MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXII No. 2
November / December 2019
The Right to Vote; Prof. Woodie Flowers;
Undermining the Institute Professorships
A Bookstore Without Books
“A Peculiar MIT Concoction”:
Our System of Faculty Governance – Part I
The Schwarzman College of Computing: Giving Back
Woodie Flowers
Unintended Downsides to Recent Changes
to the P/NR Policy
What We and Our Students Value
A Peek Inside the Random Faculty Dinners
Comments at MIT Institute Faculty Meeting
September 18, 2019
An Open Letter to MIT Department Heads
Reflections on Epstein and MIT
Update on MIT’s Open Access Policy and
Continued Negotiations With Publishers
2019-2020 Academic Calendar Changes
Angered By Recent FNL Editorial
Back in 1949
Campus Research Expenditures FY 2019 (%)
Campus Research Expenditures FY 2019 ($)
Printable Version

A Bookstore Without Books

Ruth Perry

You cannot teach arts and humanities subjects without books, and so we always order our books for class at least two months before the start of the new semester. Which is why it was such a shock to discover that there were no books in the bookstore at the beginning of the term. No books at the Coop. Plenty of shirts and ties and hats with the MIT insignia, but no books. We stood appalled. Apparently, the Office of the Vice Chancellor was notified in May, along with the Libraries and the Faculty Officers, (with email notices to department administrators in June) that the Coop was getting out of stocking real books. It was going virtual. Students could no longer just walk in and buy their books. Faculty could no longer browse the shelves to see what marvelous new books their colleagues were teaching this semester.

Students now had to choose their classes without seeing what they would be reading. Once they worked out their schedules they were supposed to go to the website, put in their orders, and wait. But who had really thought about the consequences of not having books on the first day – or the first week – of class? What decent educational institution would put up with such a situation? Could it be that classes that read books had a secondary status at MIT? It took at least another week after that before students actually had books in their hands – and were able to read assignments or to discuss passages in class. Try teaching math or chemistry without a blackboard – or computer science without computers. That’s what it is like to teach literature without books.

Changes at the MIT Coop bookstore over the last 25 years have not been for the better. Once upon a time it was a real bookstore, with a buyer who searched out interesting books from small presses as well as the big publishing corporations. Browsing its shelves, one found fascinating new books to buy or to dip into in order to learn something new. Then Barnes & Noble took over most of the college bookstores in America, a dangerous monopoly if there were books it chose to suppress. Suddenly Popular Mechanics and other “how to” books lined the shelves of our campus bookstore – completely irrelevant to our undergraduates – and expensive clothes appeared on racks. Many – including the late Margaret MacVicar – were appalled at how the store had turned into a merchandising venture rather than a service for our students. One day the literary scholars among us even found a pyramid shelf of Cliff Notes for sale right at the front door of the Coop – short cuts to cheating rather than reading the masterworks of literature, the equivalent in our field of fraternity compilations of previous problem sets. We had to argue with the manager to remove them from the store for they directly undermined our intellectual mission.

This latest incarnation of the campus bookstore seems a perfect emblem of the direction MIT has been taking during the last two administrations. No longer even giving lip service to education and intellectual exploration, the Institute has come publicly to serve the purposes of corporate capitalism. Its resources and brainpower are increasingly placed at the disposal of corporate “partners” who direct its research and profit from its results.

Students are being trained to be cogs in these businesses, rather than independent thinkers. Campus job fairs offer few alternatives to positions in huge corporations. Every week we get another announcement from the MIT Administration about a new initiative encouraging new businesses or offering entrepreneurial training; it is as if no other mode of intellectual exploration exists. Profitable online modules for distance learning are encouraged over small-scale residential classes because those are the educational experiments with commercial potential.

Our leaders are proud of turning Kendall Square into a mini-Silicon Valley, where a well-placed faculty member can move with efficiency and ease between the offices of his start-up company and his academic department. The line between academic inquiry and corporate research and development is fatally blurred. Just look at the potential products advertised every week on the MIT website.

A bookstore without books is a perfect symbol of the current Institute ethos. Instead of books it sells its brand – on T-shirts and jackets and coffee cups. The educational mission of those who still use books is sidelined because those ventures are rarely profitable the way computer-driven commercial endeavors are. But our students are missing out – on developing a feel for the language, on thinking about other cultures including the brilliant intellectual monuments of the past, on pondering the existential questions of human life including what really matters – and on classes that begin their teaching programs on time.

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