MIT Reports to the President 1999–2000


The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies offers MIT students the opportunity to study the techniques, forms, and traditions of contemporary writing, including basic expository prose, the essay, fiction and poetry, journalism, professional communication, oral communication, and writing for electronic media. Program members include artists, journalists, and scholars who write fiction and poetry, write informatively about science and technology, and publish research in a variety of traditional and interdisciplinary humanistic fields. The Faculty includes joint appointments in History, History of Science and Technology, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering. Program members work in three different contexts: in the core academic curriculum, made up of HASS distribution subjects and electives; in outreach programs throughout the Institute in writing-across-the-curriculum; and in the Writing and Communication Center. Program subjects during the past year enrolled 1318 students (up from 1281 the previous year), of which 12 were majors, 33 were minors, and 109 were concentrators in writing for the HASS requirement. In addition to our standard subject offerings, our writing-across-the curriculum programs brought writing instruction to more than 1500 students in departments throughout the Schools of Science, Engineering and Architecture. Finally, our Writing and Communication Center posted a total of 706 undergraduate and graduate students (up from 612 the previous year) making 2,565 visits for help on reports, papers, oral presentations, and thesis projects.


Professor Alan Lightman’s new novel, The Diagnosis, is due out in the fall of 2000 with Pantheon Press. In addition, he completed a guest editorship of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Essays, 2000 and a new edition of his Great Ideas in Physics (McGraw Hill). Professor Anita Desai’s Fasting and Feasting which appeared in June, 1999, in England (Chatto) and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was published in the US by Houghton Mifflin. Her collection of short stories, Diamond Dust and Other Stories, which is dedicated to her MIT fiction-writing students, was also published this year by Houghton Mifflin. Assistant Professor Helen Lee’s novel, Water Marked, was published by Scribner in July, 1999, and she is currently working on a collection of short stories. Professor Robert Kanigel’s biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity, was translated into Korean. He continues work on his history of travel and tourism, High Season, which is due out in the spring of 2001. Professor Kanigel’s book, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, served as the basis for a one-hour PBS documentary titled Stopwatch, on which Professor Kanigel worked as a consultant. Professor Kenneth Manning is working on a study titled Blacks in American Medicine, 1860—1980. For this project, Professor Manning has developed an extensive database on black physicians throughout the USA, which will eventually be available to the public. Professor Cynthia Wolff continues work on a literary biography of Willa Cather. Professor James Paradis is completing the second edition of his reference work The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication (MIT Press). Associate Professor Susanne Klingenstein has begun research on a new book, tentatively titled Coping with the Past: The Destruction of the European Jews in Germany’s CulturalHistory. Adjunct Professor Joe Haldeman’s new novel, Forever Free, was published by Ace Books, as was his novella A Separate War. He is at work on a new novel, set in 19th century America and Alaska, titled Listen to the Raven. Senior Lecturer Edward Barrett has completed his reference volume The MIT Guide to Web Design, which has a fall publishing date with MIT Press. A collection of his poetry is due out with Zoland Books in the spring of 2001. Dr. Barrett continues work on his study, The Poetics of Cyberspace, which is also under contract to MIT Press. Writer-in-Residence Stephen Alter has completed his book, Amvitsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border, which is scheduled to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in the fall of 2000. He is currently working on Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the Many Sources of the River Ganga, which is under contract to Harcourt Brace. Writer-in-Residence Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno has completed his travel memoir on contemporary Yucatan, Under the Mayan Sun: Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, which is due out with Grove Press in December 2000. He has also had accepted for publication, Words and Images: the Twentieth-Century ‘Livre de Peintre’ in France by Museum of Fine Arts Books. Lecturer Rebecca Faery, Director of First-Year Writing, published her study, Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation with the University of Oklahoma Press. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays titled One Woman, One War: Remembering Vietnam. Dr. Leslie Perelman is working jointly with Professor Henry Jenkins on a reader and writing handbook, Joining the Conversation: Writing about Popular Culture (Mayfield Press).


