The single best thing about college for MIT Professor of History Anne McCants was "exploring ideas ravenously." It was like being in a candy store for four years," she says. Now, as newly appointed director of Concourse, a learning community for MIT freshmen, McCants says her goal is to give today's students the same heady experience of intellectual adventure and discovery within the context of a supportive group.
A welcoming portal to MIT
Recognized as one of MIT's finest teachers (she is a MacVicar Faculty Fellow), McCants understands that MIT, like many elite colleges, can be an "overwhelming or even frightening environment" for newcomers. That is why she is passionate about making Concourse a deeply welcoming portal to MIT — a year-long opportunity to take the edge off the anxiety and loneliness many freshmen experience.
"We want to create the kind of community you might have with people you've known a long time, something an individual might have difficulty jump-starting on their own," says McCants, who is also an award-winning historian and the housemaster for the Burton Conner residence hall.
The power of multi-dimensional knowledge
Founded in 1971, Concourse helps ensure freshmen meet their physics and calculus requirements, "setting them on the way for a successful MIT career," McCants say. At the same time, the program emphasizes the intellectual disciplines available to students in MIT's humanities, arts, and social sciences curriculum.
At MIT, it's easy to develop tunnel vision and forget that these technical skills have an application to humanity," says Jean Xin '14, a brain and cognitive sciences major. "Concourse has offered me the opportunity to explore the broader significance of the technical knowledge I am learning at MIT."
A school within a school
Approximately 45 freshmen from each incoming class are selected for Concourse, which provides the benefits of "a school within a school." Concourse students take their physics and calculus classes together, and they engage in a variety of special courses that purposefully integrate the study of the humanities and sciences.
"A great appeal of Concourse is that because it is a small community, we can have conversations about the same subjects and work on the same problems," notes McCants. The smaller Concourse classes substitute for large lecture courses, ensuring students get help when they need it. A tight-knit community with personal attention "For me, the single greatest aspect of concourse is the phenomenal personal attention," says Marcel Williams '14, a major in aeronautics and astronautics. "You never feel anonymous or overlooked among hundreds of your peers, and help is always close at hand. Belonging to such a tight-knit group has made a huge difference in helping me adjust to the rigors of MIT."
Students aren't the only ones who benefit from being part of the Concourse community. "In the Concourse program, a history professor for instance can routinely talk to a physics professor," which is rare in the ordinary course of academia, McCants notes.
A home for interdisciplinary thinking and connections
That's something many faculty members enjoy greatly, and Concourse is a great climate for the interdisciplinary thinking MIT celebrates. The program has another goal as well. "Our biggest challenge," says McCants, "is helping students see just how complex and interesting the world is. They know lots of things; they think they know lots more. Part of our job as educators is reminding ourselves, and our students — constantly — how much we human beings don't know." This year's focus: What is the good life?
The Friday seminar, in which all Concourse students and instructors participate, plays a prominent role in meeting this goal. This year's focus is "The good life: What makes for a good human existence?" Concourse's two resident political philosophers will connect ancient Greek thought with modern problems — adding what McCants describes as a "special Concourse flavor" to the seminars. Sessions will focus on such topics as the meaning of happiness and the interaction between human and divine.
McCants takes particular pleasure in shaping the Friday events. "We have people at MIT who work on these questions, and we will invite them to be part of the Concourse conversation. I want to expose students to faculty from philosophy, anthropology, literature … If the students think they are fantastic, they might say, 'What else do they teach?' or even, 'This is something I want to pursue!'"
McCants is also planning to offer a three-unit elective for alumni of Concourse, some of whom she has invited to tutor and advise freshmen. And, as an historian, she admits she is hoping to "convince students by the end of the semester that history really matters and [they should] take a history course."
'Amazingly cool stuff'
But Concourse strives to do more than feed students' intellects, she says. "A significant goal is making sure they have some fun, make some friends, get to know some faculty, and eat slightly healthier than they might eat on their own." It helps that Concourse has its own lounge and kitchen. McCants, who has long been dedicated to "the education of the whole person," knows how food can be marginalized during college years. "If we eat together on Friday afternoons, why not talk about what we're eating? It's part of being human," she says, noting that she hopes to catalyze some conversations about where food comes from.
On a personal note, McCants says that after serving as head of MIT's History Section for six years, she finds "the prospect of hanging out with students so appealing." She is particularly looking forward to organizing social events, including movies tied into the Friday seminar: "Maybe we will watch "12 Angry Men" during the week on justice." Ultimately, McCants wants the unique MIT Concourse learning community to "give students time off from being merely instrumental for a brief season in their lives."
"Getting to do amazingly cool stuff" is what college is all about, McCants says, and Concourse is "one more great aisle in the candy store."
Feature prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial & Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Contributing Writers: Leda Zimmerman, Kathryn O'Neill
Photographer: Jon Sachs