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MIT students expand their horizons as Burchard Scholars

Program brings together MIT sophomores and juniors with humanities, arts and social sciences faculty for eight elegant dinner-seminars.
Some of the 2010 Burchard Scholars.
Some of the 2010 Burchard Scholars.
Image: Jon Sachs
MIT senior Jennifer Lai, who recently received a Rhodes Scholarship, is a Burchard Scholar.
MIT senior Jennifer Lai, who recently received a Rhodes Scholarship, is a Burchard Scholar.
Photo credit: Jesse Weiner

The Burchard Program, now in its 25th year, brings together distinguished faculty from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and MIT sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated excellence in some aspect of the humanities, arts or social sciences. The format is a series of eight, elegant dinner-seminars, held in MIT’s Faculty Club, over the spring and fall terms. The application process for the 2011 program is open through December 1, 2010.

The gatherings are reliably lively and meaningful. Recently, for example, MIT Professor of History Craig Wilder led the scholars in an examination of a series of paintings of Native Americans commissioned in the 1930s. Then, over a memorable dinner, students and faculty discussed the implications of the imagery in the historic murals. The group delved into the issues raised by Wilder’s research, discussing whether works that contain imagery with the potential to offend and wound should remain in storage, or rather, be used as artifacts to help teach about the history and complexities of racism.

Commenting on the format of the dinner-seminars, 2009 Burchard Scholar Jared Sadoian says, “Hearing about subjects from the speakers, and then hearing the opinions of students and faculty in other fields, is very powerful. It gives you a larger framework on which to base your own work going forward.”

Ideas, dining and field trips

The program is famous for presenting cutting-edge research, and also for building community among the Buchard students and between faculty and students. In her letter this fall, inviting MIT sophomores and juniors to apply for the 2011 program, Dean Fitzgerald writes, “The Burchard Scholars Program is a terrific way to expand your intellectual and social horizons, to be part of a warm, exciting community of students and faculty — and to enjoy eight evenings of elegant dining.” Thanks to a generous, anonymous donor, the Burchard Scholars also take field trips; one recent trip was to Symphony Hall for a concert, followed by a special backstage meeting with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

In addition to giving selected undergraduates a window onto significant research in humanities, arts and social science disciplines, the gatherings give students experience in the art of intellectual give-and-take — a skill that students value for helping them succeed in academic life and industry, business, and scientific and other creative endeavors. 

The topics that students and faculty explore at the Burchard dinner-seminars range widely, including, for example, Music Professor Evan Ziporyn on Balinese music and making an opera; Professor of Anthropology Susan Silbey, on how laws evolve into moral issues; and Haimanti Roy, assistant professor of history, on the division of India and Pakistan.

A warm community for sharing ideas and experiences

“The whole point of the Burchard program is to give great students who have curiosity about the humanities, arts and social sciences a place to talk with like-minded students and with faculty,” says Margery Resnick, associate professor in Foreign Languages and Literatures, who serves as coordinator of the Burchard Scholars Program. “MIT undergraduates relish a chance like this to get together and talk about important ideas. And the fact that the dinners are held in a beautiful setting makes a difference.”

Jesse Thornburg, a mechanical engineering graduate and 2009 Burchard scholar, cites how much he enjoyed learning about Comparative Media Studies, and the stronger connection he gained with teachers at MIT.

“I didn’t really know any faculty before starting the Burchard Program,” he says, “and now I’ve come to know them very well.”

How to apply

The process of selecting Burchard Scholars begins in December each year, when a committee of the school’s faculty selects 20 to 40 sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated excellence in some aspect of the humanities, arts or social sciences. The following February, the program of dinner-seminars begins, and continues through the fall term, meeting eight Wednesday evenings, from 5-7 p.m.

All MIT sophomores and juniors in good standing are eligible. A Burchard Scholar can be a major in any department of the Institute; no preference is given to HASS majors. Faculty are able to nominate a student, and students may also apply directly. All applicants must have a reference from a HASS faculty member, and must be able to attend and participate regularly in the Burchard dinner-seminars. Applications are due in 4-240 by Wednesday, Dec. 1. Applicants will be notified of the committee's decision before the end of the fall term.

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