Skip to content ↓

Interview with the dean: Deborah Fitzgerald, SHASS

Deborah Fitzgerald
Deborah Fitzgerald
Photo / Donna Coveney

Over the course of the spring semester, Tech Talk has brought readers a series of interviews with each of MIT's five school deans. The third in this series features Dean Deb Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. In the following interview with Sarah H. Wright of the MIT News Office, Fitzgerald discusses SHASS's impact on the international-education aspect of MIT and the school's future.

Q: Can you comment on how you see the role of SHASS at MIT?

A: This is an exciting time for SHASS and the school has never been more crucial for the MIT mission. MIT champions the power of combining a world-class science education with the critical thinking and cultural literacy of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We have all seen the tremendous advantage this approach gives MIT students, how crucial it is for their success as leaders and global citizens.

MIT is one of the most significant knowledge centers in human history. At SHASS, we are inspired by that and dedicated to providing future leaders with rigorous training in the methods and perspectives of the arts, social science and humanities disciplines. MIT students thrive on their multidimensional education, and we are gratified that alums report that the experience and perspectives they gain at SHASS are enduring and crucial to their success and satisfaction.

Q: Could you give us a glimpse of your major goals for the school?

A: We are focusing on a cluster of goals, all of which strengthen our critical contributions to MIT education and research. Several goals I'm focusing on especially are international education, interdisciplinary research and teaching, strengthening our graduate programs and public understanding of science and technology. And no set of goals would be complete without mentioning the need for facilities that match the excellence of our faculty and curriculum.

Q: What role does SHASS play in MIT's approach to international education?

A: All of us at MIT, and all our peer institutions around the country, are alive to the demands of the globalizing economy and knowledge systems. Giving MIT students deep knowledge about languages and cultures of other countries, and engaging students in international opportunities, is a vital part of a 21st-century education and critical to the Institute's leadership position. SHASS has a central role in this mission as much of MIT's international education is housed in our school. The great majority of MIT faculty involved in international education are at SHASS; the school is home to Foreign Languages and Literatures, where students become fluent in the languages and cultures they need to be global citizens. All of the SHASS disciplines have an international flavor and many of our faculty have deep relationships abroad. They spend substantial research time in other countries, in libraries and archives, and interviewing people and forming cross-cultural partnerships. So, SHASS brings enormous depth and breadth of expertise to this 21st-century mission.

MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives) is our standard-bearer, a hugely successful program and one of the principal ways MIT students gain the cultural understandings that prepare them to be global citizens. In the MISTI program, students first become "country literate," developing language skills and cultural knowledge before they embark on wonderful in-country internships. These are tailored, hands-on professional experiences--great opportunities for students to engage with the world. Through MISTI, we can match the passion of students with the excitement of our international partners and with alumni who know how important it is for students to understand what's going on in the world as they form their careers and lives. MISTI has been leading the pack for years and is a model for other schools. It's also a sterling example of interdisciplinary collaboration. Each of the MISTI country programs draws faculty and students from across the campus. I envision even more support and growth for this program, and we look forward to celebrating MISTI's 25th anniversary in October.

Another standout in our international program is the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which works all over the world doing transformative research on poverty alleviation, health and health care. Recently The New York Times surveyed leading economists to identify who is doing the most-important economics work to help solve human problems. The "runaway winner," as the Times put it, is our J-PAL team, which is identifying ways to ensure that development aid goes to policies and programs that most improve people's lives. This is a powerful example of the global reach of SHASS-based programs. MIT students want to make a positive difference in the world, and our international programs help them discover how to do that. We also have wonderful, specialized programs that deepen students' capacities to operate effectively all over the world. There are several month-long IAP programs, to mention just a few--in Italy run by the History department, and in Spain and France run by Foreign Languages and Literatures--that immerse MIT undergraduates in the language, history and culture of important cities. Political Science offers a new minor in Applied International Studies that integrates education and experience abroad in a great way.

Q; This sounds like a very creative time for teaching and learning at SHASS.

A: Over time we might even explore the feasibility of a Center for Teaching and Learning, a think-tank and creativity center at SHASS. One of my goals is to shine some light on this area--bring thoughtful educators to campus, hold workshops on best practices, and on teaching in more engaging, interactive ways.

Q: As Dean of SHASS, you have been involved in several public understanding of science projects. Can you describe some of those efforts?

A: A great array of MIT's programming for public engagement with science and technology exists in our School--including the Program in Science Technology and Society, the Graduate Program in Science Writing, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, and Comparative Media Studies. SHASS is central to the Institute's work fostering greater public understanding of science and technology, and bioethics. These are superb programs, and my goal is to keep this vital area growing. SHASS has also initiated a series that brings remarkable people to campus to give students more understanding of how science and technology interact with large social issues. We've brought Paul Farmer here to talk about his work partnering with poor communities to combat disease and poverty, and David Macaulay, the illustrator/author of The Way Things Work and other award-winning books. Both events were standing room only, and we see that students are eager for models of how to do important, exciting work at the juncture of science, humanities, art, and technology.

Q: You are also interested in educational innovation. What kinds of initiatives are you envisioning?

