I had just finished my second year on the faculty at MIT, and one of my colleagues who had joined the academy at the time had just shared the fact that he was departing for industry. Naturally, I felt a bit like quitting too – as the second year of being a professor was proving harder than the first. And boy did my friend sound happy that he was leaving behind all the institutional politics he was just being indoctrinated into. It certainly sounded enticing, and when I told my mentor, Professor Whitman Richards, that I was thinking of leaving, he said something that stuck with me for years: “If you leave, the field that you represent leaves with you.”
Back in the 90s, people who could combine computer science and visual design were something of a rare breed; my friend and colleague represented one of the handful of other people who could do what we did. Professor Richards knew that and made me think about what my actions might mean. So I decided to stay.
You don’t hear too much about the first few years of being an untenured and junior professor at an R1 university. It’s not so different from the way I often hear startup founders talk about their early beginnings. You’re poorly resourced, the competition has been winning for decades, and you’re always looking for that next infusion of funding that can help scale what you hope to achieve. And similar to what they say about startups, everything depends upon the team – in the case of an R1 institution faculty member, that would be your hand-picked graduate students and if you were lucky to have enough research funding, maybe a post-doc too.
I feel fortunate to have built my research group at the time, “Aesthetics + Computation,” right next to Professor Hiroshi Ishii’s “Tangible Media Group.” My experience in managing people, like most junior faculty members, was zero. Zilch. What really helped was carefully watching Professor Ishii, who was a manager at the Japanese telecommunication giant NTT before he joined the MIT faculty.
Many years later, and after I had earned tenure – which in academia is the equivalent to an IPO but without the huge cash payout, and instead the golden guarantee of lifelong employment to do whatever you want – I became restless and had noticed different rumblings on the MIT campus that called out for my attention. Faculty politics can be quite engaging for reasons that have to do with the rare kind of tumult that can result from having hundreds of hugely talented people (who all generally can’t be terminated) just “going for it” on an issue. As a creative person, I tend to enjoy the creativity that lies within chaos, so at the time I thought to engage the topic at hand with more of my attention, and with general disregard for that popular saying by Kissinger about academia.
I had made up my mind to join the latest “sh*t show” and on the way there, I bumped into Professor Richards in the long hallway that connects all MIT buildings, called the “Infinite Corridor.” I hadn’t seen him in a long while, and he asked me how I had been. I told him how all was well, and that I was going to the amply advertised meeting of the faculty across campus. He smiled and in a knowing way, said to me: “John, never think about MIT. Think about the world.” I sort of froze in my steps when Whitman said this, because I realized that he was sort of asking me, “John, did you forget about the world?” Whitman saw how puzzled I looked. He then added, “Don’t be late!” and walked off in another direction.
Subsequently, I turned around. And aimed my attention outwards to eventually escape the confines of the Infinite Corridor, and have tried every day since that moment to think about the world.