Is it MIT, or is it it's graduates?

I’ve only interacted with a handful of MIT graduate students and postd-ocs, so I have extremely limited exposure, but I’ve noticed that they all seem to share a couple of odd traits. Each of the four MIT post-docs I’ve seen have manifested the following behavior to some degree:

  1. They’re extremely intent on establishing and following standard procedures. Three of the four PhDs who’ve worked here have included on their syllabi two to four pages of (often absurd) rules mandating in-class behavior for undergraduates. This includes things like “No in-class question may take more than ten seconds to ask, and no question will recieve more than thirty seconds of instructor feedback during lecture”. (the guy who set that rule actually had a stopwatch that he counted off of, out loud, while someone was asking their question.) This also includes weird shit like instructing the TAs to patrol the classroom during lecture and deduct points off of a student’s final participation grade if they’re “Poorly dressed, inattentive, or taking insufficient notes”.

  2. They use really, really complicated grading schemes that take a long time to explain to students and even longer to explain to the TAs who do the grading. These often include bizarre grading criteria; we were once instructed to deduct points for bad handwriting. Not unreadable handwriting, mind you: if the assignment was readable, but the prof thought the handwriting was sloppy, we were actually told to deduct points.

  3. They seem dead-set on making life miserable for anyone who deviates from their spoken (or unspoken) procedures. At one point a postdoc lecturer told the class that assignments could be submitted electronically, provided the student took responsibility for ensuring that the document was readable. Later on somebody sent an assignment in a pdf, but he neglected to embed the font. Now, this wasn’t an issue, because there was only one special symbol used in the whole assignment, it only appeared when the guy quoted data from the assignment and never in his own work, and it was immediately obvious where it was. The instructor’s response to the graders? "If he had been using more specialized symbols we wouldn’t have been capable of deciphering this. We told him it was his responsibility, so treat it as if he’d submitted an unreadable file and deduct 10% of his score for a late submission.

So, what gives? Did we just get the bad luck of landing four really, really weird people (quite likely, considering our field), or have people who studied at MIT seen similiar tendancies across the institution?

They’re probably just young and know nothing about good teaching yet. The PhD experience in a place like MIT is so intense that it makes a deep imprint on your behaviour, so it will take a while to shake off. Depending on where you are and your organisation’s attitude to teaching, they’ll either get told to pull themselves together, or continue their hair-brained, ineffectual pedagogical efforts for the rest of their careers :slight_smile:

Interestingly, I think the student body at elite universities can be a bit supine. Collectively, they can be a meek bunch - a combination of being very driven people who have bigger things to worry about then a TA’s behaviour, and a natural disposition to please people higher up the intellectual totem pole than themselves. I can see this brand of teaching being tolerated at MIT, whereas at my own university (a good UK one, but not in the same street as MIT), the students wouldn’t wear it for a minute.

I don’t know what your field is, but isn’t the computer science faculty at MIT just on a different planet? I could see postgrads from there taking an otherworldly approach to teaching, because they’re special, see?

The rest of the post is ridiculous, but I support this rule 100%!!!

Who hasn’t been in a class where some person has tried to monopolize the professor’s time with either their own inability to understand the concepts or their own stupid pet theories that are only tangentially related to the current subject matter. If your question can’t be answered in 30 seconds or doesn’t add to the discussion, that’s what office hours are for! :mad:

It’s quite likely that a grad student or postdoc at a school like MIT never taught as a grad student. Certainly they haven’t had any pedagogical training. Perhaps they are making up for their insecurities by overthinking things.

What level courses are these? I’d imagine there’s a much greater tendency to this kind of rigidity in large, lower division classes.

I don’t think they learned this style by example. I went to Caltech and have known several MIT alums over the years. From all I’ve heard, this kind of rigidity and over-codified syllabus and grading technique was vanishingly rare in undergraduate instruction. In fact, the opposite was more likely to be true, and the difficulty would be figuring out what the instructor wanted. With new instructors, or in a course the instructor hadn’t taught before, there could be quite a bit of interaction in shaping the course. Of course there’s some possibility that instructors at these places have become more anal in the 20+ years since I was an undergrad.

My experiences with MIT students were, ah, shall we say…non-academic…and they occurred over 25 years ago, so I can hardly call myself an expert on teaching-related behavior of MIT types in 2007.

