MIT Reports to the President 1998-99


The Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (PWHS) is an interdisciplinary program that offers students the opportunity to study the techniques, forms, and traditions of a variety of contemporary communication practices, from basic expository prose to advanced forms of non-fictional prose, fiction and poetry, journalism, and scientific and technical communication. Studying writing as a craft, a means for the public dissemination of science, and as a tool for communicating science and technology among specialists, more than twelve hundred undergraduates each year use the Program's resources to complete HASS requirements and devise HASS majors, minors, and concentrations. Program members include artists, journalists, and scholars who create works of art, write informatively about science and technology, and publish research in a variety of traditional and interdisciplinary humanistic fields.

The Program provides undergraduate writing instruction to students by means of three educational activities: the academic curriculum of the Program, outreach programs throughout the Institute in writing-across-the-curriculum, and the Writing and Communication Center. Thus, in addition to offering a series of undergraduate electives, the Program collaborates extensively with faculty in departments in the Schools of Science and Engineering to integrate writing and speaking instruction into the science and engineering curriculum, and the Program also supports a drop-in center that each year helps undergraduates, graduate students and faculty on their individual projects.

Program subjects during the past year enrolled 1281 students, of which 15 were majors, 34 were minors, and 101 were concentrators in writing for the HASS requirement. In addition to our standard subject offerings, our writing-across-the curriculum programs, consisting of our writing coops and practica, brought writing instruction and evaluation to more than 900 students in departments throughout the Schools of Science and Engineering. Finally, our Writing and Communication Center had a total of 612 undergraduate and graduate students making 2,371 visits for help on reports, papers, oral presentations, and thesis projects.


This past year PWHS faculty participated in three initiatives being developed at the Institute. The largest of these by far is the writing initiative, a preliminary period of educational experimentation that is leading up to a proposal for a new communication requirement. This initiative, mandated by a faculty vote in the spring of 1997, will culminate in a CUP proposal that will be voted on in the spring of 2000. If MIT faculty vote to support this new requirement, students will have to take at least one writing-intensive subject each year during their undergraduate careers. In order to develop the educational resources necessary to support a new communication requirement, departments throughout the Institute have experimented with various approaches to integrating the teaching of writing and speaking in their curricula. PWHS instructors have played a major role in helping various departments expand their instruction, especially through various writing coops and practica. In another closely related development, the PWHS also worked with the CUP Sub-committee on the Communication Requirement to develop a new freshman writing requirement. This experimental requirement, which was mandated for two years by the CUP this past Spring, obliges students who do not demonstrate an acceptable level of competence on the Freshman Evaluation Exam to take a basic expository writing subject, such as Expository Writing (21W.730), Writing and Experience (21W.731) or Introduction to Technical Communication (21W.732). The PWHS spent considerable time this past year evaluating its first-year writing subjects and has appointed Lecturer Rebecca Faery, an experienced writing program director, as Director of First-Year Writing to coordinate and further develop the twenty-five sections of 21W.730-32 that will be taught each of the next two years.

As part of the same effort to expand the teaching of writing and speaking at MIT, the PWHS has also agreed to assume responsibility for certain educational elements of the older Writing Requirement from the office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education. These elements, under the direction of Associate Dean Leslie Perelman, include the Freshman Essay Evaluation Exam (FEE) for first-year MIT undergraduates, the Writing Practica seminars throughout the Schools of Science and Engineering, and the advisory programs for helping MIT faculty design and implement writing-intensive subjects in their respective departments. PWHS will absorb only educational activities and will play no role in ensuring that students or departments comply with existing requirements. In order to organize its various outreach programs better, the faculty of the PWHS have developed plans for consolidating all the writing-across-the-curriculum programs (including writing coops and practica) with the Writing and Communication Center into a new Program unit, which will be called the Communication Resource Center (CRC). This center will include Steven Strang, Associate Dean Perelman, and Lecturer Faery, as well as their support staffs, and will share personnel, information, curricula and resources. The CRC will serve as an advisory and teaching resource for students and faculty throughout the Institute and will be overseen by a board of faculty from the PWHS, other HASS sections, and departments in the Schools of Science and Engineering.

The second Program initiative underway is the Program's collaboration with Foreign Languages and Literatures and the Literature Faculty to support the new Comparative Media Studies Program, under the direction of Professor Henry Jenkins of the Literature Section. The Head of PWHS will co-administer CMS as part of the Governing Board, and PWHS faculty such as Assistant Professor Hadyn Kernal and Senior Lecturer Edward Barrett, will contribute faculty time and resources to teach CMS subjects. Faculty of PWHS will also serve on search, curriculum and other administrative committees to help run the CMS. This collaboration with FLL and the Literature Faculty to support a new graduate program constitutes an important new intersectional collaboration in HASS that combines the resources of our three sections to meet the shared goal of a graduate program that will attract national attention, while complementing the existing graduate program offerings at MIT.

The third initiative underway is the development of a science writing/science journalism undergraduate major in the PWHS. This initiative, which is still in early stages, will build on the existing curriculum and faculty in the Program to provide a new undergraduate educational program focused on the important goal of the public understanding of science. The PWHS has a world-renowned faculty to support this objective, including Professor Alan Lightman (author of many acclaimed books on physics and fiction) Professors Robert Kanigel and Kenneth Manning (authors of award-winning science biographies), and Lecturer B. D. Colen (a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist). MIT undergraduates have shown a continual interest in this subject area, not only as a basis for careers as journalists and information officers in corporations, but also as future professionals in science, medicine, policy studies and law. Talks were held this year with Dean Philip Khoury, Professor Kanigel, Professor Lightman and Boyce Rensburger (Head of the Knight Fellows Program), and two new Program offerings have been developed in News Writing (21W.736) and Science Feature Writing (21W.776) and will be offered next year.

