Interesting articles from the past few days.

Things are busy here, so I thought I’d just post a few links for now. These are articles and pieces I’ve found interesting over the past few days.

a photo essay on pronatalist policies in the Caucasus

a lovely piece about stories and the art of listening

And some interesting parallels between these two online-versus-brick-and-mortar stories:

on Amazon

on online public schools

Good resonances in that last one with a central a lesson of the listening story: information ≠ knowledge.

Gingrich, history, and professional identity.

Yesterday, while catching up on several days’ accumulation of newspapers, I ran across Adam Hochschild’s recent op/ed on Newt Gingrich’s dissertation. I was relieved to read it, as I had been thinking for weeks that a professional historian really should weigh in on Gingrich’s whole “I’m a historian” business. While Hochschild is technically a journalist, he does a good job putting on his historian’s hat and evaluating Gingrich’s questions, and the kinds of sources he uses to answer them.

Since I have not read Belgian education policy in the Congo, 1945–1960 (though the UW Libraries does appear to have a copy), I was glad to have a bit of a summary and a review of the work (I’ve been curious, especially since learning of the subject). And, as a historian, I have to be grateful the subject has come up at all: it is definitely not everyday that you have a discussion of historical questions, sources, documents, and arguments in the pages of the newspaper!

I’ve been thinking about Gingrich’s self-proclaimed historian persona, and wondering if he would be able to make the same claim in another field (e.g., “I’m a physicist”) if he had gotten a Ph.D. in 1971, but hadn’t been a practicing member of that discipline for several decades. I have a suspicion that people are more inclined to buy the historian claim than a claim to being a natural (or perhaps even social) scientist, and that they are willing to do this because of a pervasive popular misunderstanding of the study of history, and what it is that historians actually do. More to the point, I suspect that most people think that history is not really a living discipline in the way that biology or physics or mathematics is: once it has happened, that’s it, it’s over, and something someone wrote in 1971 is just as true today as it was then. No one would make such a claim about the state of our scientific knowledge, but I think this is what people tend to believe about history.

But, of course, history is not dead, and the practice of history as a profession and discipline is a lot more akin to that of the sciences (and, indeed, any other academic field that grows and changes over time) than people usually imagine. Historiography is ever changing, and the stories we tell about the past are always informed by the historical moment in which the historian is researching and writing and thinking, and the professional and public spheres with which he or she is interacting — in other words, the state of knowledge (in all its senses) at that particular point in time.

Gingrich was writing his dissertation at a time when social history was really just emerging as a potent force in the historical discipline, so perhaps one might excuse him a bit for not thinking it essential to include Congolese voices in his story about the Congo. It is possible that no one on his committee was really pushing him to do so — and, it seems, his questions were much more administratively focused. However, I have to admit some surprise that, despite, according to Hochschild, being “clear-eyed about colonialism,” the questions he asks and the sources he depends upon — mostly from the colonial archives, which are of course located not at the Congolese periphery but at the Belgian center — reify colonial patterns and ways of thinking. Had I been present at his defense, this is the point I would have pressed him on.

Of course, my questions are informed by the intervening decades of historical scholarship in ways I cannot separate out. Perhaps it is too easy to poke holes in an old dissertation, especially one so clearly rooted in a pre-social-history way of asking and answering questions. I would say, however, that there are plenty of “old” works of history I have read that still stand up to rigorous questioning today — some of them even dry, wonky works of policy-fascinated scholars. (I’d include Paul Wallage Gates’s History of Public Land Law Development, and many of the volumes in the Economic History of the United States series put out by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in the 1920s and 1930s.) Some profs still include these classics on prelim lists, despite their age, because they still have something to teach — many of them are what we might today consider “ahead of their time.”

But here’s my broader question: once a historian, always a historian? Once a biologist, always a biologist? Is the answer the same? If you get a Ph.D. in a field (the terminal degree being one of the primary ways in which disciplines police and maintain themselves), do you keep that identity always, even if you go on to do something completely different that does not require you to keep abreast of developments in your field? And, regardless of how you might self-identify, would others — both within and without of the field — be willing to grant you that identity as well? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Take me back to Tech…

