Inclusive language in MIT classrooms

Last year, a Yale University housemaster released an email to students in her residence hall stating that the university administration should not tell students what is appropriate for Halloween. Students took to the streets claiming that the housemaster was putting burden on marginalized groups to speak up. They asked the housemaster to step down, and news agencies took off with it. Many universities, including Harvard and MIT, have discussed changing the title of ‘Housemaster’ to something that has less racial and colonial baggage. In spring 2016, MIT stated that it would change the title to ‘Head of House.’ I personally think some good can come from the name change, and I am glad that MIT is revisiting old traditions and improving upon them.

I want to raise a related and thornier question: should MIT try to dissuade the use of sexist and colonialist terms in our curriculum? If so, how should they go about this? In many fields that were dominated by white males, heteronormative and racist terms became widespread in technical, colloquial jargon. For example, in electrical engineering, it is common to hear terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ in reference to electrical connectors. In my process control class at MIT, an outer control loop was called a ‘master controller’ and the inside loop was called a ‘slave controller.’ The list could go on. For me personally, these terms are more jarring and exclusionary than the term ‘housemaster,’ though other students may have different experiences.

I feel that since most of these terms arise in engineering, technical programs, like those at MIT, are likely disproportionately affected by their usage. If there is a school that could influence technical lingo, MIT would likely be it. As our president claims, MIT can and should influence the world. In addition, not allowing these micro-aggressions in the classroom might help encourage underrepresented groups in STEM.

Would removing the lingo that industry currently uses make us unprepared for life post-graduation? I think that our talented MIT students would quickly pick up some additional jargon when they enter the workforce. However, I am not as convinced that shielding us from discriminatory practices helps us deal with them when we leave academia, which may have been the view of the housemaster’s letter at Yale. During a corporate internship, I discovered that the company didn’t offer same-sex partner benefits, which led me to reject an official job offer from them. Had my university not been a shield for LGBT individuals, I might be less shocked by the reality outside of school and possibly more inclined to be working for that company. By removing the current jargon, we could be increasing the gap between academic and corporate culture (which is another potential issue in itself). On the other hand, given time, this policy might actually change corporate culture and the terminology used throughout the world. All the factors, including preventing students from transitioning into the work force, should be weighed when assessing terminology in classrooms.

MIT has a spectrum of opportunities to reduce usage of emotionally triggering technical terms in the classroom. Here are a few possibilities:

—Keep the status quo (professors have final authority at choosing terms).

—MIT suggests that professors use alternative terms in the MIT Community and Equity Officer Report.

—Professors are required to mention and give students alternative terms, but can still use traditional terms.

—Ban potentially offensive terms in classrooms.

Implementing any decision may start with recommendations in the next MIT inclusiveness report. Changing classroom terminology is definitely more logistically challenging than creating the ‘Head of House’ title, but I feel that it has a larger potential for impact. Finding the balance between professor autonomy, student autonomy, student comfort, and the transition into companies will be key in these decisions.

If Yale students hadn’t protested the Housemaster’s letter and obtained international attention for it, MIT likely might still be using the ‘Housemaster’ term. I hope MIT can be more proactive in assessing the effect of its culture on students, without national news programs putting the spotlight on us.

Mark Goldman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering.