Faculty Senate hears, debates SUES report

Kurt Chirbas co-authored this report.

The Faculty Senate heard the culmination of two years of work by the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) Thursday, a report of more than 100 pages that examines the methods and goals of a Stanford education. The study concluded with 55 recommendations to improve undergraduate education, such as the replacement of the Introduction to Humanities (IHUM) program and a new, non-disciplinary system of breadth requirements.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam spoke at Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting about the recommendations of the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford report. (Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

 

Co-chairs James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. history, and Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor in biology, led the 17-member committee and presented the study’s findings to the Senate.

 

Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing

 

SUES undertook an examination of the breadth requirements of a current undergraduate education. The report recommends a new system based primarily on seven skills deemed essential for students: esthetic and interpretive inquiry; social inquiry; scientific analysis; formal and quantitative reasoning; engaging difference; moral and ethical reasoning; and creative expression. Under the recommended plan, titled, “Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing,” either one or two courses will be required for each skill.

 

“In conceiving breadth in a non-disciplinary way, we are not suggesting that disciplinary knowledge is unimportant,” the report reads. “We see knowledge and capacities as inextricable and reciprocal.”

 

The report discusses a need for both integrative and adaptive learning, with the former exemplified by the fact that general education requirements, freshman-year Thinking Matters courses and major requirements will be permitted to overlap.

 

The report noted that under the current system, students seem to view general education requirements as “tick boxes” and do not consider the meaning behind the selected requirements.

 

“It is characteristic of faculty, on hearing all this, to condemn students for their cynicism, but the fault is more ours than theirs,” the report reads. “If they choose general education courses with little thoughtfulness of purpose, it is because we have failed to communicate to them why we believe these courses are important, what we hope they will gain from them and how they relate to the broader aims of a Stanford education.”

 

Included in the report appendix is a comparison of Stanford’s breadth requirements with those of Yale, Princeton and Harvard.

Professors Susan McConnell, Jennifer Summit, Sarah Billington, Chris Edwards, Jonathan Berger, Rob Reich and James Campbell field questions after the SUES report at the Faculty Senate meeting. (Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

 

IHUM: Replaced, or rebranded?

           

The report recommends replacing the Introduction to Humanities program, a yearlong requirement for freshmen since 1996, with a one-quarter “Thinking Matters” course.

 

“Few topics elicited as much discussion with the SUES committee, and fewer still provoked such ambivalent feelings,” the study said of its examination of the controversial IHUM series, which is currently mandatory for all freshmen not enrolled in the alternative program, Structured Liberal Education (SLE).

 

The report initially compliments the IHUM program and notes the resources that have gone into its development, but quickly changes tune due to student dissatisfaction.

 

“IHUM’s sustained attention to student learning and effective pedagogy makes it a model not only for future freshman programs, but also for other units in the University,” the report reads. “All these distinctions only make the response of students more disappointing.”

 

“We found a troubling pattern of student alienation from IHUM, manifested in (relatively) low course evaluations, poor attendance at lectures and a widespread failure to engage deeply with course materials.”

 

The report comments on low student approval of IHUM and described a phenomenon known as “IHUM kid”- students mocked by others for deep interest in the course material.

 

“Paradoxically, the very program we intend to fire students’ imaginations and awaken them to the possibilities of university-level learning has become the paradigmatic ‘tick box’ requirement,” the report reads.

 

As a result, the committee recommends replacing IHUM with a one-quarter Thinking Matters course, which would be developed and overseen by a governance board made up of faculty across the University. A pilot program of these courses would begin during the upcoming 2012 to 2013 academic year.

 

“Our idea is that by taking a Thinking Matters course, students can have some of the experiences that are exemplified by fall quarter IHUM,” McConnell said. “But that you can choose whether to do that in the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences. You can choose the idea that you want to explore.”

 

The report lists possible Thinking Matters courses such as “Evil” taught by philosophy professor Chris Bobonich; “The Nature of Law” with Dean of Stanford Law School Larry Kramer; and a course entitled “Social Animals, Social Revolutions, Social Networks,” which would be co-taught by French professor Dan Edelstein, biology professor Deborah Gordon and professor of computer science Eric Roberts. Faculty members have not yet committed to these courses, according to the report.

 

The new courses would be smaller in size than most IHUM classes and would not be restricted to humanities-related topics. While mandatory for freshman, Thinking Matters would be open to all four classes.

 

“All students are required to take one, but they have the incentive to take more if they want because it will count towards breadth requirements,” said Aysha Bagchi ’11, one of the two student members of the committee.

 

Bagchi, a recent recipient of the Rhodes scholarship and a former Daily columnist, said her own IHUM experience was mostly positive, but could understand some of the resentment directed at the program by students.

 

“It does take up a big part of your freshman year, and it does make it hard to explore,” she said.

 

Bagchi said that a minor recommendation of the committee is to alter the grading system that was previously used IHUM. The report referenced, “the severity and seeming arbitrariness of the grading system,” and the fact that “many students referred to the program as ‘B-HUM.’”

 

Some have questioned whether the new program will differ substantially from IHUM. Many of the proposed courses are current fall-quarter IHUM classes, such as “The Poet Remaking the World,” “Can the People Rule?” and “Sustainability and Collapse.” According to ASSU Senator Dan DeLong ’13, some students that he has talked to are worried that the new program is simply an “IHUM name-change.”

