Today I finished rereading William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, and followed it up with Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change by MIT’s own Ros Williams. Both books have provided me with good springboards for thought, as well as ideas around which to focus the final drafts of my statement of purpose. The one drawback is that they’ve put me in serious reading mode: I have several other books here with me that I’m now aching to read. I just broke into Steven Stoll’s Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America, which is excellent so far; on the bus ride home, I cracked open my just-acquired copy of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. These last two authors are both on the faculty at Yale; the books, combined with the high praise and all-around good things I’ve been hearing from my professors about the intellectual community there, are making me increasingly excited about their History program. It was their press, after all, that printed Deb Fitzgerald’s latest book, Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture, which I read over the summer after a trip through many of the areas she uses as case studies, in their Agrarian Studies Series; the fact that they have such a series is nothing short of appealing to me.
There is something a bit strange about assembling my own applications on a holiday weekend which, over the past two years, entailed reading upwards of 80 freshman apps to MIT. I recently had the chance to poke my head back into the admissions process while sitting with my friend and former colleague Matt while he read apps last week, and realized how much I missed it. Today, while brainstorming about my statement of purpose, I did a bit of writing about my admissions work and how it relates to my intellectual ambitions. This little bit about reading came in at the end, when it occurred to me how writing summaries was its own, albeit tiny and rushed, form of history, or at least storytelling:
The art of reading applications lies in knowing how to pinpoint and extract the important information from a case and summarize it succinctly and compellingly in a single paragraph that tells the applicant’s story. This requires the ability to pinpoint those salient characteristics, to identify qualities and attributes which may not be explicit but which may have pointers to them, and the facility to pull all of this data together in a meaningful way.
All of this has to be done in about a half an hour.
In this respect, admissions is a kind storytelling: a documentation through narrative, a sort of microscopic historiography. It must be rigorous, reasoned, and objective, while putting forth a recommendation about what action should be taken.
Of course, one obvious difference — contradiction, even, or paradox — between the tangible output of application-reading (summaries penned on E-3 cards) and historical study (books, manuscripts, &c.) is the fact that summaries are by design not historical documents: they are destroyed once they have served their purpose, that of assisting the admissions committee in making a decision on the applicant’s case. As a writer and someone with semi-archival tendencies, this was always a bit hard for me: it’s difficult to face the products of one’s hard work being destined for the shredder. I think, though, that it taught me a valuable lesson about letting go of the physical artifact, of not placing too much value on a piece of paper at the expense of the real center of admissions work: the students we admit. Ultimately, when you get to meet a kid whose folder you read, talk to him and his family, and realize the impact you’ve had on his life, the summary falls by the wayside: it pales in comparison to the real thing.
I think part of the reason why I miss admissions is that I am now outside my comfort zone: after two years as an admissions counselor, I pretty much knew what I was doing and what to expect, or at least how to roll with the punches as they came. Stepping outside of that has taken courage — it would have been easy to stay — but for many years I’ve felt called to other things, pursued by a pressing desire to explore the intellectual passions which were refined and clarified at MIT. Admissions played no small part in this — in fact, it enhanced my understanding of science and technology in society far more than I could have anticipated — but I knew that, if I stayed, it might begin to be more of an obstacle to progress than a springboard. Now I am facing that springboard, and the hurdles beyond, readying myself for the sprint forward which, if well-timed and -executed, has the potential to launch me to new heights and discoveries. It’s nerve-wracking, exciting, thrilling, terrifying, and utterly irresistible.
Wish me luck.