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Following My Passions At MIT by ARTalk

[by Susan Shepherd '11] Can a writer fit in at MIT?

[by Susan Shepherd ’11]

Choosing a set of colleges to apply to can be a daunting task. I discovered MIT fairly early on in my search, and when I read the Admissions Blog entries of a certain biology major (thanks, Mollie!), MIT rose to the top of my list. Even so, I couldn’t help but worry as I waited for the Admissions Staff to send back their reply. I thought that MIT was perfect for someone as passionate about biology as I was – but would MIT be so well suited for my second passion? Would a writer fit in at MIT?

After arriving at MIT, I quickly learned that my fears were groundless. Campus Preview Weekend gave me the opportunity to visit the MIT Literary Society, where I met students who were interested enough in literature that they meet in their free time to discuss it. While I was there, the topic was Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and they had just finished William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

On the more stereotypically nerdy side of things, I also joined the MIT Science Fiction Society at the start of the term. MITSFS maintains a check-out library containing essentially every science fiction book published in the past forty years, including fantasy novels. They fill two large rooms full of bookshelves, and there are more (many, many more) in storage. Since it is hard to visualize how many books there are until you see them, here are some pictures to give you a better idea:

The MIT Science Fiction Society also maintains a bit of MIT culture that I think some of you, especially those of you who read science fiction, will really enjoy. Note the name of the fourth folder:

The Pinkdex is so named because it was originally maintained by another member of MITSFS, many years ago – Marilyn “Fuzzy Pink” Niven, whose husband, Larry Niven, has written or co-authored many of the books in the MITSFS library.

Clubs aren’t the only way for literature fans to express themselves, of course. Although engineering, science and mathematics are very much a part of MIT’s curriculum and culture, so too are the arts, and lovers of the written word are well-served by the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. From “Rhetoric” to “Playwriting” to “Science Journalism”, these classes teach students how to write more persuasively, to hone the skills they already possess, and to communicate even more clearly than before. Several months ago, I spoke with an upperclassman who had taken one of the science fiction courses. She had enjoyed it immensely, especially since her classmates and professor were enthusiastic about the subject. Every student was in the class because they wanted to be, not because a requirement made them take it – and as a result, class discussions were lively, thorough, and well-reasoned.

When the opportunity presents itself, MIT students will often go out of their way to share their love of the written word. Last November, the ESP program “Splash!” brought 1,500 local middle and high school students to the campus so that MIT students could fill their heads with information. While there were many classes on mathematics, computer programming, duct tape and even how to draw shiny things, there were also classes on sonnet writing, Shakespeare, and classic poetry. Each class was taught by MIT students who love learning about those subjects in classes or in their free time, and I was glad to see that the high schoolers were asking pertinent questions and working hard – even though the weekend is normally a chance to escape schoolwork.

Of the twenty-six people living on my dormitory hall, three of them – myself, Brian Wu ’11 and Naomi Hinchen ’11 – are also experienced writers. Naomi is just one of several students I know who successfully wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in between p-sets last November.

In short, a writer may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a typical MIT student. But if you look a little more closely, you might notice that for every student with a bookshelf crammed with textbooks, there’s another with a shelf holding JRR Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, Robert Heinlein and Chaim Potok. And MIT is all the better for it.

Naomi Hinchen ’11, who participated in NaNoWriMo this November, holds up a bound copy of her first NaNo novel.

21 responses to “Following My Passions At MIT”

  1. Vedant says:

    First post!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is really great. I love science and engineering, but I also love the humanities – particularly english and history. It’s so great to know that there is alot of support for these kinds of interests at MIT.

  3. karen says:

    Oh man, you totally stole my topic for a blog. I was going to write about the SFS, but I guess you’re more qualified considering I’m not actually in it

    Anyway, I’m glad someone said it smile

  4. Steph says:

    Do you plan on publishing anything?

  5. Anonymous says:

    cool entry!

    i’m a soon-to-be-prefrosh in a similar situation: physics or journalist major?

    i know one thing: i love MIT.

  6. soaham says:

    wow… thats the land of my dreams… *heaving sigh*

  7. @Steph: I’ve been plotting out a fantasy book for a while now, and hope to write it out fairly soon. So, yes, I hope to be a published author one day.

  8. Tanmay says:

    I dislike biology.ughh.

    But the things I like, from astronomy and rockets to field geology to robots and economics etc. , all are well established at MIT. I consider myself lucky that all my passions are quite common ones, so I don’t have to worry about fitting. grin

  9. Anion says:

    Thats the best key chain that i’ve seen!

