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MIT Better World

Literature professor Arthur Bahr’s creative efforts to do just that were recognized in 2015 with the MacVicar Faculty Fellowship for excellence in undergraduate teaching, which comes with $10,000 annually for 10 years to support the recipient’s efforts in the classroom.

This spring, Bahr welcomed Spectrum to his office—where he displays an elaborate wooden board game one of his students constructed around the worldview of the Morte D’Arthur—to talk about what resonates in his MIT classroom.

That board game came out of a fairly open-ended assignment to “make something” in response to the text. Have you used that approach again?

AB: Yes, I’m doing it this semester in the seminar I’m teaching about manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales. Scribes in the Middle Ages assembled the Tales, which were left incomplete, in various ways. We also look at how that manifests in modern editions and, of course, how the internet has transformed our modes of access to digital facsimiles. For their final research project, the students have the option to make something that represents or responds to this material. I’m anticipating getting some very interesting projects.

The first time you did that kind of assignment, did they come back with the kinds of things you expected?

AB: I didn’t know what to expect, because this is just not how I think. I don’t like making stuff with my hands. I don’t know how to sew on a button! One of the things that I’ve learned since coming to MIT is to trust and find pedagogical strength in the fact that my students are different from me, because most of them are engineers. To construct something that represents time and space in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is, for them, an inspirational invitation. And what they came up with made sense in retrospect. Le Morte D’Arthur has this insane profusion of characters and it’s very complicated trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what; I got a whole bunch of maps and charts, and even a scroll you had to unfurl.

One of the clichés about teaching is that you learn from your students. It feels especially true to me as a humanist here, precisely because many of them do have different kinds of brains than me. I taught at a small liberal arts college for a year before coming to MIT. I had a great time there for the year, but, you know, I was preaching to the choir. I was talking to people whose interests and modes of thinking were broadly similar to my own. Day to day, I think MIT students challenge me more than students probably anywhere else would.

What is your take on the role of humanities at MIT?

AB: All literature professors teach close reading: deep, sustained attention to minute particularities of the text that you wouldn’t necessarily notice or appreciate on a quick or even a sustained first read through.

One way of thinking about what close reading does is that it enforces a kind of slowness, and it inculcates the capacity to take your time and to reflect. And I don’t mean reflection in the pop psychology sense; lots of different things can teach you the meaning of life. But close reading does prompt you to take your time on stuff that might not seem to demand it.

Our society has become faster and faster, and one result is that we’ve become more impatient. That’s not just true of my students, it’s true of me, too. I’ve gotten more used to the immediate gratification of the web. Technology is all about how fast we can do things, how seamlessly, how easily, right? Don’t get me wrong, speed and seamlessness and ease of use are all great things. But there’s a danger, I think, of everything accelerating.

Particularly at MIT, with technologically driven students, one thing that the humanities offer, which is incredibly important both in the here and now of their education but also as they move out into the world, is that capacity, that appreciation for the possibilities of slowness and, indeed, for stillness. For stopping.

What do you like most about MIT students?

AB: To get into MIT it’s so competitive that you have to be really, really good at math and science, but clearly you also have to have something else. That might be passion for music, or sports. But in some cases it’s a passion for reading cool, weird, hard poems—because they’re weird and hard. Here there is an active embrace of challenge that is unusual in humanities. MIT students really like to lean into the difficulty.

At many schools, a typical Freshman Comp complaint might be, “I like this poem, but as soon as you make me analyze it, that destroys my experience of it.” With MIT students it tends to be exactly the opposite. They might initially say, “There’s nothing interesting there; it’s just a pretty poem.” But as soon as you unpack the syntax of that couplet, as soon as you start worrying over the four different meanings that word has, all of a sudden it opens up a world of difficulty and complexity. Then they are in fact, really excited to slow down.

To take apart the radio, so to speak.

AB: Exactly. I contributed an assignment to a book called 101 Exercises for the College Classroom based on something I do in one of my intro classes: The students have to translate a sonnet into prose, then talk about what is gained and lost by changing the genre. What I wrote in the book is exactly that: the exercise corresponds to my students’ desire to understand how things are put together, to poke around in the springs and guts of a text.

I think the dismissive attitude toward literature that some of my students may come in with is predicated upon a belief that there is no inside—that it’s a superficial, pretty surface. And as soon as you show them that there is this under-the-hood side to it, many of them get really excited. And that becomes infectious, because once they get into something, they don’t let up.