Well, folks, here I am back in m12-182, and it’s a sight to behold: a room full of SunBlade 1500s with Sun flat panel displays. Other changes to the ‘Tute include a renovation of Building 6 (in progress), the completion of the Broad and the new BCS building, a renovation of the Building 4 Coffee Shop (now apparently called “Cafe Four”), and another equally dumb renovation of Lobdell. Face it, guys: the food sucks, and no amount of cosmetics will fix that. Oh, and there is of course a new cluster combo.
I had lunch with the OCW folk, and stopped by Admissions on my way in to say hi to Ben and company. It’s one of those rainy January days in Boston where it can’t quite decide whether or not it wants to snow. I’m hoping that it turns — snow is, in my mind, far preferable to this fickle half-rain.
I met up with Sherv and Jack for lunch at the CBC yesterday — we drank barleywine and shot the shit for almost two hours before I headed across the river to meet Laura before she left for her new residence in Florida. We walked around the Common and the Public Garden, she told me about her engagement, and we talked about life and moving forward and family and relationships, and enjoyed the beautiful day in the heart of our beloved city. After she left to pack up the car with Kevin, I walked around Beacon Hill, gave Paul a call in Madison, and walked back over the Longfellow to Cambridge and into Central Square, where I took the T back to Laurie’s place in Porter.
LB and I made a pizza and drank wine and did a jigsaw puzzle; her housemate Laura helped, and Scott came over to help with the pizza and have ice cream sundaes with us. Eventually all four of us were gathered around the table, putting together pieces, listening to music, talking, and having a great time. We made it a relatively early night, as today was the first day back to school for this house full of teachers.
I’m trying to figure out how best to spend my afternoon here in greater Boston. I’m contemplating something involving coffee from the 1369. But, at least, for now, it’s time to get out of the cluster.

The rise of the admissions bloggers.

McGann and Ben-O gave a presentation today at the NEACAC Annual Conference on the MIT Office of Admissions‘ use of blogs. This is a topic which is close to home, as the whole idea came out during my time in the office, when a bunch of MIT applicants stumbled across my own personal blog. Apparently my seventh entry ever was one of the top ten Google hits for the query “MIT early action” (this is no longer the case). Presumably intrigued by discovering the personal weblog of an MIT admissions officer, a prospective student posted the link to College Confidential, and suddenly a significant portion of my hits were from high school students interested in MIT.
New to the blogging world and thrilled to realize I had a new and unexpected built-in audience, I started to take this into consideration in my entries. In addition to the stuff I wanted to post about anyway, I tried to make entries about life at MIT, the admissions process, and the Boston area. My thought was that this could be a really marvelous opportunity to demystify the black-box of admissions, make it more human, and help high schoolers to realize that admissions officers are real people with real lives, who think and care a lot about their work. Plus, I thought that, being an MIT alumna, I could provide both an admissions counselor’s and a recent student’s perspective on the Institute, something which could be very valuable to kids trying to get a feel for the place, and to make decisions about where they want to go to college.
It was a wonderful exercise for me — not to mention a lot of fun — and it offered a great new way of interacting casually with applicants. I developed correspondences with several students, and was even able to give feedback and information to curious parents. Once I realized the potential this conversational medium had for admissions, I shared it with my coworkers — first carefully, talking just to McGann and Laura, and then, when the applicants had become regular readers, with Marilee and Lorelle and Joanne and the rest of the senior staff. Marilee was initially skeptical, but I think once everyone in the office realized how good it was proving to be for prospective students and their families, they started to get behind it. There was nothing official about my blog — it wasn’t focused solely on admissions, and I wasn’t writing only for an admissions office — but it was a beginning.
It wasn’t until the spring, though, that I realized the full impact of what I was doing. When I was approached by admitted students at Campus Preview Weekend with the words, “Oh, you’re Amrys, with the blog!” or “I read your blog!” — and even “Oh, oh, oh: best entry ever…” followed by a description of a favorite post — the extent to which my blog had made a difference was really driven home for me. These kids (and many of their parents) had actually found my blog to be helpful, reassuring, illuminating, even fun. They’d had a point of contact to humanize the whole process, to remind them that real people — people like me — were behind these decisions, and that had, for many people, been incredibly positive.
But it wasn’t just prospective students who were reading my blog, I discovered. At the IVY+ Admissions Conference, hosted at MIT in 2004, I was approached by other admissions officers who had read my blog. One woman actually introduced herself to me as “your doppelganger” — also class of ’02, also an admissions counselor, also working at her alma mater, also possessed of a Welsh first name and an English surname. I mean: wow.
With the new MIT Admissions portal underway, blogging seemed to be something that our office should be taking advantage of intentionally, rather than accidentally. Thanks to our staff’s openness, and the positively stellar support, advocacy, and follow-through of admissions officer extraordinaire Matt McGann and our new communications director and rock star Ben Jones — not to mention cooperation from FinAid and the help of the student interns — this past cycle saw blogs making an enormous impact on the admissions process at MIT. It created a community of prospective students who were able to connect with each other, have their questions answered, develop relationships with admissions folk and other people at the Institute, and really recruit each other. We’ve always said that MIT students are the best reason to come to MIT, so it only makes sense that to put prospective students in touch with other prospective students.
I think the next few years will see other colleges hopping on board the blogging bandwagon. Of course, it isn’t all puppy dogs and roses: it’s a lot of work, and there are a lot of challenges and decisions to be faced when implementing something like this. I suspect that blogs will be truly useful in admissions only if they are not simply publicity tools, but forums, communities, and places for honesty. I think MIT’s done a pretty good job of this, and I’d like to give props to Matt and Ben, who took my accident and made it into an enormous success.
This entry is meant to be a reflection on what’s occurred over the past couple of years, not a rigorous analysis of blogging and/or admissions. These are, of course, topics I’ve thought a lot about, but they deserve a more thoughtful and critical entry. Perhaps that will come soon. Meanwhile, I’d just like to recognize the achievements of my former colleagues, who will be receiving Infinite Mile awards next week for their dedication and hard work. I think they deserve it.

