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The Personal Investigative Essay

21W.021: MIT: Inside, Live

Lucy Marx


The Personal Investigative Essay

Assignment #4

For this assignment, you will investigate an MIT-related topic that particularly intrigues you, and write an essay that combines a personal story (your interest, your experience investigating, your questions and insights) and an informative presentation of what you discover about the topic—therefore, the “personal investigative essay.”

So, your first task is to find a topic that genuinely interests you and that you can present in an engaging way to a general audience—people not necessarily well-acquainted with either MIT or the particular topic involved. It should provide you with good opportunities to find material and at the same time be focused enough to be manageable. The possibilities are close to endless—MIT’s people (staff, students and faculty), historic projects and new initiatives, departments, labs, student activities and groups, buildings, institutes, or issues that particularly concern you and fellow students. Something real, concrete, and particular should ground your essay—people, place, thing. For instance, questions like “Is MIT the greatest university in the world?” or “Why do people come to MIT?” are probably too vague and slippery to deal with successfully in such a relatively short time and space. On the other hand, you do want to go beyond the simply informational. As you approach your topic, you want to ask questions that lead towards your own insights and not just a recording of facts.

To get started, I encourage you to try freewriting—jotting down what you’ve already bumped into, found interesting, and might like to pursue. Ask yourself: “Is there something I really would like to find out more about here at MIT?” I also urge you to browse MIT’s rich websites—following links to departments and labs, and the sites of institutes affiliated with MIT such as the Media Lab, Whitehead Institute, or McGovern Institute. You can talk to friends, TAs, house masters, and professors. You can poke your head into buildings and labs. You can look up articles about MIT in the popular press like the Tech, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. Once you’ve got an idea, it’s often helpful to email or approach someone associated with a particular project or topic who can give advice on pursuing your investigation, answer questions, or direct you to useful material. (I’m happy to assist in making a contact if you hit obstacles.)

We will visit the MIT archives to take a look at what is housed there with archivist Nora Murphy. And we will visit the Library Digital Instruction Resource Center, 14N-132, where librarian Mark Szarko will introduce us to MIT’s library resources that will be useful in pursuing your topic and developing your essay.

Your own on-site observations can be an important part of your investigation. However, you will also need to incorporate supporting material from interviews, books, articles, etc. into this essay. This kind of research is like detective work. You follow leads and see where they take you. Some will be dead-ends, and the route may be circuitous, but you should find ample resources to write a well-informed essay about an intriguing aspect of MIT culture or history.


Introduction to the essay:

Susan Orlean on the essay ( from her introduction to “Best American Essays, 2005”)


General Models  

Shannon Moran: “Freshman Year on the Rocks” (Angles, 2011)

Lindsay Sanneman: “Shifting Balance: The Elimination of MIT’s Varsity Women’s Gymnastics Program” (Angles, 2012)

Xunjie Li: “1927” (Angles, 2011)

Yvonne Wangare: “Away From Home” (Angles, 2012)



Ana Burgos: “A Professor of Puzzles” (Angles, 2012)

Jonathan Warneke: “Armed and Dangerous”  (Angles, 2012)



Sterling Watson: “Brass Rat” (Angles, 2012)

Mina Healey: “Walker Memorial” (Angles, 2012)

Alina Granville: “Kresge Oval”

Mihai Duta: “Frank Gehry, Starchitect or Master of Spin?”

To review the Chicago Style of Citation, look at Ross Bassett’s “MIT-Trained Swadeshis” (Stellar site/Material/Readings)

A partial list of sources to check out:

  • MIT’s history library site:  Perhaps the most valuable site to start with, this site offers a far-ranging introduction to the many elements of MIT history and culture and bibliographies of relevant published material: http://libraries.mit.edu/sites/mithistory/
  • The Tech, MIT’s oldest newspaper; alumni reunion reports, and much more. http://tech.mit.edu/
  • The MIT 150 website http://mit150.mit.edu/ provides a rich array of historical material, including the MIT Infinite History project (below).
  • MIT150 Infinite History: Over the past few years, the MIT150 Infinite History project team has captured the first-person recollections of more than one hundred people who have shaped — or been shaped by — MIT. These individuals have made extraordinary contributions to their fields and to MIT and they include Institute leadership, faculty, alumni, staff, and friends. Interviews with MIT http://mit150.mit.edu/infinite-history. Especially useful for those of you interested in writing a profile, this site provides a good introduction to the interview process.
  • The MIT museum displays a range of MIT-related artifacts that span the history of MIT. http://mit150.mit.edu/exhibition
  • MIT’s homepage: http://web.mit.edu/ presents a continuous feed of interesting activities, initiatives, people, etc.
  • Scope, The Student Publication of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT: http://scopeweb.mit.edu gives models of essays written by graduate students, many of which included source material from MIT.
  • The MIT archives: Offers a near complete collection of books about MIT: http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/
  • The Boston Globe http://www.boston.com/  : Just plug in “MIT” at the Globe’s homepage and you’ll come up with a whole array of articles with an MIT angle.
  • MIT’s news around campus sent out in a weekly email from the MIT News office: MIT News Office [newsletter-bounces@MIT.EDU] .
  • First-hand experience: Through your own experiences and conversations you may be alerted to MIT activities, lore, people, initiatives, and places that you find intriguing enough to investigate further.


These books offer good overviews of MIT History:

Kaiser, David, ed., Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.

Prescott, Samuel C., When MIT Was “Boston Tech,” 1861-1916. Cambridge: The Technology Press, 1954.

Alexander, Philip N., A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.