SUES suggests mandatory IntroSems

One of the more controversial recommendations of the recent Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report is that the University require Introductory Seminars, a highly praised aspect of the freshman and sophomore experience, for each freshman starting in fall 2013.

 

The SUES report described the IntroSem program as “one of the jewels of Stanford,” noting that participation in seminars introduces students to a broad range of university-level thinking, in addition to granting them the opportunity to develop a relationship with a faculty member that often is sustained in future advising, research and honors work.

 

Historically, approximately 65 percent of freshmen enroll in at least one IntroSem, with that percentage rising to 75 percent of sophomores, according to the SUES report. The University currently offers more than 200 IntroSems, with 120 dedicated to freshmen.

 

“We currently have the capacity to enroll all freshmen in a seminar,” said Susan McConnell, co-chair of the SUES committee. “The real thing that we want to ensure … is to enable students to enroll in a seminar that is highly attractive to them.”

 

McConnell noted that several peer institutions, such as Northwestern University, have implemented a seminar requirement for freshmen with great success. She added that IntroSems at Stanford have received consistently positive feedback from students and faculty, an aspect of the program the SUES committee has sought to preserve.

 

A student representative on the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies (C-USP), Stephen Trusheim ‘13 expressed concern about the speed with which the SUES recommendations will be enacted.

 

“I don’t believe that there’s a way that we can do this [in only one year] without ruining the core values that makes the IntroSem program great,” Trusheim said.

 

Acknowledging some committee members’ concerns that requiring enrollment in IntroSems might diminish student enthusiasm for the program and may force students into courses they do not wish to take, the SUES report recommends an “early and thorough program review” of the new requirement.

 

“We don’t want to kill a great program,” McConnell said. “If it turns out this didn’t work, we should change our minds.”

 

McConnell added that the program may have to be adapted to incorporate currently underrepresented groups — such as student-athletes faced with scheduling conflicts, and students in unit-heavy science majors further constrained by a lack of seminar options — without unnecessary disruption. She added that the Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education is currently developing an algorithm to ensure that students are able to attain their top IntroSem choices, while also allowing faculty to retain some of their current vetting power over seminar applications.

 

McConnell emphasized, however, that a third underrepresented group — so-called “at-risk” students, those entering Stanford ill-prepared to deal with university-level courses — will distinctly benefit from inclusion in the IntroSem program and its emphasis on faculty interaction and enhanced academic development.

 

Trusheim argued, however, that for at-risk students, “the benefits don’t outweigh the unintended consequences. There are other ways to ensure that those students take IntroSems, such as stronger advising, but to require it will have particularly poor outcomes.”

 

Faculty currently teaching IntroSems expressed cautious enthusiasm about the SUES committee’s proposal.

 

“Research indicates that those college students who get to know a faculty member in their first year have a better and more productive college experience,” said James Fearon, professor of political science.

 

“There are a lot of things distinctive about freshmen seminars,” Fearon added. “The relatively small group setting provides a particularly effective teaching context, and the level of engagement by everyone concerned tends to be higher. You get to know students in the seminar and they get to know you.”

 

Fearon noted, however, that requiring IntroSems could potentially create efficiency issues for the University as a whole, with greater numbers of faculty teaching seminars at the expense of lecture classes with a higher number of student participants.

 

Professor Josiah Ober, chair of the Political Science Department, said that, while his department receives some “replacement teaching funds” for faculty involvement with IntroSems, the funds are generally inadequate to replace the duty time lost. Department chairs will discuss the issue of department compensation for faculty IntroSem involvement in a meeting with Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ‘82 next month.

 

The Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies will make recommendations in response to the SUES report at a Feb. 23 Faculty Senate meeting. The Senate will vote on the final recommendations in a meeting on March 8.

About Marshall Watkins

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.