MIT comes through for the Sox?

Yesterday, McGann and I were talking baseball over the phone, when he asked me, “Did you ever do Birmingham on Fall Travel?”
I did not.
“Ah, so you don’t know the Regional Chair down there.”
I do not.
“Well, you’ll be interested in this story anyway,” he said. “Have you heard about Keith Foulke?”
I guess I’d not been keeping up with the latest news.
“The rumor was that Foulke had gone down to Alabama to see some sort of specialist. It turns out this guy is Gelnn Fleisig, an MIT alum, one of our ECs, the Regional Chair down in Birmingham. He’s apparently a renowned expert on the mechanics of baseball, and he specializes in pitching injuries.”
I agree with him that this is very, very cool.
McGann, of course, has done a great writeup on the guy over at his blog, with links to several articles about Fleisig. The Baseball Prospectus interview gives some great insight into how he got on this particular career path.
Was it effective? Well, the first question is, I suppose, Did it really happen? Francona and Foulke both sidestepped the question, as C2F points out. It’s not surprising: they have to be sanguine and politic, when the media are just waiting for a chance to pounce on the beleaguered reliever. Whatever happened down in Alabama, I hope it helps. I’d like to see the old Keith Foulke back out there.
And it’d make a great story to tell on the road.

The culture of expertise.

From Arnold Pacey’s The Culture of Technology:

Such awareness [of the political, social, and economic dimensions of problems] can only come, to engineering as well as medicine, with changes in education and reforms in professional life. We need an atmosphere in which wide-ranging, interdisciplinary work of political involvement is not regarded as unprofessional; we need education which encourages the proper exploration of situations before there is a rush to problem-solving; we need to break down tunnel vision. Given these conditions, we would less often find potentially beneficial technology turning into distorted, damaging fixes.

The Lewis Report.

If you have even a remote interest in (a) education, (b) history, (c) engineering, (d) MIT, or (e) things of interest to me — and I assume you must, otherwise why read this blog? — you should take a gander at The Lewis Report (by which I mean you should read the thing, or at least the introductory chapters), the report of the 1949 Committee on Educational Survey, chaired by Warren Lewis, that reevaluated MIT’s education and direction in the wake of World War II.
It’s a document I’ve been meaning to read for years now, particularly since the formation of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons last academic year. In fact, McGann has long recommended it to me, and I’m ashamed to say it’s only now that I’ve gotten around to it. The most recent motivation came from a set of readings for the STS.464, The Intellectual History of Technology, which I’m auditing for work: this past week included selections from Veblen and from David Noble’s America by Design. Discussion of the history of engineering education got me thinking (as, considering my recent employment, it’s a topic I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating seriously over the past few years), and I thought Noble’s summary might benefit from a bit of source material. So I printed off the Lewis Report and started in.
Last spring, as we sat in the Bush room listening to the GIR Committee (a more convenient and parseable foreshortening of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, since we call them GIRs and not UECs) present to a meeting of the Corporation, McGann leaned over and whispered to me, “Have you read the Lewis Report?”
I shook my head.
“You should,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
He’s right. It is wonderful. I care deeply about MIT, and so perhaps its effect on me is more emotional and pronounced than it might be on the average person, but I cannot imagine that this impassioned document would fail to inspire anyone who cares about education and the betterment of mankind. I know that “The Report of the Committee on Educational Survey to the Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology” doesn’t sound like a very compelling read, but it’s marvelous. A taste of the introduction might compel you:

IN JANUARY OF 1947, the Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appointed the Committee on Educational Survey to review the state of education at the Institute. The committee was instructed to reexamine the principles of education that had served as a guide to academic policy at M.I.T. for almost ninety years, and to determine whether they are applicable to the conditions of a new era emerging from social upheaval and the disasters of war.

Our study has consumed more than two years, and we have at times been appalled both by the magnitude of our task and the slowness of progress. We have given little attention to the details of curricula, for we have believed that major revision should be undertaken only after a basic reevaluation of our educational philosophy. We have, however, examined the concept of professional education upon which this Institute was founded and reassessed our way of teaching. Our task, as we have seen it, has been to determine whether the Institute must alter the direction of its effort, or broaden its base, or apply its methods in new ways and to new areas.

