“This place is a barren wasteland,” said Professor Sasha Torres, a panelist at Wednesday, October 19th’s round table discussion about the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. And so it may be.
What is FIMS?
What is FIMS? And is it working? These were two central questions addressed at the event, initiated and facilitated by Associate FIMS Professor Alison Hearn and packed in attendance by numerous interested faculty members and graduate students. Hearn explained that the panelists had been chosen so that all would “be able to speak freely, under the protection of tenure.” For all the MIT pride that circulates among undergrad students on campus, this attitude was hardly reflected in the concerns expressed by faculty members, whose discussion focused on the faculty’s success (or lack thereof) as an interdisciplinary program.
Before there was FIMS, there were a number of lone-standing graduate studies programs which all fell under the tentative “media studies” umbrella. “It was administrative rationality that brought FIMS together in the first place,” said Hearn. An interdisciplinary conglomerate of graduate programs was formed before there were undergraduate degrees offered at all, and long before we ended up with a record-breaking 1200 undergraduate students in FIMS this year. But, “I’ve never heard a compelling rationale for why we’re together,” Torres said Wednesday.
Sacrificing depth for breadth
We’ve exceeded a manageable number, and have arrived at a point where the undergraduate program has, according to fourth-year FIMS student Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, “absolutely no focus.” Mertins-Kirkwood, a member of the MIT Student Council, spoke on behalf of this admittedly unmanageable group as one of the only undergraduates present. “I don’t want to take up too much time,” he began. “I’m an undergraduate student, and I know undergrads are really just an afterthought in this faculty.”
Not only are undergraduate programs under-functioning, but, as Hearn noted Wednesday, “Grad programs are suffering because we have implemented an undergrad.” We’re sacrificing depth for breadth, Torres agreed. This is an especially unfortunate mistake in a faculty whose course content typically encourages the reversal of this tendency. Characteristic of many undergraduate courses in the faculty is an emphasis on aiming for quality over quantity in an increasingly scattered world.
Breadth in study is important in education, and especially in a discipline (or collection of disciplines, as it were), in which there is increasingly more to learn. But what benefit is there in lumping graduate programs in both Popular Music and Culture and Health Information Science into the same faculty? Similarly, is it realistic for a student who tailors their course load to an interest in the virtual world and another who has focused their studies on the political economy of information to receive identical degrees?
“It’s not sustainable.”
But before we can think about further development, Hearn believes we should ask ourselves, “Can we actually do all these things at this level?” Budget-wise, it seems we cannot, and this may have to with the interdisciplinary nature of the faculty itself. Other non-departmentalized faculties, such as Health Science, are also underfunded, Hearn pointed out. FIMS students are paying the same tuition as students in other faculties, and, as mentioned by one of the many who spoke up in the discussion, we’re getting less.
As a result of this deficit, the faculty suffers from what Torres termed a lack of “public intellectual life,” contributing to a notion of interdisciplinary studies which is “profoundly outdated.” She suggested, “We need to bring in outside speakers…our students need to talk to people who’ve read different books than we have.” Where intellectual life is concerned, it often falls to student groups to organize things like guest speakers. But undergraduates also need more administrative and teaching staff invested in improving the student experience. FIMS needs not only more funding, but also more cohesion.
“We have got to fix this,” was Torres’s call to action, “because it’s not sustainable.” Despite the pessimistic undertone of the majority of Wednesday’s discussion, the conversation about how to make improvements to the faculty is not nearly over. Hearn assured all in attendance, “this is just the beginning.”