Student life

Chushingura and Catastrophe

Whenever people asked me how shifts in the prevailing culture are effected at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I looked wisely at them, tapped the side of my nose with my index finger, and whispered, “Chushingura.”

They would look puzzled, as I knew they would. I gleefully launched into my explanation.

Chushingura is the name of a historical event in Japanese history depicted in all sorts of genres — bunraku, kabuki, films, novels, ballet. It is a long, long story that can take several days to perform on stage. I’ll put it into a nutshell. The evil senior lord Ko no Moronao goads the good daimyo Enya Hangan into drawing his sword in the shogun’s palace. Decorum seals Hangan’s fate. He must kill himself. He gathers his retainers — 47 ronin — around him, lowers himself onto two tatami mats covered in white cloth, and just before slitting himself open from left to right with a slight uptick of the sword at the right end of the gash as called for by tradition, he looks at his chief retainer and says, "I resent this." That’s all he says. Not a long diatribe about what a bastard Moronao is and how he tricked me and how I should have known better, but there it is, and I hope you aren’t going to let the lowlife scumbag get away with this. Nothing like that. Just three little words: "I resent this."

That’s how important changes are often made at MIT. People who are highly respected in the community simply have to say, "I resent this." Lo and behold, something happens.

Here is an example. Somewhere in the mid-1980s Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, came to MIT to give a talk on his retinex theory of color. The room in which the talk was held, 26-100, was packed to overflowing. I had managed to squeeze my way into standing room at the very back. About this time MIT was rethinking the kind of student it wanted to admit. There was a view that the institute should move away from highly specialized students in favor of generalists with a broad range of interests. Land had obviously gotten wind of this.

He didn’t like it. He began his talk that afternoon, not with a general introduction to retinex theory, but with a disparaging comment to the effect that generalists were people who knew very little about quite a lot, jacks of all trades and masters of none. Science, he said in so many words, does not move forward on the shoulders of generalists. Shortly thereafter MIT was no longer looking for generalists.

Here is another example. The Committee on Sexual Harassment made its report to the Academic Council in 1990. The next year I started an annual survey. I sent it out to MIT’s complaint handlers, to all the faculty and supervisory staff. In it I asked the respondents to report on the number of incidents of sexual harassment they had to deal with in one year. In 1991 that number was 68. The following year it was 27. By 2001 it was 18. This was chÅ«shingura. Why? As far as I was concerned, the point of the survey was not to collect numbers — though that was a desirable side effect.

The point of the survey was to let faculty and supervisors know that MIT was taking zero tolerance of sexual harassment extremely seriously. The survey didn’t say that explicitly. What it said was, "I resent this."

Chushingura is one way culture shifts at the Institute. The other, more dramatic way is catastrophe. It is extraordinary how catastrophes move people off their assumptions. When I first became associate provost, I worried quite a bit about how MIT chose to house its incoming freshman class. The process had a name, R/O, where R stood for "residence" and O for "orientation."

The emphasis was overwhelmingly on the R. For a week or so students would be temporarily housed in dorms while they roamed around the campus sampling every kind of living group MIT had to offer: the dormitories themselves, the special interest houses like Russian House and German House, the so-called independent living groups, the fraternities and the sororities. Students who were interested in fraternities or sororities had to pledge one of those groups. Students who were interested in dorms had to state their preferences and every attempt was made to give them their first choice.

The students loved this process because it made them feel as if MIT was treating them like adults. In 1996 a survey showed that 87 percent of the students were happy with this system, more than any other freshman housing system in the country. What was at the heart of the system was choice. Nobody told you where to live. You decided for yourself.

Why was I against this system despite its obvious popularity with the student body? There were two main reasons, neither of which cut any ice with the students. The first was that the way the system worked, a student would essentially stay in the same dorm room for four years. That meant students would see the same faces for their entire undergraduate experience. From the point of view of an administrator interested in encouraging diversity, this kind of insularity seemed counterproductive. From the point of view of the students, it meant that strong and lasting friendships could be forged.

The logic of the living group connection is really very simple. The students like where they live because they get to choose where they live. But I think there is something else going on. It came to me when I recalled walking up a hill on Professors Row at Tufts University maybe a quarter of a century ago.

It was close to midnight, graduation eve, in fact. I was playing the trombone at the time, along with a banjo player and a trumpeter. We were leading the senior class to the top of the hill where they were about to be addressed by the head of the Alumni Association. We were playing Dixieland tunes — "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Bill Bailey," "Cakewalkin’ Babies," that sort of thing. Each student held a cup with a candle burning inside. It was an impressive candlelight parade winding its way to the top of the hill — a rite of passage. It was also a ritual meant to bind the class not to where they lived but to Tufts University. The next day they were going to graduate. Tonight the head of the Alumni Association was welcoming them into a new relationship. Tufts hadn’t missed a beat.

