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Learning To Charm At MIT

January 25, 1995

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ At the home of the ``style-challenged `Techie Nerd,‴ Wednesday’s class list ranged from Avoiding Shyness to Ballroom Dancing. The professors included Miss Manners.

Her one-day ``Charm School″ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seemed to attract more attention than a debate over cold fusion at a school where Nobel scientists are the true stars and putting a fake cow on a 150-foot dome is considered good fun.

``I gave up sex for a year to finish my Ph.D., so I thought I’d go to Charm School to learn how to ask for a date,″ said Ross Lavinsky, 24, who was wearing a suit _ not to look charming, but because he had just completed the oral defense of his dissertation.

Now in its third year, Charm School is part high-tech gag, part training in comportment. It was born out of Dean Travis Merritt’s distaste for what he calls the ``Institute Scuttle″ _ head down, no eye contact, feet shuffling close together.

``I think there is a perception at MIT that the students lack the social graces,″ said John Cartwright, a graduate student in physics.

Students at the institute spend more time communicating over computers than face to face, he said.

The program, part of the university’s between-semester activities, ran for four hours Wednesday, with 14 20-minute classes that are each offered several times throughout the afternoon.

Courses ranged from ballroom dancing to table setting or what to do if you accidentally drop food in your lap during a fancy dinner party.

``There are a lot of things I don’t know, like where to put the forks,″ said Wei Wang, a graduate student in electrical engineering who attended ``Charm School.″

Students who attend six of the courses earn a Charm School bachelor’s degree; eight courses equals a master’s; and 12 courses is the equivalent of doctorate.

Last year, 77 diplomas were handed out. School officials expected an even better turnout this year.

``You cannot afford to miss this opportunity if you are tired of being a style-challenged `Techie Nerd,‴ boasted a brochure for Miss Manners’ speech, the finale to the day’s courses.

Primly dressed in a brown suit and scarf, her hair swept back in a chignon, Miss Manners said anti-establishment, 1960s-generation parents failed to raise their children as young ladies and gentlemen.

``Etiquette was once and should be again a very respectable subject,″ said Miss Manners, whose column appears in 250 newspapers three times a week.

Besides nerdiness, the school is known for its high jinks.

For years an informal and mysterious campus group called ``The Hackers″ have put unwieldy and unexpected objects on top of the school’s 150-foot high dome.

Last year, a campus police car appeared on the dome. In the past, ``The Hackers″ _ whose name predates the emergence of computer hacking _ have managed to put a fiberglass cow and a working telephone booth up there.

Though Charm School was designed with tongue in cheek, it nevertheless offers important answers to some oft-asked questions of conduct _ from inoffensive nose habits to how to butter up big shots.

Sophomore Raylene Sanchez, 20, first went to a course called ``Avoiding Shyness.″ Then she got to practice being assertive at her next class on ``Body Language,″ where she was called on for a demonstration on how to flirt.

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