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Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999

Author: Clarence G. Williams
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: October 2006

 REVIEW 1: Elizabeth F. Desnoyers-Colas

There are few extensive scholarly works that focus solely on the collective African American higher education experience. There are even fewer salient empirical studies that dare to address specifically the ever-present specter of race and its impact on African American scholars at all levels of academe. This text, Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999, is one such work that attempts to bridge that gap.

Author Clarence G. Williams, Jr., Special Assistant to the President, Ombudsman, and Adjunct Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes that the original idea for the book germinated from a massive oral history gathering venture, Blacks at MIT History Project, an extensive project primarily designed to document the almost six decade presence of African Americans at MIT. For his work's focus, Williams envisioned a mini-literary version of this project, a book that would ideally feature "a good mix" of thirty oral history transcripts of MITís past and present African American and non-black students, faculty, and administrators. In it final form, the 1,054 page oral history-based digest features 75 reflective interviews. As part of the book's package, there is a book addendum in CD ROM format that contains 148 additional interviews. Ultimately, all of the interviewees whose stories were featured in this work represented the broadest cross section of personalities, academic and career accomplishments, worldviews, and socio-economic backgrounds. Those nonblack faculty and administrator interviewees were selected because of their indelible impact on blacks who attended or worked at MIT.

To frame the basic infrastructure of these oral histories, each interviewee was asked a series of similar questions. All interviewees talked about their family's socio-economic and educational backgrounds. They were also encouraged to discuss in candid fashion their reasons for coming to MIT, as well as their high and low points of their MIT experiences. Wisely, Williams did not rigidly stick to a set number of pat questions. More poignant questions centered on racism and other race related issues. The interviewees' responses to these questions predictably generated more probing follow-up questions from Williams, especially when African American staff, students, faculty, and administrators openly addressed such race-sensitive issues as affirmative action and MIT's perceived reluctance to hire and tenure more African American faculty.

There are a few unique features of the text worth noting. For those used to the conventional, dispassionate ethnographic approach of obtaining, gathering, and disseminating information from an interviewee, they will be sorely disappointed -- yet perhaps pleasantly surprised -- with Williams interviewing technique. Having worked at MIT for over three decades, Williams is the ultimate MIT African American longevity success story. In every interview, Williams freely uses this long-term connectivity and insider knowledge of the African American presence at MIT to his advantage, often interjecting opinions, pointed commentary, and the occasional consoling gesture in many of the interviews. His slightly unorthodox interviewing technique withstanding, the end result appears to allow the interviewees great leeway to express candidly their feelings about MIT.

The second feature worth noting is the interviews. Each of the 223 interviews contained in the text and on the CD-ROM are in-depth and insightful. There were several that readily stood out. Especially memorable was the oral history of Dr. Shirley A. Jackson, MIT's first African American female student and founding member of the Institute's Black Student Union. Jackson details the racial and gender discrimination she faced during her daily dealing with white MIT administration, faculty, and academic peers. Especially revealing was her bittersweet reflection on the racial hostility she faced from white female classmates who refused to study with her. Contrasting the heaviness of Jackson's interview is the humorous account of 1961 MIT Architecture undergraduate degree recipient Gustave M. Solomon Jr's. academic and professional journey. Solomon is second-generation MIT stock who proved to be anything but the conventional architectural designer. He rolled up his MIT blueprint drafting ambitions to ultimately become a leading American postmodern and experimental dance figure. MIT female faculty member Mildred Dresselhaus' interview reveals in a matter of fact way how since her arrival at MIT in the late 1960s she managed to become a much sought after official mentor to some and unofficial mentor to many MIT African American students. These students, she posits, most likely sought and continue to seek her out because as a female professor she too is a minority. Former MIT President Paul E. Gray's interview is one of the longer ones in the text. Gray's interview freely shares the joys and frustrations of being at the helm (MIT chancellor, 1971-1980; President 1980-1990) of an internationally acclaimed and academically progressive institution that didn't progress as rapidly in the areas of achieving and maintaining diversity and implementing and enforcing equal opportunity policies in faculty and administration hiring programs.

The final feature worth noting is that this book does not readily toot MIT's horn. The stories are, as current MIT President Charles M. Vest notes in the book's Forward, "often bitter sweet, reflecting a variety of burdens and unhappy personal experiences that call vividly to our attention the asymmetries of experiences of many minorities in our culture -- even in our finest institutions" (viii). However, it would be safe to say that these stories, while bittersweet, are also a collective testimony to the remarkable resilience of a cadre of highly successful and intelligent African Americans whose willingness to persevere and ultimately excel in their quest for academic and career success in a highly competitive, elite higher education environment is noteworthy.

As with any text, there are a couple of noticeable weaknesses. While the book has an extensive introduction, there is not a traditional conclusion at the end of the text. Additionally, the sheer length of the book may give even the most dedicated reader pause. The book could have been released as a six-part chronological series aptly representing each of the decades.

A perspective reader admittedly may ask, why read a text like Technology and the Dream? This is a story worth telling. Storytelling is important because it helps cultures develop shared communal meaning and subsequently pass on its respective worldviews about one's beliefs, concerns, and life circumstances. Additionally, oral history collecting and sharing helps link cultures and stories that are told by and about them and their collective social experiences together. Walter Benjamin (1969) best amplifies this contention when he notes: "The story teller takes what he tells from experience -- his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale" (87). For those looking for an in-depth scholarly works that gives an inside look into the African American higher education experience, Clarence G. Williams' Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 is one such empirical treatise worth sharing.

Benjamin, Walter. (1969). Illuminations. New York: Schocken.

Elizabeth F. Desnoyers-Colas:
Elizabeth F. Desnoyers-Colas is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. Her research interests include include intercultural/international communication issues, especially African American rhetoric, narrative, and storytelling in the African Diaspora. She is currently working on a book about African American service women's Gulf War experiences called Marching as to War: Personal Narratives of African American Women's Gulf War Experiences.  <colaseli@mail.armstrong.edu>

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