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Cardinal Sins: A Bad First Impression

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Ed. note: Today we introduce our freshman columnist, David Spencer Nelson.

Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) is a necessary program. Students, many of whom come from math- and science-based backgrounds, should be introduced to higher humanities classes in their first year at Stanford. Not only is the program important academically; it is also an integral part of gaining continuity in the freshman class, both socially and intellectually.

Moreover, IHUM offers brilliant lectures. Some of the University’s best professors teach its courses and offer very compelling talks.

But the program is hugely flawed. IHUM introduces freshman to a picture of the humanities not at all like the interactive seminars that the English and Philosophy Departments thrive on. It’s too bad, because its only takes a few run-ins with the program’s arbitrary grading scales and lecture-like discussion sections before many students give up on IHUM, and, sometimes, the humanities in general.

The first thing most students notice when they sit down in section is that this class is not just about educating; it’s about handing you a slice of humble pie. Freshmen are told not to expect good grades, but aren’t told how to get better ones. The seemingly arbitrary nature of IHUM’s grading scales is alienating to students with a mild interest in the humanities.

It often feels like the program is designed more to help you realize your limitations than to expand them. Students struggling to break the B-HUM curse are likely to become apathetic and stop trying to do much more than pass.

IHUM is problematic in another way: it doesn’t reflect what the humanities value. The humanities’ greatest strength is openness, the possible validity of every interpretation. Yet the program is about reception, not creation.

From my own experience and what I can gather from my classmates’ testimony, IHUM is centered more around receiving knowledge from professors than discussing and independently analyzing texts. From the instant students walk into section, the assumption is that students need to be taught the right answer. Students are treated as empty vessels, like they are inherently lacking. Students are not active in their own education. Elsewhere in the humanities, valorizing one perspective over another is a sin. The humanities are about giving voice to ideas and dissecting them, not receiving the gospel from pontificators. Yet in section, the perspective of students is always secondary.

What’s wrong with IHUM? The answer is very simple: students don’t like illogical systems without explanations; students don’t like classes that don’t offer a path to success; students don’t like classes that don’t involve them or recognize their contributions.

No one wants to be an observer to his or her own education. Especially in the humanities, where there is often no absolute right answer, students need to be given the freedom to make interpretations and opinions, to engage with the course material on their own terms. The program’s current format makes that difficult, because sections are more often than not devoted to explaining lectures rather than independent discussion.

Stanford should introduce students to the humanities in a way that reflects what the humanities truly are. Like the majority of English and philosophy classes at Stanford, IHUM should be conducted in a seminar format. Students should be in small, engaged groups. They should be encouraged to try to gain deeper understandings through discussion with each other, moderated by a faculty member.

The program, which at the moment is not conducted like an introductory class, needs to become one. Students don’t enjoy the forgiveness given in most introductory classes, especially when it comes to grades. Students are expected to perform to a standard that isn’t made clear, and they’re given precious little guidance on how to better their efforts. That’s central to the problem: IHUM should be about helping, not humbling.

What IHUM fails most aren’t the students, but the departments in the humanities. It manages to dissuade students in great numbers from taking more classes in the humanities for fear of having another hellish experience. The departments should take charge of IHUM and try to improve the overall experience.

Want to chat about The Daily’s new freshman column? E-mail David at [email protected]