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Imposters at MIT? Stop the Victim Blaming

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Last week NPR ran a story about recent suicides at MIT which highlighted the "imposter syndrome," in which students feel like a fraud, dismissing their earlier accomplishments. The article also emphasized other non-academic factors in stress. I believe the not-so-subtle attempt at victim blaming downplayed MIT's contributions to its students' poor mental health.

From flickr.com/photos/52231820@N07/16272668220/: A composite image of MIT.
A composite image of MIT.
(image by wenthevegan)
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For many years, MIT's rate of suicide was far above the national average and it remains so. Most recently, six students died by suicide over about a year ending in March, including two freshman one week, which led MIT to lighten course loads it had misjudged.

My memories of MIT in the 1980's reflect just that: very bright classmates' who were unhappy due to intense academic pressure. The top engineering school was often, needlessly, a place of systemized misery.

The chancellor and the head of mental health denied interview requests for the NPR article. So I'll weigh in.

Let's start with the big picture. There were two expressions broadly understood to capture the student experience at MIT when I was there in the 1980's. The first -- "drinking from the firehose" -- with its eerie resemblance to waterboarding -- is an explicit acknowledgement it was impossible to learn all the assigned material.

Just as common was the unofficial slogan "IHTFP." The ubiquitous abbreviation for "I Hate This F***ing Place" was plastered throughout the Infinite Corridor that most students walked through to attend their classes.

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But why were students struggling? Weren't presumably world class teachers capitalizing on a love for learning? My experience was the professors were, for the most part, really poor instructors and teaching in smaller sections was of mixed quality.

In one class, a professor put slides up from a different class. None of us realized it as each day we blindly copied down his random scribbles.

In fact, it was said that faculty receiving the student-selected Baker Memorial undergraduate teaching award would be denied tenure, as they were strongly favoring teaching over research.

But poor teaching was surmountable. A greater barrier was a grading system designed to make students feel like a failure. Many problem sets were unsolvable without "Bibles," coursework from previous years. More importantly, many tests in classes in my major -- the hugely popular electrical engineering -- were curved to B- or C center. Thus a large minority or even majority of the class would receive a C or lower. C's are obviously considered poor grades: how many applicants does MIT admit with transcripts dotted with C's?

In fact, MIT's harsh grading system resulted in many students who graduated with top rankings from competitive high school classes receiving many C's at college. Thus very bright individuals lost the opportunity to attend top and even second-tier graduate schools. Students observing their prospects dim naturally were stressed.

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I'll note many with mediocre MIT transcripts eventually shone as excellent lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

Yet what was the benefit to our MIT experience making us feel inadequate and out of place?

Many claim the "sink or swim" philosophy reflects the real world. However, I and other alums have said that none of our jobs -- many with great companies -- involved such extreme stress.

Finally and clearly, MIT was not viewed as a supportive place. Many people I knew, despite having great friends, were extremely stressed out and struggled to cope. Most were not primarily stressed by their love life or health, but by their academics: deeply anxious about their failure to debug their computer, their brutal exam schedule, or other academic concerns. Yet few I knew received significant support from the administration.

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.

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