It occurred to me that nothing like that happens at MIT, no parading with lit candles à la Tufts, no marching through campus the way Princeton University’s P-rade does, the oldest graduates at the head, and each subsequent class falling in behind after applauding its predecessors until the youngest takes up the rear. MIT has no such binding ritual. Well, that isn’t exactly right. R/O is MIT’s ritual, a weeklong ritual with elaborate rules for finding and choosing and being absorbed into a living group. The problem with the R/O ritual is that it binds the student, not to MIT, but to where the student lives. For a smart place that is, well, not so smart! No wonder graduates have always been on the short end of contributions to the alumni fund.

But ritual or no, it was the second reason that was the stronger negative for me as associate provost. During R/O week students visited not only dormitories but fraternities as well. Roughly a third of the student body ended up in fraternities. But the problem was that it wasn’t enough that you chose a fraternity — the fraternity had to choose you. If you pledged a particular fraternity and they didn’t like you, you were "flushed." The metaphor was especially opprobrious. Think what is normally flushed.

When I pointed this out to student leaders, I was met with indifference or else with rationalizations about why it wasn’t all that harmful. One argument especially galled me: life has its disappointments and this is a good life lesson. I was supposed to swallow the argument that the students were doing good by doing bad. The system was a foreshadowing of reality TV shows like "Survivor." I might even have been convinced had I not made it my business to talk to students who had been flushed and who seemed quite content with the dormitories they finally settled into. They were hard to find. They didn’t want to be reminded. But those who owned up to having been rejected admitted that it was a bitter pill to swallow, especially in their first week at MIT.

Perhaps to stop me from harping continually on the unsatisfactory nature of R/O, John Deutch [then the provost], much to his credit, formed the Freshman Housing Committee in 1989 to review how MIT accommodated each new class. That committee validated all of the concerns I raised and more. In October 1989 they wrote their report. The very first recommendation was: "For the freshman year, it is recommended that all students be housed on campus."

The recommendation went on to specify that freshmen would live on campus and be distributed throughout the dormitories. Fraternity and sorority rush would be postponed to the spring. In other words, R/O week would be changed completely — and in my view for the better.

On November 15, 1989, the report was presented to the faculty. Faculty members were split in their support. Those who had been through MIT themselves or who were involved in undergraduate housing touted R/O as a positive experience, lauding the "strong bonds established in student residence." Choice was also high on the list of positive arguments. Others supported the committee recommendations. One faculty member (as I recall, it was Lester Thurow, the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management) commented that other universities commonly housed their freshmen on campus for the first year. This exchange is recorded in the faculty minutes:

"Could the other universities all be wrong?" he asked.

"Yes," came a faculty reply.

Sometime after the November faculty meeting, John Deutch sponsored an open forum on the Potter Committee report, as it came to be called. It was held in 6-120, a lecture hall that seats 154. It felt like 400, the room was so full. There was a brief description of the report’s recommendations and then the floor was opened to discussion. Overwhelmingly, the students present — those attending were mostly students — objected to any change in the system.

John chaired the meeting and listened intently to two full hours of rejection. At the end of the meeting, out of curiosity I asked for a straw vote. "How many of you are against the recommendations of the Potter report?"

Every hand in the room went up, but one. That led me to ask, "How many are for it?"

Way in the back of the room, in the very last row, at the very top, on the right, a single hand went up.

I was intrigued. “Why are you in favor of the report? Do you mind telling us?”

The lone voter said, "I’m not in favor of the report. I always vote against the majority as a matter of principle."

I think John and President Paul Gray saw that there was simply too much opposition. Not only was the opposition from students and faculty on campus too strong, but there was significant opposition from alumni who had gotten wind of the report and waded in with e-mails, letters, and irate phone calls. Consequently, for the next eight years, nothing happened. The report was shelved.

For almost eight years after the Potter Committee report — nothing happened. It was business as usual. Then, on Saturday, September 27, 1997, came the catastrophe. During an initiation event run by the fraternity he had pledged, Phi Gamma Delta, a freshman, Scott Krueger, died. Here is an excerpt from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s statement of the case authored by assistant district attorney Pamela J. Wechsler:

On Wednesday, September 24, 1997, Krueger and the rest of his 12-member "pledge group" were told by their fraternity’s elected "pledge trainer" that an event, traditionally called "Animal House Night," would be held on the evening of Friday, September 26, 1997. The pledge trainer advised these 12 freshmen pledges that their attendance was mandatory and that they would meet their fraternity "big brothers" at the end of the night. The pledges were told that they were to gather together that night at 8:30 p.m. in a designated room at the fraternity, watch the movie "Animal House," and collectively drink a certain prescribed amount of alcohol. Scott Krueger expressed anxiety about the event to his twin sister and to fellow pledges at MIT. Like most 18-year-olds fresh out of high school, Krueger had limited experience with alcohol before arriving at MIT and moving into an MIT fraternity.

