No. 3 in arts, humanities? Dean hopes ranking spurs interest

At a school where STEM majors outnumber others 19 to 1, writing classes are tailored for STEM mindset

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article misstated the year that SHASS was founded. It became a formal school in 1950.

MIT was recently ranked third globally for arts and humanities and first for the social sciences by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The rankings are intended to evaluate “world class universities across all of their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook,” according to their website. Factors that go into the decisions are staff-to-student ratio, institutional income, research income, research productivity (i.e. number of papers published per student at high-level journals), international-to-domestic student ratio, industry income, and institutional reputation based on a standardized survey.

“Although we recognize that we are writing disciplines, we are mindful that we are at MIT,” said Melissa Nobles, the dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, acknowledging that MIT is better known as a science and engineering school. “We want to appeal to MIT students, and tailor our courses to thinking about the intersections between the arts and the sciences.”

All of MIT’s humanities and arts departments are small compared to those at schools like Harvard and Stanford, but that allows the average MIT student close access to faculty and relatively small class sizes, Nobles said.

“What I want is the continued visibility and support,” Nobles added. “I hope these rankings will encourage MIT students to take a closer look at what they should avail themselves of. The word is out now. Take advantage.”

The arts and humanities at MIT are divided into two main institutions: the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) and the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). (MIT is also home to the List Visual Arts Center and various other centers related to the humanities.)

Currently, of undergraduates who have declared a major, 3.5 percent are enrolled in either SHASS or SA+P. The figure for graduate students is 13.7 percent.

Nobles said that SHASS tries to gear its classes for an MIT mindset.

“The sources of creativity happen outside a lab,” she said. “A brilliant scientist or engineer may gain inspiration from a piece of art or music. Our instruction tries to say to students: We know there’s a mode of scientific inquiry that MIT students come with. They want logic, they want clarity, and they want to see the inner workings of things.”

Nobles explained that MIT HASS classes not only focus on the purpose of the humanities, arts, and social sciences in our lives, but also on the mechanics; it teaches students not only why they should appreciate poetry but also how to actually write a poem. It’s the practicality of MIT SHASS, Nobles said, that appeals to a student body that is obsessed with the real-world implementations of an idea.

MIT’s departments have always focused on interdisciplinary work and looked at the humanities as a lens through which the sciences could become clearer, according to Hashim Sarkis, dean of SA+P. He said that since federal funding is now tending to favor scientific and engineering initiatives, other schools are shifting towards a scientific front, but MIT is already operating under this model and has been since its inception.

In partial explanation of the high rankings, Nobles mentioned MIT’s study abroad program, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI), which was originally established in SHASS as a facet of the political science department. It’s that sort of international engagement and presence in SHASS research that causes MIT to rank highly in “international outlook” and research citations, according to Nobles.

Both SHASS and SA+P have been around for a while: the roots of MIT-SHASS date to the earliest days of the Institute as MIT pioneered in combining technical training with a rigorous liberal arts education. Classes in English, modern languages, psychology, and political science — as well as participation in musical groups — were offered at MIT in the 1860, and by 1950, the Institute had created a dedicated school for the humanities, arts, and social sciences; SA+P is the oldest school of architecture in the world.

“Once MIT established SHASS, they had to be in the game,” Nobles said. “It was just a question of building our faculty and putting our resources behind it, which we certainly accomplished.” Modern linguistics, for example, was largely founded by Professor Noam Chomsky. Introduction to Linguistics is one of the most popular courses at MIT, and other MIT departments like economics and political science have been in most global top ten rankings since the 1930s, according to Nobles.