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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

Recap: SHASS Lightning Talks @ CPW by Chris Peterson SM '13

some projects in the social sciences and humanities at MIT

Are you interested in any of:

  • making governments work better?
  • how to design human interactions with technical systems?
  • the electoral consequences of international trade?
  • universal grammar?

Last April, at our Campus Preview Weekend (CPW), MIT hosted the inaugural “Taste of SHASS Lightning Talks” for our admitted students and parents. Nine faculty members gave five minute talks about their core research project(s), and then met new admits at a reception to discuss classes and undergraduate research opportunities. The goal of the event was to help survey the kind of work done at MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, or SHASS, to people deciding whether they wanted to come to MIT.

Here at MIT, we typically don’t have to advertise our programs in science, engineering, business, or architecture. People associate MIT with these fields, and these fields with MIT; our co-identification with STEM is a core strength of the institutional brand and our role in the popular imaginary. But, as a graduate of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (scientiæ magister in Comparative Media Studies, class of 2013, whaddup), I’m always excited (maybe a bit too excited) to talk about the Institute’s considerable strengths in the social sciences and humanistic inquiries. SHASS courses are part of the core curriculum required of all MIT students, but at their best, they’re more than a requirement: they help fundamentally shape the way our students see the world, and, as such, the kinds of problems (and solutions!) they are able to identify.

I helped plan and execute the Lightning Talks, but it was very much a collaborative effort. The faculty took invaluable time out of their busy days, and the idea/model of the talks I stole from DUSP, which conducts its own talks once or twice a year to let faculty and grad students pitch their current projects to their colleagues.

So, what kinds of things to (some) SHASS faculty study and teach about here at MIT? Here are the professors who spoke at this year’s SHASS lightning talks, along with short summaries of what they talked about:

Escape from Zombie Capitalism
by Ian Condry, Professor of Japanese Culture and Media Studies; Organizer, Dissolve Inequality
Where will new jobs come from? Anthropology can help identify new, people-centered approaches to transforming our economy and society. Ethnography gives the people a voice in reducing inequality.

A Very Brief History of the Modern Future (in One Calculation)
by William Deringer, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society
STS research ties together the humanities and social sciences with the rest of MIT. I’ll discuss the history of how one calculation— “net present value”—has come to guide modern thinking about the future.

The City of Rome
by Will Broadhead, Associate Professor of History; MacVicar Faculty Fellow
The ancient city of Rome rewards scholars with a wealth of material, from dazzling and curious architectural wonders to demographic models that change how we write the history of Roman imperialism.

Universal Grammar
by Norvin Richards, Professor of Linguistics
What does modern linguistics mean by “Universal Grammar?” I’ll share recent linguistics research that helps us understand this aspect of the human mind.

Importing Political Polarization: The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure
by David Autor, Professor of Economics; Vice Chair, Department of Economics
Has rising trade integration between the U.S. and China contributed to the increasing polarization of U.S. politics? Let’s look at the data for answers.

Designing Interactions
by Federico Casalegno, Associate Professor of the Practice; Director, Design Lab, Mobile Experience Lab
Can emerging technologies reinvent and create connections between people, information, and places?

Making Governments Work Better
by Lily Tsai, Associate Professor of Political Science
MIT GOV/LAB researches which programs and technologies help make governments more responsive and citizens more engaged.

The Exit Zero Project: Community Storytelling
by Christine Walley, Associate Professor of Anthropology; Director of Graduate Studies, HASTS
MIT anthropologists conduct fieldwork around the world, from Mongolia to Belize to France. My own research explores the human impact of job loss in a former U.S. steel mill town.

To be and not to be: working with Shakespeare now
by Diana Henderson, Professor of Literature; MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Why is a 400-year-old Englishman still the most frequently produced playwright worldwide? To give an example, I’ll discuss my own work with a performance of “The Merchant of Venice.”

Unfortunately, we didn’t videotape the talks this year, so I can’t blog those. But we did hire Kelvy Bird, a local artist who works with organizations to help illuminate complex processes, to live-illustrate these talks. Kelvy set up a few whiteboards in the corner of the room and drew while the speakers talked. After the talks were all over, here’s what she sent me.


That is my lightning overview of the lightning talks. In conclusion: SHASS is awesome and you should come to MIT and study (in) it!