2022 | MIT SHASS Advanced Degree Ceremony
Thursday, May 26, 1:30pm
Join us via Livestream to celebrate the 2022 MIT SHASS Masters and Doctoral graduates!
Follow the ceremony with a digital version of the program.
Address to the Candidates
By Marc Aidinoff, PhD '22 (HASTS)
Chief of Staff, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
"For many of us, we pursued a PhD because we had to. This thing we are doing, at its best, can be a vocation. As teachers, as researchers, this scholarly way of being can be a calling."
I see many parents assembled here in the hopes of answering one question many of them have been trying, for years, to ask, “why did you do that?”
You had so much promise. Law school seemed wise. Maybe just getting a job. You came all the way to MIT to do that?
For many parents, it’s not a hostile question but a nervous one about their child embarking on something, by definition, distinct, to figure out a novel research question.
It is a question many of our undergrad students ask: why are you studying what your studying?
It’s also a question our advisors ask us, “why are you doing this?” though they mean it in confusion that we have gone down a rabbit hole that does not comport with the original plan. In this context it is asked, sometimes lovingly and sometimes with a note, of concern.
It’s actually the question our peers ask us most in program seminar, though in coded ways, “what is the thing you are actually trying to do?”
I remember my undergraduate advisor warning me that “a part of graduate school is extraordinarily lonely because you need to go figure something out that no one else has ever thought was important enough to devote multiple years of their life to figuring out.”
He told me “It is an isolating journey to burrow in so deeply to one question.”
I know I struggled to communicate with my civilian friends and family what I was doing every day as a graduate student. A tremendous amount of jargon, from far too many sub disciplines, became a necessary set of scaffolding for me to think my own thoughts. I really struggled without it.
Today, we reflect on why we did that this thing. Why we pursed an advanced degree from SHASS.
Let me give three distinct answers to why I did — in addition to the privilege of great robes.
First, I needed to understand how the American state worked. History is, and has proven time and again, to be incredibly useful as an explanatory apparatus. That is a self-evident claim—of course history explains. But historiography is what proved even more useful. For humanists and social scientists, the critical problem is knowing where to look to explain historical change.
How, for example, did a thing called the New Deal happen in the United States? Was it about unions organizing or US intellectuals importing British ideas about Progressive reform? Did it rely on the haphazard nature of American pragmatism—a smattering of programs to see what worked—or the power of one Southern voting bloc to ensure an American racialized caste system remained in place.
Was the New Deal state actualized through cultural narratives of belonging—or IBM computer systems that could suddenly treat the population as data, each citizen identified with a social security. My favorite explanations of the New Deal is that it is a system of federal grants to states that hold together a distributed federal system by using grant dollars as a carrot and stick to ensure national compliance.
Four days after defending my dissertation in the HASTS program, I joined the Biden Administration. First as a senior advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and then as chief of staff for that office. As the manager for a team of over 140 extraordinary civil servants, political appointees, and subject matter experts charged with of laying out and coordinating a progressive agenda for and through science and technology, I am glad I am a historian.
The New Deal historiography tells me where to look to make lasting change. I think a lot about the strings that are attached to federal money when working with the team to build national guardrails on AI systems that violate civil rights or to incentivize data collection about the next pandemic.
Historicizing technology has proved particularly valuable to me. STS teaches a recurring lesson that technology hides people, the human labor that makes technical systems function. The problem is not the autonomous vehicle deciding to hit 1 passenger or 5, but the rich social worlds in which that car exists.
As Leo Marx, the great MIT cultural historian who passed away earlier this year, warned, the way technology has been imagined “relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence.” A card-carrying humanist knows how find the people.
If you ask me why I am here I will also say, I stayed in graduate school because I was afraid. During our time in graduate school, we have witnessed a global rise of fascism, a stunning inaction on climate change, and a pandemic that has killed 6.3 million people, including 1 million Americans. It was punctuated by mass shootings, collective outrage at the public murder of unarmed Black men and women, and totally unacceptable treatment of immigrants, including at MIT.
Graduate school was a place to learn new solidarities, so that the fear would not be paralyzing. That meant marching and teach-ins. It meant recognizing the power of unions. An older generation passed down some important lessons
I found that this period of uncertainty foregrounded values. Suddenly the Department was having conversations about what we should be trying to preserve or to build? For me that meant making a case for the right to vote, the right to clean air, the right to freedom from state murder. It also meant preserving what mattered about the university: the right to think, to wonder at a complex and beautiful problem, to revel at beauty. It fell to us to vigorously protect and advance the university and the pursuit of knowledge.
Amidst all of these threats to American social life, I also found myself, my peers, and the MIT faculty fearful of the harms that we might cause, of the harms of our research and our ideas. Perhaps we have good reason to be fearful: historically, graduates from this ceremony have had a long track record of hubris to devastating consequences. Collectively we have grappled with some of the more unsavory legacies of MIT social science—from Francis Amasa Walker’s eugenics to Walt Rostow’s modernization theory.
A certain humility is in order. If I were giving commencement remarks at Stanford’s computer science department, I would likely give a treatise on hubris. But having left MIT, the thing that worries me so much about SHASS and the students coming out of SHASS is a paralyzing sense of fear — that the crises are too big to handle, that our tools are insufficient, that the computer scientists have all the real power. This sense of powerlessness can come from the faculty, a faculty I adore but who increasingly talk about themselves as objects of, not agents of, the university system.
I hope that our time in graduate school, especially during multiple intersecting crises, allowed us, as both introspective scholars and overlapping communities, to reflect on the world we are trying to build, and the values we are seeking to advance.
Which brings me to my last point: For many of us, we pursued a PhD because we had to. This thing we are doing, at its best, can be a vocation. As teachers, as researchers, this scholarly way of being can be a calling. There are things I need to know. The colleagues have been excellent. The mentors were wise. But I needed to figure something out — and I needed the community to do that work.
For those in this room for whom today is a reaffirmation of your vocation, let me make a plea. Do the work so others can stand where you are today. The University system is not on sure footing. Funding has disappeared. Jobs are limited. Scholarship has requires a faster turn around time for less ambitious research
All scholars in the humanities and social sciences will make compromises to prove their relevance and utility.
But please stand up for the ability to pursue a research question for its own sake. Protect the privilege to wonder, to follow a strange nagging feeling that could lead to quite a lot of work and standing here today.
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