A long tradition of leadership in professional education at M. I .T. has culminated in a magnificent record of national service. At no time has the Institute stood so high in the public esteem. One senses a feeling of confidence and power. The frontiers of knowledge are being attacked with boldness and enterprise. We take pride in our fine body of students; our relations with industry have never been more cordial; and we have been called upon to participate in national planning and defense on an unprecedented scale.

Why, then, was there felt a need of critical appraisal at a time when the Institute was conspicuously healthy and vigorous? In formulating questions to guide the deliberations of this committee, the faculty has indicated concern about the educational implications of changes that have taken place both in the Institute and in the society that it serves. Our studies have revealed apprehensiveness among our staff and alumni that in an exciting inflationary atmosphere, when money was easy and physical expansion tempting, we may have yielded uncritically to temporary pressures and lost sight of long-range educational goals. These misgivings as to the wisdom of some of our current enterprises are clearly tempered by a reluctance to abandon them. We find also a fear that we are complacently adhering to a kind of education that proved successful a generation ago, without taking into account significant changes that may have made this kind of education obsolete.

Forces are at work that appear to be bringing about subtle and profound alterations in the very character of the Institute. There has been an enormous expansion of physical plant, and a corresponding growth of staff. We continue to proclaim that our primary mission is to teach, but other activities have assumed an unprecedented role at M.I.T. Service to the community and to the national government has always been recognized as a primary obligation, but now the dollar volume of government-sponsored research amounts to far more than the academic budget. Postwar government funds have been used to maintain a very large technical staff without privilege of
tenure, and a major part of the Institute’s personnel is now dependent upon the continuation of short-term financial support. Government money has made available to us magnificent facilities that have become a permanent part of the Institute, and that involve continued responsibility for their maintenance.

This committee has no desire to recommend change for the sake of change, but it also believes that there is no road back. The world of 1950 is not the world of 1940, nor can this institution ever again be the same sort of place it was before the war. We are faced with certain accomplished facts that cannot be ignored. All of our future planning must take these changes into account.

Many of the changes that have taken place in the Institute reflect new conditions in the world about us. The release of nuclear energy is having a profound effect upon the course of human events, but other forces are also at work on society. They were beginning to modify our way of life long before the atomic bomb.

We are awake now, at last, to the knowledge that our rich and prosperous nation cannot withdraw into isolation. We have discovered that the social institutions of the United States are subject to forces similar to those that are molding the destinies of Europe and Asia. The very concepts of democracy, of equality of opportunity, and of leadership are shifting and developing in the American mind. The utter waste of two world wars confronts us with the necessity of considering the finite limits of our national resources. Even more significant, and perhaps more threatening to our present
form of democracy, is a persistent tendency to growth and centralization of control in all organizations and institutions, industrial, financial, educational, and labor. There is a concerted effort to increase the efficiency of management and to eliminate fluctuations in economic and social status. One must at times wonder whether the price of some of these changes may be an ever-diminishing premium placed on the man who is different, on the function and qualities of imaginative and creative leadership.

Democracy as we have known it for more than two hundred years is the fruit of leadership that rises from the initiative and individuality of the people. If this nation is to hold to a high goal, it must continue to cultivate a superiority of spirit and intellect. Since the war, there has appeared a new national consciousness of the responsibility for providing education to all of our young men and women commensurate with their ability. But in broadening the educational base, let us not stifle individuality by seeking uniformity; let us not fail to discern the gifted mind, to foster special talents, and to provide an environment in which these may flourish.

We believe that the mission of the Institute should be to encourage initiative, to promote the spirit of free and objective inquiry, to recognize and provide opportunities for unusual interests and aptitudes; in short, to develop men as individuals who will contribute creatively to our society, in this day when strong forces oppose all deviations from set patterns. We believe that the Institute should boldly undertake new experiments in education and new explorations into the unknown, withdrawing at the same time from ventures in which its leadership is no longer required. Our task, as we see it, has been to consider how the Institute may accomplish these purposes most effectively.

If that’s not a hint at how important an understanding of history is to the matters of the present, I don’t know what is. I’m moved just reading it.
And I’m moved to add item (f) to the list: The United States of America. As Noble says, engineering education as we know it is uniquely American in character. I’ve long been thinking about the connections between the culture at MIT and the wider American culture (or, rather, ideal); perhaps it’s time to start working on that article again.
I can only hope that the current Committee takes up their task with the same reverence and care that the Lewis Committee did. Suffice it to say that MIT is once again at a crossroads — and has been for some years now — and thisTask Force will likely have an impact equal to that of the Lewis Committee. Let’s hope they get it right.