MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 2
November / December 2014
Issues in Considering the Future
of MIT Education
Four New Members Elected to
FNL Editorial Board
The Future of MIT Education
Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct at MIT: A Faculty Primer
Reflecting on "All Doors Open"
Are We Moving Toward a Two-Class
Research-Education Society at MIT?
8.02 TEAL+x: Students Say "Yes"
to MITx in 8.02 TEAL
Addressing Student Mental Health Issues
at MIT
Advising Undergraduates or Teaching a
CI-H/HW Subject? New Enrollment Tools Can Help
Transforming Student Information Systems
The A2 Problem Set in
Undergraduate Education
Work-Life Center Announces Senior Planning Benefit and Seminar Series
The Alumni Class Funds Seek Proposals for Teaching and Education Enhancement
Being "Nice" at MIT
from the 2014 survey "Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault"
from the 2014 survey "Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault"
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Reflecting on "All Doors Open"

Steven Hall, Cynthia Barnhart

The MIT community has suffered the loss of several students and faculty over the last year, including cases of suicide and others in which the cause has yet to be determined. In the wake of the most recent death, that of sophomore Phoebe Wang, the community held an event on September 29, “All Doors Open,” to pause, reflect, and connect with one another. We, together with UA President Shruti Sharma and GSC President Kendall Nowocin, sent a letter inviting all members of the MIT community to participate in this campus-wide event. We wrote:

Monday at noon, we ask that everyone at MIT stop what they are doing and take 15 minutes or so to remember those we have lost, reflect on how their deaths have affected us and think broadly about how we as a community should respond.

We urge you to open your doors, literally. Gather together – or get up, walk around and engage the people nearby, those you know already and those you don't. If you prefer, we hope you will take the time for focused private reflection.

The event was deliberately flexible, allowing faculty, students, and staff to use the time in ways that they saw fit.  In order to capture the wisdom, ideas, and energy of the whole community, we encouraged everyone to share their insights with us at As soon as the invitation was sent, we began to receive feedback and ideas. Some included suggestions for additional activities, and some came from faculty unsure of how to participate. For many of us, this was a new type of conversation to have in the classroom. Would conversations feel awkward in a large GIR? How could we invite personal reflections?

Ultimately, the community observed the event in a variety of ways. We heard about professors who used the time for open conversation with their classes, faculty who paused meetings to discuss with one another, and mixed groups that gathered outside offices.

Despite initial uncertainty, we heard from a number of faculty members who found the experience to be a positive one, and we heard from students about how meaningful those efforts were. Creating the space to stop and reflect, many said, should be a community priority.

Several students wrote to praise a faculty member who began a recent class by asking the students for their impressions of what makes the class so stressful. The discussion that followed not only helped the faculty member to understand the students’ perceptions of the subject’s demands, but made explicit an issue that we all experience but rarely address so openly. The students found the action so positive and impactful that they suggested all professors consider taking the time to do this.

In one class, an instructor had ended the lesson a few minutes early. After reminding students about the importance of occasionally taking a break, the instructor invited students to spend the final minutes enjoying a snack and discussing their reaction to recent events. Although a modest gesture, it made a big impact on the student who wrote us, and demonstrates the importance of little moments and signs of caring.

Hacking the MIT culture

More generally, what we heard from faculty, students, parents, alumni, and staff is that MIT is a big, busy, intense place. We have a culture that encourages excellence and pushes us to challenge ourselves – sometimes at a cost to personal well-being. There is the risk of negative competition. One example is the notion that “sleep is for the weak,” but as one student rightly pointed out, “sleep is for the healthy.” Likewise, the idea that our devices make us available 24/7 means it can be hard to step away from the pressures of work. Whether faculty or student, we sometimes feel that there is an expectation that we answer e-mail at any hour.

Rigor and intensity are part of the essence of MIT, but we need to make sure that high standards are accompanied by the support and resources that make them attainable. Speaking for all of us, one writer noted a sentiment that arose in her discussion: “We want to be challenged, not broken.”

Another asked: Can we collectively “hack” MIT culture to encourage healthy work-life balances? Several parents also suggested developing in-person or online student training sessions related to stress and well-being, particularly around nutrition, exercise, and alcohol abuse.

Another theme that emerged related to isolation and opportunities to create a more connected, inclusive environment. We heard repeatedly about the need to increase interaction and break down barriers that exist on campus, and we heard that fear of failing and imposter syndrome can be serious sources of stress.

One researcher suggested that sharing personal stories, especially about periods of difficulty or doubt, could help foster a sense of belonging for new members. Another writer highlighted the tension of being too busy to attend events that are intended to build community. A third spoke to the role of mentorship and the importance of teaching students to manage failing. Occasional roadblocks are a critical part of learning, helping us to discover new strengths and perspectives. Broadly, many people told us that creating new pathways for connection will strengthen our community.  

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Words matter

Although MIT is action-oriented, several writers called attention to the power of words. Last year, then-Chancellor Grimson issued a call to end the “praise-free zone.” Before finding weaknesses or suggesting improvements, he invited faculty and students to acknowledge others’ hard work. One student reinforced this point by suggesting that we could all take the time to encourage each other. As she explained, one of her professors e-mailed her, commending her for how she had handled an assignment. This simple, reassuring “job-well-done” seemed so unusual and felt so meaningful to her that she saved the e-mail in her inbox as a reminder of her ability to succeed.

On another communication-related point, a number of community members told us that we need to be more forthcoming in naming the problems we are trying to solve, that we should acknowledge suicides if they occur, and we should not be afraid to use the word if we want to find ways to help. Many in our community assume if the cause is not stated in an announcement of the death of a member of our community that the cause must be suicide. However, there’s also a need to respect the wishes of families in difficult times, and often the official cause of death is not confirmed until months later. Nevertheless, we heard clearly that transparency is seen as critical to tackling this difficult topic.

Resources and asking for help

Many are concerned that pride in MIT’s degree of difficulty can leave faculty, students, and staff reluctant to ask for help. Asking for help, in whatever form, needs to be seen as a strategy, rather than a weakness.

While there was consensus that mental health resources are only one piece of the puzzle, this was a topic that came up many times. From those working to remove any stigma of seeking help to those who suggested improving awareness and access, we were grateful to hear people thinking about the types of services that will best support the community.

Feedback highlighted both the progress that has been made and the need for continued attention. One student proposed developing training exercises for faculty to help recognize signs of distress and to identify those who may need help.

Additionally, faculty can benefit from a greater understanding of how to assist students in need to navigate MIT’s infrastructure of support services. Among faculty and advisors, we learned that there are both real and perceived challenges in identifying those at risk and discussing such issues.

In our original e-mail, we described All Doors Open as the start of a long-term conversation for our community. We appreciated reading follow-up letters to The Tech and are grateful to everyone who took the time to share ideas, whether publicly or privately. Equally, we have been inspired by the number of people who offered concrete help. We expect to pursue these offers in the weeks and months ahead.

Because MIT is a place informed by facts and evidence, it is clear that we must do more to understand the challenges that so many in our community face. There is also an opportunity to look beyond our campus for best practices in meeting these needs. Many offices are actively engaged in these efforts. More immediately, we hope that both individuals and the community will find ways to carry forward the spirit of All Doors Open.

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