Junot Diaz: teaching creativity to engineers at MIT

An influential writer has been employed by leading US science, engineering and technology university to teach creativity. E&T finds out why MIT is teaching engineers to think laterally.

It was not so long ago that companies wanted universities to stress the value of teamwork and structure in preparing undergraduates for working life. Creativity and an interest in arts or humanities were seen as mercurial, peripheral, even dangerous.

However, the problems facing engineering today have forced a rethink - overcoming broad challenges such as global warming and more focused ones such as the physical limits abutting progress in electronics will demand original thinking. How do you provoke that?

It's no great surprise to learn that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is an old hand at this game. The US educational system has always had a certain amount of flexibility in allowing students to mix degree majors in the sciences with minors in the arts, and MIT is one of its leading innovators.

So much becomes clearer still when you learn that its current Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Creative Writing is also the holder of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Junot Díaz is well on the way to becoming a literary superstar. He won the Pulitzer for his novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao', and before he joined MIT produced 'Drown', a powerful collection of short stories.

MIT, then, is the day job where Díaz spends much of his time teaching scientists and engineers who are, in his words "only visiting the humanities". But what he is trying to achieve nevertheless goes beyond the rather hidebound goal of making science students more 'comfortable' with the written word. Díaz aims to stimulate their creativity.

He does not approach his engineering majors from the perspective that they are all that much different from those focused on the humanities. At heart, it is about potential and engagement, not stereotypes.

"Yes, they're brilliant and yes, they've sacrificed a lot of social time to their studies, and yes, they're intense. But at the arts level, they seem a lot like my other students," he says. "I think there's a tendency at a place like MIT to focus on what's weird about the kids but really what amazes me is how like they are to their non-science peers. Some are moved deeply by the arts and wish to exercise their passion for it; many are not."

At the same time, he has noticed that science must, by its nature, place some emphasis on a very factual, very dry discourse and a hardcore empiricism. That is not a bad thing, rather the reflection of the demands of a different discipline.

"But it is in a class like mine where students are taught that often the story is the digression or the thing not said - that real stories are not about Occam's Razor but something far more beautiful, messy and, I would argue, elegant," he says.

Multicultural voices

There is another side to this dialogue as well - what the students bring to the classes themselves. In one respect, there is the inherently international side to MIT, given its reputation as a global centre of excellence.

"I get to read stories from all over the world. What a wonderful job to have, to be given all these limited wonderful glimpses of our planet," says Díaz. "Having a student from Japan use her own background to provide constructive criticism about describing family pressures to a young person from Pakistan is something to cherish."

Multiculturalism strikes a chord with Díaz for personal reasons. He is himself an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and his experiences as part of that diaspora, his native country's often bloody history and his own adolescence in the industrial landscape of New Jersey deeply inform both 'Oscar Wao' and 'Drown'.

"Many of my students are immigrants, so I know some of the silences that they are wrestling with," Díaz says. "It makes me sympathetic but also willing to challenge them to confront some of the stuff that we often would rather look away from: the agonies of assimilation, the virulence of some of our internalised racial myths, and things like that."

However, those students with a science background also inspire him. "In every class, I see at least one student who thinks the arts are ridiculous frippery become, by the end of term, a fierce believer in the power of arts to describe and explode our realities as human beings," says Díaz.

"Why I love non-arts majors is that they are much more willing to question the received wisdom of, say, creative writing. My MIT students want you to give them two, maybe three different definitions for character. And that's cool."

John Christopher

Díaz's own taste in authors puts something else in the mix. The fantasies of JRR Tolkien prove a frequent touchstone in his novel, although he seems even closer to a group of English science-fiction writers who - arguably taking their cue from the genre's father HG Wells - explore apocalyptic themes in a more down-to-earth way. For Díaz, foremost among these is John Christopher. His prescience is seeing him 'rediscovered' right now in the UK, with a reprint earlier this year of 'The Death of Grass'.

"Christopher had a stripped-down economic style and often his stories were dominated by anti-heroes - in other words, ordinary human beings," says Díaz. "He may not be well known, but that changes my opinion not a jot. Like [John] Wyndham, like [JG] Ballard, Christopher deploys the apocalyptic mode to critique both our civilisation and our deeper hidden selves, but I don't think anyone comes close to his fearless, ferocious vision of human weakness and of the terrible world we inhabit."

Díaz also acknowledges the influence of British television. "It's a curious thing. A Dominican kid living in New Jersey obsessed with a troika of British TV writers: Nigel Kneale, Terry Nation and Dennis Potter," he says.

"Kneale was a particular favorite because of his genre range. 'The Stone Tapes' terrified me to death and his Quatermass work, for a fanboy like me, is peerless and gave rise without question to another favourite of mine, Doctor Who. Think of 'The Year of the Sex Olympics' [which famously anticipates the extremes possible in reality TV and did so in the early 1970s]. Kneale was a visionary who really tapped the potential of his medium in ways that Christopher, for example, never did.

"And yes, both Christopher and Kneale seem to share a certain kind of flinty north Atlantic pessimism that is no longer common, but seams of which you find in the work of Alan Moore. Those of us who enjoy genre on TV have no idea what a debt is owed to Kneale. It's his basic vocabulary that many of my favourite shows these days deploy and many of the creators I doubt even know this."

With opinions like that, MIT is obviously an excellent place to stir up the debate.

"I often find myself defending fantasy to students who themselves have to defend science fiction to some of their other instructors," says Díaz. "That's why we're in class, to explode these genres, to explore what makes up their power and why are some people immune to their charms."

It is a pleasure rather than a challenge for Díaz to bring arts and literature to those following what we are often led to believe is a very separate academic and intellectual path. In fact, his parting thought is that the combination may in some respects be an improvement, better rounded even.

"I can say this one thing about engineering and science students: they are so much more accustomed to working as a team, and that's a pleasant relief from the often unbearable solipsistic individualism of more humanities-oriented student bodies," says Díaz.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown are both published in the UK by Faber and Faber.

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