Here’s my two cents anyway: you are describing behaviors of people who are (a) total pricks; and/or (b) manifesting diagnosable problems such as OCD. It is possible MIT has more of (b) than the general population (the genius-insanity link, to grossly oversimplify) but certainly no more of (a).

I lurved me some MIT men back in the day. They were wonderful.

Usually, I would agree! However the class where he set that rule, and basically every undergraduate class past the 200 level, was designed to be discussion-based. There are generally less than 30 students, and the course (natural language semantics, in this case; this’s a linguistics department) was designed with the assumption that 30-50% of classtime would involve small group discussion or moderated debate about the framework everyone was learning. The usual prof was on sabbatical when this particular postdoc took over and borrowed the main teacher’s materials. She basically spent the entire semester simulating in-class discussions with herself, which was pretty demoralizing when you consider that literally every other course any of the students took openly encouraged them to talk back.

I think one of the big things that caused me to notice the annoying crap is the environment: most of our faculty are personable and self-effacing, and when you get used to that kind of environment the whole Harvard/MIT/Yale Ivory Tower/Newbie PhD Pretension thing seems a lot more noticeable than it actually is.

I would NOT say “certainly no more of (a)”.

That’s not something I’d say with certainty at all.

Well, it’s mostly a science and engineering school, not known primarily for any emphasis on English grammar, so it might be “it’s graduates.”

In a school with a more prestigious liberal arts tradition, it had better be “its graduates,” since the apostrophe isn’t used in the possessive.


I think your sample size may be too small. :smiley:

I recall only one MIT lecture/recitation for which the instructor made attendance mandatory. The class was both surprised and annoyed by the requirement but humored the instructor since, after all, she could bestow or withhold the Almighty A.

I could tell you some stories about odd TAs, but none that seem to support your vision of them. The Chemistry Department in particular was very invested in selecting and training TAs who were excellent teachers.

Graduate and post-doc ranks had a larger percentage of non-Americans than undergrads. This led to some cultural and language differences, but none of the OCD practices you describe (that I can recall).

Although linguistics is an empirical science… basically, there are two approaches to things: the Prescriptive approach and the Descriptive approach. (warning: bad wikipedia articles ahoy!)

I was more inclined to think that the postdocs in question were insane to begin with, partially because MIT has a really great, if somewhat inflexible linguistics program.

You know it’s going to be a fun year when profs start throwing around phrases like “damage control” two weeks into a new postdoc’s appointment. :smiley:

Man… I could see someone being that anal after an overdose of six-sigma / ISO9000 / QS9000 / GxP /whatever other variation on attempts to spell out common-sense and combine it with statistics is the flavor of the week. But those aren’t much associated with linguistics, are they?

Hearing stuff like that in the OP makes me glad I went to RPI instead of MIT.

Bachelor’s Degree, 1997 here. Those post-docs sound insane. As an undergrad, none of my grad TAs were anything like that, so I’m guessing you have a statistically skewed sample. :stuck_out_tongue:

Oh yeah. The only thing that’s made adulthood better is that I keep finding men of similar… qualities.

Ooh, that sounds FUN. I took a different route that has also worked out very well: I married an MIT man 25 years ago.

It’s all good, except that sometimes that massive class ring happens to hit me if he’s swinging his arms as we are walking together. Damn, that beaver HURTS.

The OP is describing someone with a psychological disorder like OCD. If he was a total prick who simply enjoyed tormenting his students, he’d give himself more flexibility in order to increase the opportunities to hurt people. For example, a total prick would never make up a thirty second rule because he might want to someday humiliate a student by giving a ten minute answer to an ill-chosen question.

The one prof I can recall who was an MIT grad was an excellent instructor, nothing at all like what you describe. The syllabus was maybe a little elaborate, but in a creative, not tyrannical, way.

Rensselpolyinstitechtute, my alma mater, how I miss you. In other news I went to RPI with twin brothers. One went to MIT the other to RPI for grad school. They both agreed that the work was harder at RPI. Anecdote not datum point. :cool:

Some MIT students use their skills for fun and profit:

He must swing his arms pretty wide to hit you *there *with his brass rat.

I take mine off before I swing. :smiley:

35 years ago there weren’t any unreasonable TAs, and when I TA’ed in grad school (not MIT) I didn’t do weird stuff like that. Well, I’d lecture doing some Lenny Bruce and some Chuck Barris, but nothing weird.

(Where did you go to school CairoCarol? I understand Simmons women liked us because we were easy to domesticate.