50th Reunion: Personal and Collective History

Next weekend I will be attending my 50th reunion at Wellesley College. Here (slightly edited) is what I wrote last fall for the Wellesley ’66 Class Reunion Book:

Our personal biographies will be all over the map, but almost all of us share a collective biography, which goes something like this:

Born at the end of three catastrophic decades of war, genocide, terror, and economic collapse;

Graduating from college in the midst of three decades of astonishing growth and change, when the conditions of human life were transformed more rapidly and decisively than ever before in history;

Living our adult lives in a rolling apocalypse of interactive crises (military, political, environmental, economic). One of the greatest gifts of our collective life is that we came of age in the Sixties believing we could change the world for the better. I think we have done this, but we have also learned that some historical forces are larger than we are.

In 1966 it seemed that some of the most interesting historical action was taking place at Berkeley, so I headed there, intending to get a PhD. in history. I ended up finding some historical action and a lot of personal confusion. I left Berkeley with a master’s degree and headed back east. In 1968 I married and moved to Florida, where my husband worked for a doctorate in oceanography, motivated by love of science and also desire to avoid the draft. After some years there doing socially conscious work, I belatedly realized that I am an academic type and should develop a career in this direction.

When my husband got a postdoc in Amherst, Massachusetts, I went back to school and earned a doctorate in history at U.Mass. Amherst. I wrote a dissertation on the origins of consumer society at a time when historians of technology rarely thought of “consumption” as part of their research field. Dissertation published, I started teaching writing at MIT, got on the tenure track there, wrote a second book (on underworlds as thought experiments for understanding human-built worlds), and ended up with tenure in 1990, at the academically advanced age of 46.

Five years later I was asked to serve as MIT’s dean of undergraduate education, a job that soon evolved into serving as MIT’s first dean of students and undergraduate education. For MIT to ask me to do this–a woman and a humanist—was an honor and opportunity I could not refuse. It was a demanding and difficult position, but one that was hugely educational for me. My on-the-job experiences led to another book, Retooling, which reflects on how MIT, birthplace of the digital information age, itself confronts the brave new world of information technology.

Since stepping down as dean, and after serving a stint as department head, I continue to enjoy the varied activities (teaching, mentoring, lecturing, committees, consulting, reading, writing) that make academic life such a privilege. Slowly but surely I have come to understand that my calling as a scholar: to use imaginative literature as a source of evidence of and insight into the emergence of a human-dominated world. This is the theme of my recent book, The Triumph of Human Empire. I am still at work on thinking through the implications of this triumph.

But everything now has a much shorter time horizon. I will write more, but Triumph will be my last long book. I will retire from the MIT faculty in a couple years. Last October I lost my husband to cancer. Life still offers much to look forward to, but major projects are over.

This makes me sad but also gives me a sense of liberation. My personal history may be slowing own, but collective history is barreling forward with events coming at such a pace and on such a scale that I find myself wondering what an historical event is at all. I feel confused again, this time as a scholar. I don’t have another fifty years to sort things out, but I am still trying to go, at least mentally, where the action is.

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