 

English professor and SUES committee member Jennifer Summit, who has previously taught in the IHUM program, said that Thinking Matters will focus less on specific content and more on the learning process. She added that instead of simply being an introduction to humanities, the curriculum would be “an introduction to college-level analysis.”

 

Introductory Seminars

           

One of the most contentious recommendations of the report is to require each freshman to take at least one introductory seminar, to provide a variety of learning environments to students in the first year of study.

           

“On one hand, we want every freshman to get to know a faculty member, in all of our quirkiness and our passion for what we do,” McConnell said. “We think the advantages of being in a seminar are really worth the requirement. That’s a subset of the committee, and a small majority. There is another set of people both in the committee and in the University who worry. They agree with the goals, but they worry that by requiring the seminar that the seminars will lose some of their attractiveness to students. And the last thing we want to do is to damage a great program.”

 

McConnell compared the proposed requirement to the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) which, while a requirement, receives mostly positive feedback from students, McConnell said, due to a wide variety of course options.

           

We had a huge debate in the committee about this issue,” Bagchi said. “I think most people were initially divided, so we had a really open debate.”

 

Bagchi noted that most committee members are very positive about IntroSems but fear the effect of making them a requirement.

           

A student representative of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies (C-USP), Stephen Trusheim ’13, voiced his concerns on Thursday in an email sent to the undergraduate ASSU Senate list.

 

“I worry that, no matter what, a requirement will lead to people getting stuck in classes that they don’t want to take, which will ruin the class for everyone else,” Trusheim wrote, arguing that the best aspect of IntroSems is found in the enthusiasm of students to be present and learn about a topic of interest in a close setting.

 

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam addressed an issue of supply and demand concerning Introductory Seminars but said that he believes that shifting to a requirement would be possible, both because faculty members enjoy teaching the seminars and being able to choose their students through applications. Elam said there are currently 120 IntroSems offered per year.

 

Residential learning

 

McConnell noted in the Faculty Senate meeting that there is a perceived “disconnect between the academic and residential lives” of Stanford students. The report heralded SLE as “a model of integrated residential learning,” a program through which freshmen students attend classes and discussions in their East Florence Moore dormitory.

 

“The kind of moniker of ‘IHUM kid’ for somebody that tries to bring up something that he’s learned in IHUM -when we went to SLE, we didn’t find that,” Campbell said. “We found that students are living together. They’re learning together. They’re arguing about stuff over dinner.”

 

While the report does not recommend mandating SLE – stating that the program “flourishes precisely because it is a small, alternative program that students choose to join”- it does call for the creation of similar programs where students can choose to learn in their residential environments. The report advises organizing these new residential programs around a variety of themes, so they would attract a diverse body of students.

 

According to the report, one possibility is to organize these programs around the five themes of the Stanford Challenge Initiative: human health, the environment, international studies, education and the arts. The report adds, however, that it is important that these themes grow “organically” out of student and faculty interest.

 

The report also notes the difficulty of recruiting faculty members to serve as Residential Fellows (RFs), tasked with living in undergraduate dormitories and engaging with student residents. According to the report, only 14 of the 62 RFs on campus are members of the Academic Council. While the report did not conclude that this was significant problem, it did recommend finding new ways to encourage faculty members to take on the post.

 

The committee recommended that the University also explore how faculty members could engage in residential life in other, less time-intensive ways. One suggestion was for professors to give talks, participate in discussions and teach seminars in undergraduate residences.

 

Focusing on residential living after freshman year, the report expressed some concerns about the trend of seniors choosing to live in Row houses, a collection of student-run houses, noting that these students “largely pass out of the orbit of the Office of Residential Education.”

 

In his email to the public ASSU Senate list-serve, Trusheim took offense to the report’s conclusion that “for many seniors, the appeal of the Row clearly has less to do with self-government than with the opportunity to host parties with less stringent supervision than in non-Row houses.”

 

“This is particularly insulting because I think it expresses a desire to do away with self-ops/co-ops in favor of a much more centralized program under tight control of ResEd,” Trusheim wrote.

 

Bagchi, who lived in the self-op Xanadu last year, said the report was not recommending any significant changes to the Row program, but recognizing a possible cultural issue to address.

 

“The recommendations don’t involve suddenly inserting faculty members in Row houses – that’s not going to happen,” she said.

 

Instead, one solution that the committee proposed was giving seniors more housing options such as a “residential research college,” which would provide mentoring for students completing a honors theses or capstone project. Summit said this idea was inspired by the September Honors College.

 

What’s next?

 

“The SUES report is a radical document, less because it proposes to redesign undergraduate education than because it tries to get at the root of teaching and learning,” wrote James J. Sheehan, chair of the Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE) from 1993 to 1994, in the document’s preface. “The report is also a conservative document because it is tightly connected to Stanford’s distinctive character and traditions.”

 

The Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies (C-USP) will make recommendations in response to the report at a Feb. 23 Faculty Senate meeting. The Senate will then vote on the final recommendations at its next meeting on March 8.

 

Matt Bettonville, Edward Ngai, Alice Phillips and Jordan Shapiro contributed to this report.

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