In addition to the new initiatives under development, the PWHS continues to offer an extensive speakers series and the popular year-end Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes contest. In our Writers Series, Cynthia Ozick read from and commented on her fictional work, The Puttermesser Papers; James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and Crime Wave, read from his work; psychologist and author Joan Bolker spoke to an overflowing house on her work with thesis students on writer's block; MIT graduate Larry Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek, spoke on space travel; distinguished science fiction writer Hal Clement, who taught in the PWHS, gave a reading from his work; and Jeffrey Paine read from his recent work, Father India. In the Poetry@MIT series, run by PWHS lecturer and poet Bill Corbett, poets Roald Hoffman, Kenward Elmslie, Paul Violi, Elaine Equi, Ange Mlinko, and Nuala ni Dhomhnaill read from their works. In the year-end Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes, run by Dr. Barrett and judged by members of the PWHS and the Literature Faculty, thirty-one prizes were awarded in twelve categories for MIT student writing in fiction, essay, poetry, drama, journalism, engineering writing, and science fiction.


In research and writing, Professor Lightman completed his new novel, The Diagnosis, which will be published by Pantheon Press in June of 2000. In addition, he published an essay on Einstein's papers in The Atlantic Monthly and has an essay coming out in the special millennium issue of The New York Times Magazine. Professor Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting appeared in June in England (Chatto); in addition, she has completed a collection of short stories, "Diamond Dust and Other Stories," that is due out in Winter of 1999. Professor Desai has also published reviews in the TLS, The New York Review of Books, and USA. Professor Manning continues to conduct research for his "Blacks in American Medicine, 1860—1980" project. This research includes the development of an extensive database on black physicians throughout the USA. In addition, Professor Manning published an editorial, "Science and Opportunity," in Science Magazine. Professor Cynthia Wolff continues work under a Guggenheim grant on a literary biography of Willa Cather. Professor Wolff also published "Willa Cather's ‘Valentine Sentiments'" in the Willa Cather Review and the "Introduction" to a collection of short stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa and Other Stories (Penguin). Professor James Paradis continues work on an intellectual biography of Samuel Butler. He is also preparing the second editions of two co—authored reference works, The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing (Mayfield) and The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication (MIT Press). Associate Professor Susanne Klingenstein's new book, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930—1990, was published by Syracuse University Press; she has begun new work on a new literary biography of Cynthia Ozick. Assistant Professor Helen Lee's new novel, Watermarked, was published by Scribner in July, and she has begun work on a new collection of short stories. Adjunct Professor Joe Haldeman's novel Forever Peace was published by Ace Books. Senior Lecturer Barrett has completed his co-authored reference volume The MIT Guide to Teaching Web Design, which is due out in the spring of 2000; he 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, No Man's Land: Crossing the Border between India and Pakistan, which will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in the spring 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-Laucanno 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 September 2000. He is also at work on a general historical account, In Their Own Words: Mayan Accounts of the Caste War in Yucatan.


Professor Lightman received the 1998 Gyorgy Kepes prize from the MIT Council of the Arts. His Einstein's Dreams was also chosen as the Book of the Month for March 1998 for the National Public Radio's Book Club on the Air. He also served as a board member of Technology Review magazine. Professor Wolff is currently working under Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Grants on her Cather biography. She presented the plenary paper at the Willa Cather International Conference in Paris in the spring of 1999. Professor Manning gave a distinguished lecturer series at Washington University on Blacks in American Science in the fall of 1998. Adjunct Professor Haldeman was awarded the Science Fiction Achievement Award (also known as the Hugo) for his new novel, Forever Peace, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore. This was his fifth Hugo in his twenty-nine year writing career. Professor Desai gave readings at the University of California at Santa Barbara, at the World Literacy Association of Toronto, and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. Professor Paradis served on the CUP Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement, as well as on the Comparative Media Studies Steering Committee.


We were very pleased to hire as new Professor of Science Writing Robert Kanigel, the award-winning author of three highly-acclaimed volumes, including Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Discovery (Johns Hopkins University Press), The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan (Scribner's), and The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (Viking). Dr. Hadyn Kernal, who has just completed her doctorate in communication at Stanford, was hired on a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Communication. Kernal, whose dissertation studies viewer responses to the convergence of computers with television, has research interests in human-computer interaction, the social responses to new communication technologies, and media and society. She will also participate in the Comparative Media Studies program that begins its first year of operation this coming fall.

At the lecturer level, we hired Dr. Rebecca Faery as full-time lecturer and Director of First-Year Writing. Dr. Faery, who has extensive experience as a director of writing programs at the University of Iowa and Mount Holyoke, will oversee the Program's handling of MIT's trial freshman writing requirement, passed by the CUP in the spring of 1999. The PWHS also appointed Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, B. D. Colen, as visiting writer for two years to teach a course in journalism and another in feature writing. Finally, Janis Melvold and Sally Susnowitz were hired in a national search as full-time lecturers in writing to teach first-year subjects in writing and to work in the Program's Coop Writing project and Writing Practica in the Schools of Science and Engineering. Dr. Melvold is a graduate of the Linguistics Program at MIT with research interests in writing. Ms. Susnowitz is an experienced teacher who has designed and implemented writing-across-the-curriculum programs at the University of Colorado.

We have 47 percent women on our total teaching staff and 54 percent women on our core faculty. We also have 13 percent minority members on our total staff and 23 percent minority members on our core faculty. One of our core faculty members, an assistant professor, is a Native American woman. Three of our teaching staff–a lecturer, an assistant professor, and a full professor–are African-Americans.

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 1998-99