Hire Me, Pretty Please

Venerated rumour has it MIT students are socially inept. But if they are, could 165 of them have earned degrees this year – for being charming?

Forget about technological innovation and scientific brilliance. Charm School was an afternoon of technique, with wannabe smooth-talkers focusing on topics such as the art of the schmooze, elevator etiquette, wine, small plate balancing, mobile phone manners, earnest gazing and other listening skills and a game titled Who Wants to Be a Charminaire?, spoofing the popular TV show, with prizes including deodorant and toothpaste.

“We try to be a little timely,” says Charm School coordinator and assistant dean for Student Life Programs Katie O’Dair, emphasizing that the annual event is an irreverent way of tackling serious subjects – not a makeover day for nerds. “Anyone visiting campus today will see that’s not what MIT students are really about. This is clearly about life skills.”

The school opened its well-mannered doors eight years ago, O’Dair says, based on a faculty member’s observation that some students were not learning certain skills they would need in the business world. Since then, Charm School has become an anticipated part of MIT’s month-long Independent Activities Period, a period between semesters when students choose short courses from a selection of nontraditional subjects.

Most of Charm School’s 30 miniclasses are taught at booths assembled in a well-trod area of campus. For each 15- to 30-minute class completed, a student gets a certificate; six classes earn him or her a “bachelor’s degree” in charm, eight yields a master’s and twelve a PhD. This year, of the 800 students who dropped in and the 165 who gathered enough charm credits to earn degrees, about 100 earned charm PhDs. “People who committed to Charm School did it all the way,” O’Dair says.

With the kinds of positions MIT grads will take in an increasingly technical business world, it wouldn’t behoove us to say anything rude. But we do have to wonder, if students are so pocket-protector-free, why the library staff felt moved to contribute a charm school section on “What happens if you drool on your book.” Let’s hope for an incomplete in that one.