A: We want to sustain and strengthen our distinguished graduate programs, and we are focusing on providing incredible quality in our undergraduate courses. To keep our PhD and special master's programs competitive with other elite schools, we must provide more generous fellowship support. On the undergraduate side, SHASS is the common denominator for all MIT undergrads--eight of the 17 GIR requirements are in our school. My plan is to support our world-class faculty as they think ambitiously about new classes and methods. I have put out a call to SHASS faculty for proposals to develop new kinds of classes--timely, blockbuster classes as well as interdisciplinary classes. We already have several such classes. "How to Stage a Revolution" in History, and "The Supernatural in Music, Literature, and Culture," taught by faculty from Music & Theater Arts and Anthropology are two examples. Bioethics is taught collaboratively between Philosophy and the Program in Science, Technology and Society, and there isn't enough room for all the students who want to take it. In all these classes, we want to find the juncture between faculty expertise and students' passions, and create learning experiences that are as engaging as they are rigorous. We have considerable capacity in this area already, and I am encouraging even more collaborative and interdisciplinary classes, projects, and research. Extraordinary things can happen when we catalyze these relationships.

Q: Are there other ways you are furthering collaborations between schools and across the SHASS disciplines?

A: On the academic side, the SHASS faculty has been teaching with colleagues in Science, Engineering, Sloan, and Architecture for decades. Now, we want to take that effort to the next level, expanding the number of classes, research collaborations, and colloquia. And often it's the informal, friendly connections that lead to great things. You know one of the things that surprised me a bit when I became Dean was how much the different parts of the School are really little neighborhoods. And we don't get out of own neighborhoods often enough! So I've taken a cue from Jay Kaiser, and last year, began to hold a series of random faculty dinners, just the faculty from SHASS. The dinners are very interesting and great fun, and we'll go on hosting them as one way to spark more cross-discipline endeavors.

Q: Is there an MIT way to teach humanities and arts?

A: First, of course, the MIT way is unsurpassed excellence. We have to be the best of the best, and we have to be the best in a uniquely MIT way. We have world-class faculty at SHASS, extraordinary leaders in their fields. Just last week our scholars received both the Pulitzer Prize (Junot Dîaz in fiction) and the Rome Prize (Keeril Makan in music)--two of the most prestigious awards in our fields. We think deeply, as a community, about the role of teaching humanities, arts and social sciences within a large technical university where the gravitational pull is toward science and technology. We think creatively about the special value our disciplines have in this university, educating people who have an uncommon ability to solve problems and make a positive difference in the world. Our students are sophisticated and brilliant, so we have to give them the hardest problems we've got, right away. This seems to be the nature of MIT students--the bigger the challenge, the more they like it.

We also have a creative opportunity to teach in ways that resonate with the MIT ethos of innovation. Like our colleagues in the sciences, the SHASS humanists, artists, and social scientists are inventive scholars who work in a global landscape and engage profound issues to serve society. Comparative Media Studies, a pioneering academic program committed to thinking across media forms, theory, and culture, is based at SHASS. As is HyperStudio, a superb research and development laboratory for digital humanities. Many of our faculty are leaders in inventing ways to incorporate digital technology into teaching and research, and creating innovative educational tools such as "Cultura" for teaching language and culture, the "Visualizing Cultures" project, and the Shakespeare Electronic Archive. Our faculty is unusually alert to growth areas where the humanities, sciences, art and technology intersect to generate new potentials. The arts at MIT are famously good at encouraging and teaching creative problem-solving and risk-taking.

Q: What is one SHASS-based project that you have especially enjoyed recently?

A: Oh, that is hard. We have dozens of candidates. Okay, here's one: The Center for International Studies has an amazing publication called "The Audit of Conventional Wisdom." This is a series of short essays that scrutinize some nugget of conventional wisdom of U.S. foreign policy, putting the idea to the test of data and history. The essays are written in a wonderfully fresh and breezy style--and in 15 minutes you've really learned something.

Q: Do you have much contact with the alumni/ae?

A: Yes, and I have been delighted by our alumni. They remember their experiences in the humanities, arts, and social sciences with tremendous passion and fondness, and they keep these experiences with them. They really keep the flame alive for music, or literature and history. It's gratifying to hear our alums say "What I still really love is reading Greek history," or playing in the local symphony. The alums recognize the value their SHASS experiences have had in their own success and happiness, so they are eager to support the School and keep it strong for the next generations. Our alums are brilliant, engaged, full of life, full of ideas, they are just great, inspiring people. They're just like MIT students actually!

Q: You have great enthusiasm for MIT students. Can you say more about your hopes for them in the world?

A: We want to educate our students to be global citizens. MIT is the very best for training students to be scientifically and technically superior, hands down. We also want to help our students understand that they are poised to be leaders in many fields. At SHASS, we play a strong role in giving MIT students a range of experience for leadership. I'd like to do even more in this area. Our challenge is to help students enter the global world in the best possible way--with humility, creativity, and grace. We want them to be able to write and think critically, be effective and wise problem-solvers, with cultural and aesthetic literacy, with respect for other cultures. We want them to feel confident expressing ideas, understand cultural references in India or France; envision how an end-user will experience an engineered product. These are all areas where the qualitative, contextual knowledge cultures of SHASS are invaluable to MIT students.

Q: I realize that you are working 20-hour days. What do you do when you're not leading the school into the future?

A: Is this the hobby question?

Q: [Laughs]. Yes.

A: Well, I don't have any hobbies now. I mean, I used to. I could talk about the ones I used to have! [Both laugh]. But I like to get outside, walking or biking, and I really love spending a whole day in the kitchen cooking for a dinner party, bringing people together. You have to eat!

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 2008 (download PDF).

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News