  10. Hyun Jin says:

    Wow.. that library is amazing…

  11. Muz says:

    Whoa.. that’s a lot of nerd literature… *drools*

  12. Rutu says:

    OMG!!! *is hypnotized by library* Pretty covers……….. ^__^ Hehe, but oh my GOD, there is definitely ONE club I’m going to join on my first day at MIT…..

    Thank you SO MUCH for this post. I’m a physics nerd who obsesses over poetry and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and other fantasy stuff. So, while physics gains momentum, at least there won’t be any friction for fantasy. I can’t wait to completely procrastinate my weekends away at that library ^__^.

    Oh also, what’s your book about? I want to read it already. *has a BIT of a weak spot for fantasy*

  13. Katie says:

    awesome post! definitely addressed one of my concerns, being both a math geek and a writerly person.

    (also, hi Naomi!)

  14. Joya says:

    Hi Manou!

    I have great news for your violin. smile You do NOT have to be a music major to be in MITSO (MIT Symphony Orchestra). You just need to audition – 2 contrasting pieces, sight reading and scales. Check in with us when you arrive in th fall to set up an audition time.

    Best wishes,
    MITSO Manager

  15. Manou says:

    I have a fairly unrelated question,
    do you have to be major in music in order to be in Orchestra!
    My violin won’t like me if I don’t play in orchestra but, I wanna major in engineering :D

  16. I have been told that I am good at writing. I enjoy writing poetry. I’d probably also enjoy writing the occasional essay if it weren’t required of me so often.. I haven’t written much fiction since elementary school; its never required in school assignments and I’ve never found time to do it for fun.

    anyway.. thats all very cool.

    To essentially repeat a random question I asked before and never saw answered (though its a little off topic): you spoke a lot in your entry about MIT’s opportunities to continue working in parts of the Arts you live (as I intend to in vocals and theater). How is it in the way of starting entirely new areas of it? Are there introductory classes for drawing, for example? What about instrument lessons?


  17. I would argue that MIT is top-notch as far as exploring new areas of art is concerned. During IAP, for example, there are regularly pottery, knitting, woodworking, flower arranging, origami and music classes, although many of the music classes assume that you are somewhat familiar with the instrument you play. This IAP, there were classes on Middle Eastern Drumming, Bellringing, fiddle folk music, and piano blues music, for example.

    Most beginners would probably start by asking around – you’d be surprised at how many of your fellow students are willing to teach you stuff you’re curious about – and then joining the MIT marching band or practicing on their own.

    Longer classes that you might look into include “21M.051: Fundamentals of Music,” which teaches some of the basics. From that point, you can take your education in several directions. One way leads into “21M.301: Harmony and Counterpoint I,” “21M.302: Harmony and Counterpoint II,” and from there to “Writing in Tonal Forms” I and II. Or, you could go from Fundamentals of Music to “Jazz,” “Jazz Harmony and Arranging,” and “Jazz Composition.”

    MIT students: If you’ve been in this situation, feel free to weigh in!

  18. trym says:

    hey, i was just wondering if there is a rock climbing society or club in mit??
    And are there any indoor climbing gyms in the nearby area?

  19. @ Trym: I presume the MIT Caving Club meets your qualifications? There’s also an MIT Outing Club that does some stuff (hiking, etc.) which I would consider “rugged,” and one of MIT’s gyms has a climbing wall. I don’t remember which one, but the person who told me about it said that it is ropeless, the way bouldering would be.

  20. @donaldGuy ’12:
    There’s also the Student Art Association [SAA]! They have a bunch of great introductory classes which you can find on their website . The great thing is that they’re on the fourth floor of the Student Center (right in the middle of campus).

    You can also sign up for a rock climbing class through the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation [DAPER]. It’ll satisfy one of your physical education requirements. There are also lots of fantastic and fun phys. ed. classes you can take, but, being an art blog, unfortunately we won’t be talking too much about them here.
    And I also love writing too. I still write recreationally, not as much as during high school but every once in a while, which is nice. I’m not taking a CI-H [“communication intensive” = writing class] this semester which disappoints me (credit limits) but hopefully I’ll continue to write in my free time.

  21. Sadie '10 says:

    There’s also a climbing wall on campus (and free except for $1 shoe rentals) Anyone is welcome to go when it is open. The wall is part of the MIT Outdoors Club (MITOC) and is run by wall monitors who keep it open in their free time. Check it out: