Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies

The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (PWHS) teaches and encourages MIT students to write with force, clarity, and creativity in a wide range of forms. Students write fiction and poetry. They write essays and journalism. They do technical writing. They write for electronic media. And they study the forms, techniques, and traditions that bear upon each of these genres. The members of our program include scholars, journalists, and artists who themselves write in these areas, and who publish research in a variety of humanistic fields, both traditional and interdisciplinary. 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 SHASS 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 1368 students (up from 1318 the previous year), of whom nine were majors, 27 were minors, and 121 were concentrators in writing for the SHASS requirement. 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 staff assisted a total of 762 clients for a record total of 2988 visits, providing assistance with reports, papers, oral presentations, and thesis projects.

Research and Publications

Professor Anita Desai's novel Fasting, Feasting was published in Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Danish editions in the fall of 2000. Professor Alan Lightman's novel The Diagnosis, published by Pantheon in September 2000, was given extensive reviews in the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker magazine. Professor Robert Kanigel's popular history of travel and tourism, High Season, will be published by Viking in June of 2002. Professor Kenneth Manning's exhibit of the history of SHASS, which was displayed for four months at the Compton Gallery, has been permanently installed in the lobby of Building 14. Professor Cynthia Wolff continues work on a literary biography of Willa Cather. Professor James Paradis continues his research on Samuel Butler. Associate Professor Helen Elaine Lee is currently working on a collection of short stories about prison and prisoners' lives. Associate Professor Susanne Klingenstein is working on two new books, Preserving the Past: The Murder of the European Jews in Germany's Cultural Memory and The Art of Medicine: A Literary Anthology. Adjunct Professor Joe Haldeman's science fiction novel The Coming was published by Ace Books in December 2000. Senior Lecturer Edward Barrett's reference volume, The MIT Guide to Web Design, was published by MIT Press in April of 2001. Sheepshead Bay, a major collection of his new work, will be published by Zoland Books in October 2001. Writer-in-Residence Stephen Alter's Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border was published by the University of Pennsylvania in November of 2000. His work, Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage Up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture, will be published by Harcourt Brace in October of 2001. Dr. Leslie Perelman, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, is serving as Principal Investigator for the TestWrite Project, funded by the MIT-Microsoft I-campus partnership. This initiative is developing a national consortium of universities to develop innovative and educationally valid tests over the Word Wide Web. Lecturer Ann Snodgrass's work, Knowing Noise: The English Poems of Amelia Rosselli, was published by Peter Lang Publishing. Lecturer Elizabeth Fox continues her work on D. H. Lawrence, published several review essays, and delivered a paper in Bialystok, Poland.

Academic Programs and Initiatives

The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies is supporting three major SHASS initiatives at the Institute: the Communication Requirement, the Comparative Media Studies M.S. Program, and the Graduate M.S. Program in Science Writing.

The new Communication Requirement, which was approved last year by the faculty, will be implemented with the arrival of the Class of 2005. The 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. Roughly 20 percent of incoming MIT freshmen are now required, on the basis of their performance on the Freshman Essay Evaluation (FEE) test, to take an expository writing class. Dr. Rebecca Faery, Director of First Year Writing, has undertaken a program of redesigning our first-year expository writing curriculum, and over this past year has completed an extensive training program for our first-year writing instructors. This program has been successful in improving the standards, interest, and consistency of our expository writing subjects. It has also introduced new elements of oral communication to the traditional subject matter.

As part of instituting the new Communication Requirement, we have also revamped and expanded our writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) programs. The object of these decentralized programs is to take writing instruction and evaluation into core subjects of science and engineering departments throughout the Institute. Two years ago, the Office of the Writing Requirement moved from the Office of the Dean of Students to PWHS, where Dr. Perelman and Ms. Madeline Brown assumed the respective duties of Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and Coordinator of Writing Initiatives. Dr. Perelman and Ms. Brown have 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 programs.

In preparing for the Communication Requirement, we have strengthened the Writing and Communication Center. This PWHS facility dealt with a record number of visits (a 17 percent 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 integrated several new tutoring strategies into the center's activities, including special practice seminars on oral communication, an online center, an online tutor (which accepts writing samples of up to 1000 words and was consulted 60 times), 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 to support the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) Graduate Program. The three sections continue to pool resources, collaborate in developing an interdisciplinary graduate curriculum, share in the advising of graduate students, and jointly govern the policy of CMS. Dr. Barrett, who teaches the writing in digital media subjects in PWHS, taught two subjects taken by CMS students: The CMS Workshop (CMS.950) 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.

Over the past year, the graduate program in science writing, PWHS's third major initiative, has successfully navigated through MIT's various administrative committees, beginning with School Council in the fall and culminating in the spring in formal approval by the Faculty. The graduate program plans to accept its initial group of students in September 2002. Professor Kanigel will direct it; Professor Lightman, who was instrumental in helping to launch the program and was its co-director, has relinquished his Burchard professorship, but will nonetheless teach in the graduate program, and lend his stature to it. Others who worked on the program during the past year were Dr. Boyce Rensberger (who heads the Knight Fellows Program), Professor Manning, Lecturer B. D. Colen, and Professor Paradis. A search has been set in motion for an additional faculty member. Over the past year, we have refined a number of important curricular details; taken early steps toward developing a fundraising program; begun the process for hiring the program's administrative officer; and started work on the brochure, poster, and web site needed to attract applications to any new program. The coming year will be a busy one. We will be publicizing the new program, selecting the initial entering class, refining the advanced science writing seminar that is the curricular heart of the program, beginning to set up a system for student internships, working on fundraising, and working through the office of the Communications Requirement to set up teaching assistantships.

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Service, Grants and Awards

Professor Lightman's new novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Professor Kanigel served as judge for the Susan Hacker Prize for the Society of the History of Technology. Professor Desai was a colloquium panelist at the SHASS 50th anniversary celebration. She was named a Literary Lion of the Boston Public Library. Dr. Barrett co-chaired the admissions committee for the Comparative Media Studies Program, served on the CMS Steering Committee and the Technology and Space Committee. He is also the General Editor of the MIT Press Series on Digital Communication that was cited by ACS for special distinction. Writer-in-Residence Alter gave a Burchard Scholars lecture/reading about the writing of Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border. Lecturer Snodgrass won the Rella Lossy poetry award for 2001 from the American Poetry Center and Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University.


Professor Lightman has stepped down as Burchard Professor of Writing and will become Adjunct Professor of Writing. He will continue to participate in the development of the Graduate Program in Science Writing. Professor James H. Williams, School of Engineering Professor in Teaching Excellence, has received a joint appointment as Professor of Writing and Humanistic Studies. Professors Paradis and Wolff will be on sabbatical leave during AY2002. Professor Lee will take a junior faculty leave during the fall term. Professor Kanigel will be interim Head of PWHS for the year.

We have 52 percent women on our total teaching staff and 46 percent women on our core faculty. We also have 11 percent minority members on our total staff and 23 percent minority members on our core faculty. Two of our teaching staff-an associate professor and a full professor-are African-Americans.

Robert Kanigel

More information about the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies can be found online at

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