Is FIMS Working?

FIMS“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.”

4 thoughts on “Is FIMS Working?

  1. MIT is why I am here. It is THE main reason I’m here. No undergrad is taking up my time — undergrads are the lifeblood of the university. I love my job, and I feel enormously deeply about this program. I came here to design this program, and I’m here to tell you, it was no afterthought for me–it was the MAIN thought. I haven’t invested myself so deeply for this to be frittered away or spoken of lightly. If you want to talk about MIT, you’re ALWAYS welcome in my office, and I *will* make tea. I’m enormously sad that any undergraduate feels neglected this way. This is no stop on the route to some kind of academic valhalla. This is my LIFE.

  2. Why wasn’t Blackmore on the panel?

    MIT has an amorphous identity and no goal. These fault lines have been growing for years. It’s interesting to see Blackmore comment here because the program so obviously reflects his pedagogical themes: meandering self-discovery couched in high-level discourse. While this is an interesting experiment in a classroom setting, a faculty and a program they do not make. It’s for this reason that FIMS is doomed. Most faculty see these not as weaknesses but as the program’s very strengths! Structure, goals, specialties, focus, marketable skills — all those that get in the way. Heck, they’re practically curse words. And, yes, you can find merit in that perspective if you ignore the obvious pressing demands awaiting graduates. But a prudent student thinks of those first.

    The stakes are high. I can understand as the founder of the program, Blackmore won’t have it spoken of lightly, but students won’t either. Why haven’t faculty made any necessary, pressing changes to the program in all the years since they’ve been identified?

    1. “MIT” is a dangerous misnomer and an insidious advertising trick. Why do faculty continue ignoring this? Ask the counsellors: most graduates call it Media and Information Studies. Why are resources so poorly divided between these three areas of “focus”? Do you think it undermines the program to cling to the 90s buzzword “technoculture” but not deliver on its lofty goals with courses and streams offered?

    2. Why is there still a poverty of upper-year courses? It’s a travesty and a crime (see: theft — of tuition dollars) to have fourth-year students having to choose from third-year courses. Torres must be right: there is no interest in funding this program. Otherwise we’d have more options than a single thesis course. We’d have opportunities to continue developing themes and ideas gleaned during the ubiquitous “MIT Introduction Course.”

    3. More to that point, why does MIT rely so heavily on contracted, part-time instructors with quick fix one-year programs that offer no consistency between years and no opportunity for advancement? Is it a funding issue or does the faculty truly believe this is what tuition buys? This is perhaps the best evidence of MIT’s core problems.

    I appreciate Torres’s interest in ideal speech situations or what have you. And speakers would be great (even better when the faculty organizes them). But the real issue, like Hadrian said, is that MIT is an afterthought for this administration and this faculty.

    For other interested students, assume you know Blackmore’s perspective as founder and resist drinking the Kool-Aid. For another perspective, try David Spencer (519-661-2111 x86800; I’m trying to think of others, maybe Babe, Reed, Smeltzer. Avoid Carmichael, Dyer-Witheford (!), Compton.

  3. Pingback: Attend the Rogers Chair discussion, the future of FIMS is in your hands (TUESDAY, 12PM, NCB 295) | mitZine Online

  4. I want to clarify that I am not the founder of the MIT program. I would happily take the credit for that, because although there are problems as OstentatiousBoot notes, and urgent ones I completely agree, I am still enormously proud of both the program and its students. OstentatiousBoot’s boots thoughts and points are excellent ones, and we need to address them. Some of us will lean more toward an open pedagogy, some toward a more closed system. I think there’s room for all of these approaches here. I’ve taught at two other major Canadian universities that leaned in one direction (more open than MIT) or the other (more closed and rigid). Both were places I met amazing students and teachers. So I think we _can_ get along, even if we disagree.

    The people who took an enormous risk in founding the MIT program (which, while flawed, is still a home to us), were, in alphabetical order: Carole Farber, Gloria Leckie, Lynne McKechnie, Catherine Ross, and David Spencer. I am enormously grateful to them for this huge labor. The amount of effort it takes to create a program, and the administrative, policy and pedagogical questions one must answer consume years. The program took a great deal of planning, and is still very young. When I came here we had 40 students in the graduating class.

    I understand that people are frustrated, upset, fearful of the future, angry about the job market. I, too, was unemployed (more than once), I too had to find work during a recession. I’m am enormously sympathetic to the feeling that a degree may not guarantee one work. In signing on to an arts education, one forgoes the somewhat clearer (though not easier) path faced by those in the hard sciences or professions. It’s scary out there, I know.

    At any rate, I hope this isn’t understood as kool-aid. 😉 — I certainly don’t intend it that way.

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