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 Science, Technology, and Society (STS), History, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering. Program members work in four 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 (WAC); in the Writing and Communication Center; and in the Graduate Program in Science Writing.

Program subjects during the past year enrolled 1,111 students, of whom 12 were majors, 22 were minors, and 106 were concentrators in writing for the SHASS Requirement. Our WAC 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 766 students for a total of 3,135 visits, providing assistance with reports, papers, oral presentations, and thesis projects.

Research and Publications

Professor Alan Lightman continued work on a new novel entitled Reunion, which will be released in July 2003. His essay, "Art that Transfigures Science," appears in a special section of the New York Times, and two theatrical productions of his Einstein's Dreams were produced in New York.

Professor Robert Kanigel's Biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity, has appeared in Italian and Chinese editions. Professor Kanigel is conducting research on a book, Faux Real, aboutleather, imitation leather, and the boundaries between the natural and the manmade.

Professor Kenneth Manning is conducting 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 is working on a study of Samuel Butler and 19th-century science.

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

Associate professor Junot Diaz is working on a book dealing with the history of the Dominican diaspora.

Adjunct professor Joe Haldeman's science fiction novel, The Guardian, was published by Ace Books in December 2002, and part one of his graphic novel, Forever Free, appeared in Belgium and France.

Senior lecturer Edward Barrett continues work on a new study on the poetics of cyberspace; a collection of his poetry, Rub Out, was published by Pressed Wafer Press in May 2003.

Writer-in-residence Stephen Alter, who was away on a Guggenheim Fellowship, continued work on a new volume, Elephas Maximus: a Biography of the Indian Elephant.

Writer-in-residence William Corbett continues work on an edition of The Letters of James Schuyler.

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

Lecturer B. D. Colen continues to publish feature stories for the Christian Science Monitor.

Lecturer Ellen Cooney published a novel, The White Palazzo, with Coffeehouse Press.

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

Lecturer Neal Lerner published an article, "Writing Laboratories Circa 1953," in the Writing Lab Newsletter.

Dr. Leslie Perelman, director of Writing Across the Curriculum and principal investigator for the iCampus/MIT Online Evaluation Tool (iMOAT), published an account of iMOAT in the Proceedings of the 17th Annual Conference on Distance Learning. His team, which includes Shannon Larkin from the Writing Across the Curriculum Office, is developing a national consortium of universities to support innovative and educationally valid tests over the web.

Lecturer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno continues work on his biography of E. E. Cummings.

Lecturer Ann Snodgrass translated a volume of poems, The Hippopotamus, by the Italian poet Luciano Erba.

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Academic Programs and Initiatives

PWHS supports three major SHASS initiatives at the Institute: the Communication Requirement, the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) MS Program, and the Graduate MS Program in Science Writing.

The new Communication Requirement, which was approved in 2002 by the Faculty, will be fully implemented with the arrival of the Class of 2008. This 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. Faery, director of First Year Writing, has undertaken a program of redesigning our first-year expository writing curriculum and over the past three years has conducted 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 a new curriculum for oral communication as well as an innovative service training component to the traditional subject matter.

As we continue to work with faculty and staff Institute-wide on implementing the new Communication Requirement, we are revamping and expanding our Writing across the Curriculum group. The object of this decentralized program is to help bring writing and speaking instruction and evaluation into core subjects of science and engineering departments throughout the Institute. Three 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 became, respectively, director of WAC and coordinator of Writing Initiatives. Dr. Perelman and Ms. Brown have expanded the WAC teaching efforts of PWHS throughout most of the departments at the Institute, and they have experimented extensively with a variety of instructional programs. The WAC group has also developed iMOAT—an online tool for evaluating student essays—into a facility that is now serving a variety of schools, including CalTech, DePaul U, Cornell, Clemson, and SUNY at Stonybrook.

In supporting the Communication Requirement and other communication efforts throughout the Institute, we have also strengthened the Writing and Communication Center. This PWHS facility dealt with more than 3,000 visits from both undergraduate and graduate students from virtually every department at the Institute working on every type of writing imaginable, including papers for communication-intensive courses, Phase II (old Writing Requirement) papers, application letters and resumes, papers for Writing Program courses, theses, professional publications, and oral presentations. The center's director, Dr. Steven Strang, continues to integrate several new tutoring strategies into its 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.

A 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. 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: CMS.950 The CMS Workshop and 21W.785 Writing in Cyberspace. 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.

The Graduate Program in Science Writing, PWHS' third major initiative, has brought its first class through the academic year, has admitted its second class, and is preparing to actively solicit its third. The first class completed the intensive Advanced Science Writing Seminar and wrote masters theses on such topics as computer-aided musical creativity, human and animal crossings of the Atlantic Ocean, and Claude Shannon's seminal 1948 paper on information theory. They are finishing up summer internships at National Public Radio, Science News, and the Boston Globe, among other organizations. The class of eight students entering next year, culled from an applicant pool of 56, includes four Phi Beta Kappas and one Tau Beta Pi. Over the past year, Professor Kanigel, director of the graduate program, has worked with adjunct professor Lightman, Boyce Rensberger (head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellows Program), lecturer B. D. Colen, and Professor Rosalind Williams of STS. For next year, the distinguished science writer Marcia Bartusiak, author of Einstein's Unfinished Symphony, among other popular books on physics and astronomy, will join the program as visiting professor of science writing. The search for an additional permanent faculty member continues.

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Service, Grants, and Awards

Associate professor Diaz won the 2002 Pen/Malamud Award for excellence in the art of the short story. Professor Lightman was awarded the 2003 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the California Institute of Technology. Professor Kanigel won the MIT Class of '60 Award for Education in recognition of his pioneering work in developing MIT's new Graduate Program in Science Writing. Dr. Patricia Powell, a distinguished fiction writer, has been awarded a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professorship at MIT for 2003–2004. Dr. Faery was awarded a Dean's Infinite Corridor Award for excellence in undergraduate education. Adjunct professor Haldeman won the Rhysling Award for Best Poem of the Year for his poem "January Fires" in Asimov's Magazine. Lecturer Rensberger won the Grady-Stack Award for Science Writing.


Professor Wolff has retired after 23 years of teaching at MIT. The program has hired Anthony Lioi as assistant professor of writing. Marcia Bartusiak has been hired for 2003–2004 as visiting professor of science writing.

We have 63 percent women on our total teaching staff and 25 percent women on our core faculty. We also have 8 percent minority members on our total staff and 25 percent minority members on our core faculty. Two of our teaching staff—an associate professor and a full professor—are African Americans, and one associate professor is Hispanic.

James Paradis
Program 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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