During the first part of the event on the night of September 26, 1997, the Phi Gamma Delta "pledge trainer" provided the group of pledges with beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey that he had purchased earlier. The pledges consumed all of the alcohol. At about 11:00 p.m., the fraternity “big brothers” entered the “Animal House” room and the pledge trainer ordered the pledges to line-up. The "big brothers" were introduced and then the whole group sang a Phi Gamma Delta drinking song that ended with the words "drink her down, drink her down, drink her down, down, down."

Each "big brother" had an additional bottle of hard liquor to share with his "little brother." Scott Krueger’s "big brother" presented him with a bottle of Bacardi spiced rum. As the event wore on, Krueger began complaining of nausea, and lay down on a couch. Within minutes he began to lose consciousness. Two "big brothers" of the fraternity then carried Krueger to his new bedroom in the fraternity, placed him on his stomach, and positioned a trash can nearby. Approximately ten minutes later Krueger was unconscious and covered with vomit. Instead of immediately calling 911, a fraternity member dialed the MIT campus police who in turn transferred the call to 911. Emergency medical technicians responded quickly and discovered that Scott Krueger was not breathing, his face was blue, and he had choked on his own vomit. He was rushed by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where he remained in a coma for some 40 hours until he was ultimately pronounced dead on Monday, September 29, 1997.

That was what it took to get MIT to revisit the recommendations of the Potter Committee report of 1989.

The death of Scott Krueger put freshman housing back on the institute’s agenda. In August 1998 Chuck Vest [then the president] announced that as of the fall of 2001 all freshmen would be housed in campus residence halls. That was one year after Krueger’s death. There had been a lot of discussion during that year, much of it with faculty and students, but much of it with a “hidden” constituency, the alumni. Many of them were angry as bulls at a May Day parade. I suspect they put the same pressure on Chuck that they did on Paul Gray and John Deutch in 1989 when the Potter Committee report appeared.

I can only speculate why Chuck finally made the decision that he did. For the five years before Krueger’s death, I had been, as a colleague once put it, "a telephone off the hook." That is to say, having stepped down as associate provost in 1993, I had been out of the line of fire. Still, I knew Chuck well enough to know from a distance that the Krueger death hit him very close to home. He met with Scott Krueger’s parents personally. That was probably the hardest thing he had to do as a university president.

There was no way that he wasn’t going to resolve what, in remarks to the MIT faculty at a meeting on September 16, 1998, he called the “unresolved” business of the Potter Committee report. Strengthened by the catastrophe of a freshman’s death, Chuck was able to do what had been undoable at least for the past decade. He changed the way MIT freshmen were married to their rooms. It is significant that the president who made that important change should have been an outsider. His distance from the MIT student culture that that entailed may have added just the right dash of objectivity needed to do "the right thing."

How big a change was it? The biggest change in my view was that the week when freshmen came onto campus and settled into their accommodations was now a dry week. No more alcohol-soaked bacchanalias. That was a very good thing. Binge drinking is a form of sporting death, I suppose. That is what the Phi Gamma Deltas were doing to a fare-thee-well.

Binge drinking happens at almost every institution of higher learning in the United States. I read one report that said that 42 percent of all college students admit to binge drinking at one time or another during their undergraduate years. At MIT the figure is almost half that — 24 percent. Why should that be? My own street-corner diagnosis is that MIT pre-selects for students who engage in addictive behavior. What MIT has managed to do is to channel that addictive compulsion into a nondestructive groove — namely, mastering a curriculum that is basically unmasterable.

My advice to universities interested in cutting down on binge drinking would be to ratchet up the demands of the curriculum. I’m sure that advice would go over like a lead balloon. What happened to the question of choice once freshmen were required to live in dormitory space on campus? As far as I can tell, they have the same amount of choice they had before, only it has been stretched out over a longer period of time. This is a crucial (and clever) property of the new system. The students choose where they live for the first year, so long as it is on campus and in residential dormitories. Sometime during the year they can choose to go into independent living groups in their second year or stay put. As of this writing, 50 percent of the male students opt for fraternity affiliation of one sort or another.

