance Has Shortfall” from 2004.

Short-term concessions mean very little, and the UA shouldn’t be selling future classes down the river by pushing for them. “It will seem normal in five years” is the mantra of a sellout.

—Tyler Hunt ’04