Reflections on MIT

In two days I leave MIT.

I wanted to take a little time to reflect on what the place is like. There’s a lot of mythology and legend built up around the place – you can tell from the fact that we have tourist groups from around the world here every day or two. I wanted to give a little insight into the Institute beyond the “we number everything” and “LOL hacks” level.

MIT is a highly “siloed” institution. When you’re working in your group, it’s common to not hear about other groups. Who are doing the same thing. In the next building over. Part of this is due to workload. You spend a lot of time working rather than making connections, which is fairly understandable. Unfortunately, it’s endemic to the culture of the institute. For instance, the network on my floor is run by the same group that runs the network on half of the 2nd floor, but the other half of the 2nd floor and the 1st floor are run by a different group. I think it’s only in the last year that the various education research groups have taken notice of each other. I sort of worry that when I go, one of the big links between our group and the Bio Education group will disappear.

The “not made here” ethic is also big at MIT. People would rather create something of their own than use existing materials. I can’t say that we end up with shoddy products because of it – instead, we end up with products that lack functionality.

It was stunning to see how technologically conservative the school is. Only last year did they start using online course registration, something that RPI implemented when I was an undergrad and UMass implemented when I was a grad student. Naturally, the “not made here” problem was present in that as well. I was also surprised that when I got here, I, who just came from teaching high school for four years, was the tech guy in my group. The stereotype that everyone at MIT is a technological wizard is a little overblown. (There are tech wizards here, just not everyone.)

On the more positive side, it’s very encouraging to see the motivations of the people who work here. Sure, there are curmudgeons who are only in it for their own fame, but the majority – the vast majority – of professors and staff at MIT do what they do because they want to improve the world. These are people motivated by compassion, by their conscience, and by consideration for others. I appreciate their pursuit of the truth, but more than that I admire their humanitarian goals.

MIT is most definitely filled with smart people. It’s also filled with very hard-working people, and the latter who get more respect. Smart people are a dime a dozen around here; you can’t swing a cat (why would you swing a cat?) without hitting one. Most folks are also hard-working, but there are some who really stand head-and-shoulders above when it comes to work ethic.

MIT definitely gets a high level of performance out of its students. The Institute’s basic method for this is as follows:

  1. Recruit the best
  2. Work them like dogs
  3. Provide safety nets

Most people wouldn’t expect the third one. MIT provides a lot of safety nets for its students, from summer programs for underprepared students to “recovery” courses to tutoring groups to special-interest dorms and affinity groups. If someone claims that the institute ignored them, they probably didn’t reach out. There’s no doubt that the workload is intentionally overwhelming, but there is support – free support! – for people who are willing to make the time for it.

When I was a high-school student, I wanted to go to MIT for college. It wasn’t my greatest dream or anything, but it was an aspiration. I ended up at RPI instead, which was a good school for me (at least as an undergraduate – I shouldn’t have stayed for graduate school). In the end I was ok that I hadn’t gone to MIT, because I heard about the level of competition and stress that pervades the institute, and I had enough difficulty dealing with stress as it was. I think I could have handled it here, but I don’t think I would have been happy. I’m glad when I see students who are happy here, because I know that the dream of making the world a better place is alive in them as well.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on August 28, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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