What about the culture of the dorms? Judging from my 2010 conversation with the young woman from Senior House and from the (strictly student-made) DVD that accompanies the "Guide to Residences" that is sent to incoming freshmen during the summer to help them decide where on campus they want to live, the culture hasn’t changed one whit.

Samuel Jay Keyser is professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy and former associate provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This essay is an adapted excerpt from his new book, Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows (MIT Press) and appears here courtesy of the press.

Untouchable Cyberbullies

Smart Title: 

On campus and in Congress, the quest to stop rude online attacks on students may be easier said than done.

Return of the Mumps

Smart Title: 

After major outbreaks in the spring, disease turns up at 3 campuses this month, adding to concerns about vulnerability of students.

RateMyProfessors -- or His Shoes Are Dirty

Has changed the landscape of American higher education? Probably not. RATE (as I will hereafter refer to it) is in one respect merely a public space to enable students to do what they have always done privately: criticize or celebrate their professors. In many other respects, though, RATE alters the stakes of student criticism and changes the nature of student authority.

The change is not for the better. Compare student evaluations. They've been around so long by now that it seems idle anymore to remark how routinized the evaluation process has become: students take five minutes to mark a checklist, department committees can effectively ignore the results, or local administrations often manipulate them for their own purposes. We have heard it all before. Now student evaluations are part of educational business as usual, like customer surveys.

But wait. One thing you immediately learn when you visit RATE is that students generally seem to care more passionately than you realized, and some are able to write with more wit than you saw in your own course evaluations. A Top Twenty from the site circulates online,  including "Three of my friends got A's in his class and my friends are dumb," "If I was tested on herfamily, I would have gotten an A," and, my own favorite, "BORING. But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling."

From a reader's point of view, who cares if these comments are accurate? They're fun to read. From a colleague's point of view, who cares if just about any comments are just? They're irresistible to read, like gossip. RATE opens up the whole evaluative process insofar as teaching is concerned. Suddenly students get to say what they really think, not just to themselves but to a potential audience of thousands. Rather like guests on certain afternoon television talk shows, individuals feel inspired to be more recklessly candid.

But the trouble begins here. Like those guests, students turn out to be candid about the same thing. Rather than sex, it's grades. Over and over again, RATE comments cut right to the chase: how easy does the professor grade? If easy, all things are forgiven, including a dull classroom presence. If hard, few things are forgiven, especially not a dull classroom presence. Of course we knew students are obsessed with grades. Yet until RATE could we have known how utterly, unremittingly, remorselessly?

And now the obsession is free to roam and cavort, without the constraints of the class-by-class student evaluation forms, with their desiderata about the course being "organized" or the instructor having "knowledge of subject matter." These things still count. RATE students regularly register them. But nothing counts like grades. Compared to RATE, the familiar old student evaluation forms suddenly look like searching inquiries into the very nature of formal education, which consists of many other things than the evaluative dispositions of the professor teaching it.

What other things? For example, whether or not the course is required. Even the most rudimentary of student evaluation forms calls for this information. Not RATE. Much of the reason a student is free to go straight for the professorial jugular -- and notwithstanding all the praise, the site is a splatfest -- is because course content can be merrily cast aside. The raw, visceral encounter of student with professor, as mediated through the grade, emerges as virtually the sole item of interest.

Of course one could reply: so what? The site elicits nothing else. That's why it's called, "rate my professors," and not "rate my course." In effect, RATE takes advantage of the slippage always implicit in traditional student evaluations, which both are and are not evaluations of the professor rather than the course. To be precise, they are evaluations of the professor in terms of a particular course. This particularity, on the other hand, is precisely what is missing at the RATE site, where whether or not a professor is being judged by majors -- a crucial factor for departmental and college-wide tenure or promotion committees who are processing an individual's student evaluations -- is not stipulated.

Granted, a student might bring up being a major. A student might bring anything up. This is why RATE disappoints, though, because there's no framework, not even that of a specific course, to restrain or guide student comments. "Sarcastic" could well be a different thing in an upper-division than in a lower-division course. But in the personalistic RATE idiom, it's always a character flaw. Indeed, the purest RATE comments are all about character. Just as the course is without content, the professor is without performative ability. Whether he's a "nice guy" or she "plays favorites," it's as if the student has met the professor a few times at a party, rather than as a member of his or her class for a semester.

