Elizabeth Garrels, who will be retiring this spring after 35 years at MIT, has earned a reputation as a lively, engaged member of the MIT community and a generous colleague. She has also been known as an uncompromising teacher who regularly offers very challenging classes — the kind that MIT students relish.
One such student, Loreto Ansaldo, a native Chilean who majored in Latin American studies at MIT, says, “Professor Garrels does have really high standards — and she will hold you to them. But she never puts you down. She always brings you up.”
A path-breaker, preparing MIT students for international experience
Colleagues say that in both her teaching and research, Garrels has taken a pioneering approach to combining literature, history, language, and culture. Her ability to see past boundaries — between countries, cultures, or academic disciplines — has helped shape the Foreign Language and Literatures (FL&L) program at MIT for several decades.
“Elizabeth’s path-breaking scholarship in combining literature and history has helped the section evolve into the stronghold it is today,” says Ian Condry, a professor of media and cultural studies, and head of FL&L.
Today, thanks to the vision of Garrels and like-minded colleagues, FL&L approaches language studies holistically, with contextual classes on international cultures, history, and media, as well as training in eight languages, from Spanish to Japanese to Russian.
This broad-spectrum approach has put the section at the core of international education at MIT. FL&L prepares students for success and leadership on international teams and provides the language skills and cultural background that students need to participate in MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives), MIT’s flagship international-education program.
To better express this approach to learning language, the FL&L section has recently been renamed: Starting in July, it will be known as "MIT Global Studies & Languages." The new name of the program also reflects Garrels' lasting contribution to the Institute — as do her research and the students whose lives she has expanded.
Inspired by an unexpected role model
Garrels’ journey to MIT began in ninth grade, when she first started learning Spanish. She became fluent much later, she says, after college and a year of study in Spain, and has never stopped studying. Of her career in academia, she says, “The opportunity to keep learning is one of the things for which I am most grateful.”
“Her Spanish is just beautiful,” Ansaldo says. “Her knowledge of the language is so deep, more than most native speakers I know.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Garrels was inspired by a professor, Frances Wyers, to immerse herself in Spanish studies. Wyers, also a non-native speaker, was a bit of a hippie, wore dangly earrings, and set very high standards. Garrels had found her role model. “I wanted to be just like her,” she recalls. “She’s the reason I’m here.”
Garrels dedicated her second book to Wyers, who had guided her through college and helped her prepare for graduate school. By the time she graduated, Garrels had several scholarships, including a full scholarship to attend Harvard University’s doctoral program in Romance languages and literature.
Literary analysis is about looking at — well, everything
At Harvard in the late 1960s, the study of Spanish language and literature was dominated by older scholars, including Raimundo Lida, admired by generations of students in both Argentina and in the United States for his keen critical eye and intellectual humility. “It was one of the singular privileges of my career to have studied with him,” Garrels says.
At the time, many scholars focused on style and the history of language in their interpretations of literature, an approach to literary criticism known as philology. Some philologists even aspired to the practice of science, and many received hefty government grants to create “definitive” edited texts — that is, standardized, ostensibly "scientifically perfected" tomes — for classic works of literature.
Garrels, frustrated with incomplete and editorially loose older texts from the Hispanic tradition, saw value in some of this work, but as scholarship, she felt it was a dead end for her. Fortunately, in the 1970s, the field shifted, and when Garrels was a postdoc, colleagues supported her study of literature in its historical, political, and social context — a multidisciplinary approach.
“Literary analysis is about looking at all sorts of things: levels of prejudice, rhetoric, genre, history. It’s everything,” she says.
Her first two books centered on leftist politics and feminism, respectively. She wrote them in Spanish — in part, she confesses, so that her politically conservative father would have trouble reading them. “He wouldn’t have approved,” she says.
After completing her PhD at Harvard in 1974, Garrels taught English at Central University in Caracas, Venezuela. She returned to Boston in 1976, taught part-time for a year, then became an assistant professor at Amherst College. In 1979, she joined the faculty at MIT, which had recently added Spanish language and literature to the curriculum. “MIT was open to new ideas and wanted to be cutting-edge,” Garrels says. “It was very exciting, teaching language and literature here.”
In retirement, Garrels aspires to become fluent in French, to travel, and to upgrade her gardening — assuming she can find time: She also plans to complete several ongoing research projects.
One of those projects focuses on "Facundo," which Argentine writer and political figure Domingo Faustino Sarmiento published in 1845, while in exile in Chile. A fitting editorial treatment of this important Latin American text has been stalled because of difficulties tracking down Sarmiento’s sources in overseas libraries. “Some made serious efforts, but no one was able to get their hands on all the cited materials,” Garrels says.
Recently, however, Garrels completed this philological detective work using Google Books. She found and studied the texts online and resolved significant unanswered questions about both "Facundo" and the early book culture of South America. “But I can’t just publish the results of that research as raw data,” she says. “That would be too old-fashioned.”
Rather, Garrels is approaching the project with another — a study of the recent history of philology and digital technologies — as a way to reflect on the meaning of her results not just in the historical context of Sarmiento's book, but in the context of globalized textual studies today.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Elizabeth Dougherty