STS.050 The History of MIT

Spring 2020
HASS-H 3-0-9
Mon 11-12, Wed 11-1
Deborah Douglas, PhD


Students who pre-registered for the class are guaranteed a spot as long as they come to the first day of class. If more than 20 students are interested in the class, priority will be given to seniors, and then to students minoring or concentrating in STS. Students asking to enroll in this class should know that attendance is essential as this class involves participating in several workshops and campus symposia during the class period. If you foresee missing any class time, please discuss the circumstances with Dr. Douglas before registering for the class.


“MIT is…(fill in the blank)….”

How many times have you attempted to describe MIT? How do you fill in the blank? What do you wish you knew about the Institute? The short description for this course, suggests a simple (albeit fascinating!) effort to survey MIT’s history from its founding to the present day.

As events in recent weeks have shown, MIT is neither a simple nor a perfect place. To study MIT is to study the modern world. This course is about people. It is about discovery, exploration, adventure, learning, and the synthesis of big ideas. It is also about failures, protest, and conflicts. The course studies both the inflection points and the every day interactions of one creative community in New England whose influence extends around the world and into the universe beyond. We grapple seriously, with the importance of the research university: what it has been in the past and what it could be in the future.

When writing down his vision for MIT, charismatic founder and education pioneer William Barton Rogers wrote this in his 1860 Objects and Plan:

“The practical nature of the discoveries in chemistry, mechanics, geology, and other branches of scientific inquiry, has multiplied almost infinitely the lines of connection between them and the processes of the Workshop, the Manufactory, and the Farm, and of the Constructive and Locomotive Arts; and these countless connecting threads, woven into one indissoluble texture, form that ever-enlarging web which is the blended product of the world’s scientific and industrial activity.” (Emphasis added)

Through readings, videos, discussions, lectures, special guest talks and hands-on opportunities, you will explore MIT like few others have. You will take up the challenge to weave together countless connecting threads, what it means to be an academic community, most especially in times of change when the fabric feels like it is fraying.

STS.050 will continue to make some important changes in organization and content. First, the class size has been limited to 20 students. It will meet twice a week: Mondays from 11-12 and Wednesdays from 11-1. There is no recitation.

Last year the class introduced significantly more hands-on participatory experiences which everyone agreed was valuable. We did workshops at the Edgerton Center and Glass Lab; took part in an art installation on the athletic fields; and workshops at the Institute Archives and MIT Museum. This spring will have a similar mix of activities which will be scheduled during the 2-hour Wednesday session. Second, I will be changing up the assignments again. Reading reflection papers continue to be vital (this class does not have examinations) but there will be one big project involving a public presentation (around the third week of April) and a final report on the project due at the end of the term. Finally, at some point during the term, you will be asked to help lead one short class discussion.

During the first week, the class will help shape the final syllabus by considering what “special” topics are of greatest interest to you. There are nearly infinite readings, videos, and artifacts I could include but I want you to help shape the class.

Your grade will be based on the assignments but participation will be vital. While the class is intentionally scheduled on Monday and Wednesday, I know it is inevitable that there will be some conflicts. I will ask on the first day of class to identify those conflicts (from sports to graduate school interviews) so as to maximize your participation.

The most important prerequisite for this class is curiosity, a desire to think deeply and critically about MIT, and a willingness to communicate your thoughts and ideas with your classmates. The ultimate aim is to fascinate you as much as to help you improve your skills synthesizing information from diverse sources about science, technology, and culture.