The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies is supporting three major HASS initiatives at the Institute: the Communication Requirement; the Comparative Media Studies M.S. Program; and the Graduate M.S. Program in Science Writing. This past spring, the MIT Faculty voted to pass a new Communication Requirement proposed by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. This new requirement replaces the old proficiency-based Writing Requirement with a new, instructionally-based requirement: every undergraduate must take some form of instruction in writing and speaking each year of his or her four-year program. Writing Program faculty and staff, with the financial assistance of the Dean of HASS and the Provost, have taken several steps to reorganize the Program's resources in ways that will support the needed communication instruction. The first step has been to reorganize the expository writing sections (28 sections in PWHS, completed by 425 students last year) into a first-year expository writing program. Roughly 20 percent of incoming MIT freshmen are now required, on the basis of their performances on the Freshman Essay Evaluation (FEE) test, to take an expository writing class. Two years ago, PWHS appointed the experienced lecturer and scholar Dr. Rebecca Faery as Director of First Year Writing. She has undertaken a program of redesigning our first-year expository writing curriculum, and she has also inaugurated an extensive, year-long program of training for all of our first-year writing instructors. This program has been very successful in improving the standards, interest, and consistency of our expository writing subjects, as well as in introducing new elements of oral communication to the traditional subject matter. The second step in reorganizing PWHS elements to support the Communication Requirement has been that of revamping and expanding of our writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) programs. The object of these decentralized programs, some of which are considerably older than PWHS itself, is to take writing instruction and evaluation into core subjects of science and engineering departments throughout the Institute. Last year, PWHS faculty brought Dr. Leslie Perelman and Ms. Madeline Brown over from the Office of the Dean of Students to the PWHS, where they assumed the respective duties of Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and Coordinator of Writing Initiatives. Perelman and Brown have considerably expanded the WAC teaching efforts of PWHS throughout every department at the Institute (except the Sloan School), and they have experimented extensively with innovative instructional efforts like the tutorial program in the Biology Department that produces student research writing in the Biology Undergraduate Journal (BUG). The third step in reorganizing for the new Communication Requirement has been the strengthening of the Writing and Communication Center. This PWHS facility, which is now nearly twenty years old, dealt with a record number of students (a 30% increase over last year). Anticipating an increased demand on the center’s resources as the result of the Communication Requirement, the center’s Director, Dr. Stephen Strang, experimented with several new tutoring strategies, including special practice seminars on oral communication, an online center (which had 5,838 hits in April and May), an online tutor (which accepts writing samples of up to 1000 words and worked with 80 students), and an extended hours program in the evenings and on weekends.

The second major initiative of PWHS has been its collaboration with the Foreign Languages and Literatures section and the Literature Faculty for the past two years to support the new Comparative Media Studies Graduate Program (CMS). This three-section collaboration, under the direction of Professor Henry Jenkins, has brought the sections together in a very new way. We have pooled resources, collaborated in developing an interdisciplinary graduate curriculum, shared in the advising of graduate students, and jointly governed the policy of CMS. Dr. Barrett, who teaches the writing in digital media subjects in PWHS, taught three subjects that were used by CMS students: The CMS Workshop (CMS.950), Interactive and Non-Linear Narrative (21W.765J), and Writing in Cyberspace (21W.785). In addition, the PWHS head was a member of the governing board for CMS, which met regularly throughout the year to set policy and make decisions. Faculty of PWHS will also serve on search, curriculum and other administrative committees to help run the CMS.

Our third, but by no means least important, initiative has been that of developing a new Graduate (M.S.) Program in Science Writing. Last year was a decisive one in our planning: we were able to get preliminary support for this concept from the Dean of HASS, the HASS Visiting Committee and the Provost, to whom we made formal presentations on the mission and scope of the degree program. With this new Master's program, MIT, long a leader in the education of scientists and engineers, will begin to nurture the writers, reporters, and critics who can interpret and explain science and technology to the wider public. The need for such men and women has never been greater. This initiative is building on the existing curriculum and faculty in the Program, a faculty that includes as co-directors two distinguished science writers: Professors Kanigel and Lightman. Other members of the planning committee include Boyce Rensburger (Head of the Knight Fellows Program), Professor Manning, B.D. Colen, and Professor Paradis. This past year, the organizing committee developed a program proposal, which laid out the subject descriptions, requirements, costs and implementation schedule for the program. The goal for the next year will be to present the program proposal to the School Council and possibly the Faculty, develop a detailed business plan, and develop a fund-raising apparatus. We are aiming to start the program in the fall of 2002.


Professor Desai, on sabbatical this past year, was shortlisted for the Booker Award for her Fasting, Feasting. Professor Lightman was named Guest Editor of McGraw-Hill’s annual collection of best American essays. He was also a Convocation Speaker at Clarkson University, the keynote speaker at a Wellesley College conference on Origins, and a featured speaker at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Professor Kanigel was a member of the Advisory Committee for the Society for the History of Technology. He also spoke at the American Society of Journalists and Authors on Trends and Techniques in Narrative Nonfiction. His Alfred and Julia Hill Lecture at the University of Tennessee, The Perils of Popularizing Science, was published as a booklet by the School of Journalism at the University of Tennessee. Professor Lee’s novel Water Marked was excerpted in Essence magazine. She gave many public readings from her new novel in Cambridge, Washington D.C., Detroit and Ann Arbor. She was also featured in interviews published in Callaloo magazine and the collection, Black Fiction Writers on Writing (Avon Books). Dr. Barrett co-chaired the admissions committee for the Comparative Media Studies Program, served on the CMS Steering Committee, the Institute Classroom Advisory Committee, and the Governing Board of the Communications Forum. He is also the General Editor of the MIT Press Series on Digital Communication that was cited by ACS for special distinction. Dr. Faery gave the keynote address at a writing conference at the University of Connecticut, and she was featured speaker at the Cambridge Forum. Professor Klingenstein received the Certificate of Merit from the Counsel General of Germany for distinguished literary criticism. For his 1999 novel, Forever Peace, which won the Hugo award last year, Professor Haldeman won the Nebula and John W. Campbell awards this year. He was also the featured speaker at several conventions, including the World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne.

More information about the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies can be found on the World Wide Web at

James G. Paradis

MIT Reports to the President 1999–2000