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; Science, Technology, and Society; Physics; and Mechanical Engineering. Program members work in three different contexts: (1) in the core academic curriculum, made up of SHASS distribution subjects and electives, (2) in writing-across-the-curriculum outreach programs throughout the Institute, and (3) in the Writing and Communication Center.

Program subjects during the past year enrolled 1,330 students, of whom 12 were majors, 32 were minors, and 139 were concentrators in writing for the SHASS requirement. Our writing-across-the-curriculum programs brought writing instruction to more than 1,500 students in departments throughout the Schools of Science, Engineering, and Architecture. Finally, our Writing and Communication Center staff assisted a total of 701 clients for a record total of 3,134 visits, providing assistance with reports, papers, oral presentations, and thesis projects.

Research and Publications

Professor Anita Desai published articles in an anthology on bilingualism and in Preservation Magazine, and she continued work on a new novel.

Professor Alan Lightman continued work on a new novel, titled Reunion.

Professor Robert Kanigel's popular history of travel and tourism, High Season, was published by Viking in June of 2002. A Chinese translation of his Apprentice to Genius appeared in 2001, and he has begun preliminary research on a book, Crocodile Dreams, about leather, imitation leather, and the boundaries between the natural and the manmade.

Professor Kenneth Manning continues research on a study on the role of African Americans in medicine and on an encyclopedia of African Americans in science, technology, and medicine.

Professor Cynthia Wolff continues work on a literary biography of Willa Cather.

Professor James Paradis continues work on a study of Samuel Butler and nineteenth-century science.

Associate Professor Helen Elaine Lee is currently working on a novel about prison and prisoners' lives.

Adjunct Professor Joe Haldeman's science fiction novel The Guardian will be published by Ace Books in December 2002.

Senior Lecturer Edward Barrett continues work on a new study on the poetics of cyberspace. A collection of his new poetry, Sheepshead Bay, was published by Zoland Books in October 2001.

Writer-in-Residence Stephen Alter's work Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage Up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture was published by Harcourt Brace in October of 2001, and his co-edited Penguin Book of Indian Short Stories also appeared in October. He continues research on a new volume, Elephas Maximus: a Biography of the Indian Elephant.

Lecturer William Corbett's All Prose: Selected Essays and Reviews was published by Zoland Books in October 2001.

Lecturer Rebecca Faery is conducting research on captivity narratives in American cultural history and on a collection of essays on Vietnam.

Dr. Susanne Klingenstein is working on two new books, The Integration of the Holocaust into Germany's Cultural Memory and The Art of Medicine: A Literary Anthology.

Lecturer Karen Boiko's paper on audience and Samuel Smiles's early career is forthcoming in Nineteenth Century Prose.

Lecturer Kim DeVries's paper "Creating and Delivering Multimedia Content for Asynchronous Courses" appeared in the Proceedings of Computers and Advanced Technology in Education.

Lecturer Elizabeth Fox continues her work on D. H. Lawrence, published several review essays, and delivered a paper in Siena, Italy.

Lecturer Erica Funkhouser published a volume of poetry, Pursuit, with Houghton Mifflin in April 2002.

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 World Wide Web.

Lecturer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno published a book of poems, Les Mots Anglais, and continues work on his biography of E. E. Cummings.

Lecturer Ann Snodgrass published a volume of critical essays, Knowing Noise: The English Poems of Amelia Rosselli; a volume of poems, Portal; and has a forthcoming book of translations from the Italian, The Hippopotamus.

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Academic Programs and Initiatives

The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies is supporting three major SHASS initiatives at the Institute: (1) the Communication Requirement, (2) the Comparative Media Studies Graduate Program, and (3) the Graduate 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 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 the past two years 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 5 percent increase over last year). Anticipating an increased demand on the center's resources, 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 1,000 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 Graduate Program (CMS). 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 of CMS.

PWHS's third major initiative, the Graduate Program in Science Writing, over the past year hired a new graduate administrator, Sarah Merrow-Arista; moved into new quarters; designed a poster that went to more than 6,000 departments and faculty around the country; established a web site; put out a brochure; and otherwise worked at promoting the program. In its first year, up to the application deadline in February, it received almost 500 inquiries from prospective students. Across the year, faculty worked to conceive and establish standards and create syllabi for the fall and spring Advanced Science Writing Seminars, and for Thesis Seminar, both of which are new subjects for the graduate program. It formed an admissions committee, which included faculty from STS and CMS, that selected, from an applicant pool of 40, its first entering class of seven students. Professor Kanigel, director of the graduate program, has worked over the past year with Professor Lightman, Dr. Boyce Rensberger (head of the Knight Fellows Program), Professor Manning, Lecturer B. D. Colen, and Professor Paradis. A search for an additional faculty member is underway.

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Service, Grants, and Awards

Professor Desai received an honorary degree from Amherst College. Professor Lightman gave the Hart House Lecture at the University of Toronto and the Honors convocation lecture at Texas Christian University. Professor Paradis was a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, in the spring of AY2002. Writer-in-Residence Alter received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and lectured at the Banff Centre of Mountain Culture in Banff, Alberta. Dr. Barrett received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant for poetry and gave the Phi Beta Kappa Commencement Day Address at Brooklyn College for 2002. Lecturer Funkhouser was elected a Literary Light for 2002 by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. Lecturer DeVries lectured on "Cultural Stereotypes and Academic Discourse" at the University of Hong Kong. Lecturer Faery chaired a panel and presented a paper on "Creative Writing and Composition" at the Associated Writing Programs National Conference in New Orleans. Dr. Perelman chaired a panel and delivered a paper on the new MIT online assessment tool at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Lecturer Andrea Walsh led a seminar on Race, Class and Gender in Nineteenth-Century Women's Activism at the Harvard School of Education. Lecturer Snodgrass gave a series of lectures in Rome on Holocaust authors.


Professor Desai retired from teaching at the end of the spring term of AY2002. The program has hired fiction writer Junot Diaz as a new associate professor of writing. Professor Paradis will head the program for the next two years. Professor Manning will be on sabbatical leave and Professor Wolff will be on professional leave in the spring of AY2003.

With respect to diversity, women are 59 percent of our total teaching staff and 33 percent of our core faculty. Minority members are 7 percent of our total staff and 23 percent of our core faculty. Two members of our teaching staff—an associate professor and a full professor—are African American.

James Paradis
Section Head
Professor of Scientific and Technical Communication

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


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