RATE comments are particularly striking if we compare those made by the professor's colleagues as a result of classroom observations. Many departments have evolved extremely detailed checksheets. I have before me one that divides the observation into four categories, including Personal Characteristics (10 items), Interpersonal Relationships (8), Subject Application/Knowledge (8), and Conducting Instruction (36). Why so many in the last category? Because performance matters -- which is just what we tell students about examinations: each aims to test not so much an individual's knowledge as a particular performance of that

Of course, some items on the checksheet are of dubious value, e.g. "uses a variety of cognitive levels when asking questions." So it goes in the effort to itemize successful teaching, an attempt lauded by proponents of student evaluations or lamented by critics. The genius of RATE is to bypass the attempt entirely, most notoriously with its "Hotness Total." Successful teaching? You may be able to improve "helpfulness" or "clarity." But you can't very well improve "hotness." Whether or not you are a successful teacher is not safely distant at RATE from whether or not you are "hot."

Perhaps it never was. In calling for a temperature check, RATE may merely be directly addressing a question -- call it the charisma of an individual professor -- that traditional student evaluations avoid. If so, though, they avoid it with good reason: charisma can't be routinized. When it is, it becomes banal, which is one reason why the critical comments are far livelier than the celebratory ones. RATE winds up testifying to one truism about teaching: It's a lot easier to say what good teaching isn't than to say what it is. Why? One reason is, because it's a lot easier for students who care only about teachers and not about teaching to say so.

Finally, what about these RATE students? How many semester hours have they completed? How many classes did they miss? It is with good reason (we discover) that traditional student evaluation forms are careful to ask something about each student. Not only is it important for the administrative processing of each form. Such questions, even at a minimal level, concede the significance in any evaluation of the evaluating subject. Without some attention to this, the person under consideration is reduced to the status of an object -- which is, precisely, what the RATE professor becomes, time after time. Students on RATE provide no information at all about themselves, not even initials or geographical locations, as given by many of the people who rate books and movies on or who give comments on columns and articles on this Web site.

In fact, students at RATE don't even have to be students! I know of one professor who was so angered at a comment made by one of her students that she took out a fake account, wrote a more favorable comment about herself, and then added more praise to the comments about two of her colleagues. How many other professors do this? There's no telling -- just as there's no telling about local uses of the site by campus committees. Of course this is ultimately the point about RATE: Even the student who writes in the most personal comments (e.g. "hates deodorant") is completely safe from local retribution -- never mind accountability -- because the medium is so completely anonymous.

Thus, the blunt energies of RATE emerge as cutting edge for higher education in the 21st century. In this respect, the degree of accuracy concerning any one individual comment about any one professor is beside the point. The point is instead the medium itself and the nature of the judgements it makes possible. Those on display at RATE are immediate because the virtual medium makes them possible, and anonymous because the same medium requires no identity markers for an individual. Moreover, the sheer aggregation of the site itself -- including anybody from anywhere in the country -- emerges as much more decisive than what can or cannot be said on it. I suppose this is equivalent to shrugging, whatever we think of RATE, we now have to live with it.

I think again of the very first student evaluation I received at a T.A. The result? I no longer remember. Probably not quite as bad as I
feared, although certainly not as good as I hoped. The only thing I remember is one comment. It was made, I was pretty sure, by a student who sat right in the front row, often put her head down on the desk (the class was at 8 a.m.) and never said a word all semester. She wrote: "his shoes are dirty." This shocked me. What about all the time I had spent, reading, preparing, correcting? What about how I tried to make available the best interpretations of the stories required? My attempts to keep discussions organized, or just to have discussions, rather than lectures?

All irrelevant, at least for one student? It seemed so. Worse, I had to admit the student was probably right -- that old pair of brown wingtips I loved was visibly becoming frayed and I hadn't kept them shined. Of course I could object: Should the state of a professor's shoes really constitute a legitimate student concern? Come to this, can't you be a successful teacher if your shoes are dirty? In today's idiom, might this not even strike at least some students all by itself as being, well, "hot"? In any case, I've never forgotten this comment. Sometimes it represents to me the only thing I've ever learned from reading my student evaluations. I took it very personally once and I cherish it personally still.

Had it appeared on RATE, however, the comment would feel very different. A RATE[D] professor is likely to feel like a contestant on "American Idol," standing there smiling while the results from the viewing audience are totaled. What do any of them learn? Nothing, except that everything from the peculiarities of their personalities to, ah, the shine of their shoes, counts. But of course as professors we knew this already. Didn't we? Of course it might always be good to learn it all over again. But not at a site where nobody's particular class has any weight; not in a medium in which everybody's words float free; and not from students whose comments guarantee nothing except their own anonymity.  I'll bet some of them even wear dirty shoes.

Terry Caesar didn't even know he had been rated until his editor found this.


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