Faculty have largely extended a warm welcome to Thinking Matters, the freshman requirement proposed as a replacement to the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program by the recent Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report. The shift may occur as early as fall 2012.
“The shift will allow us to expand this specific form of freshmen education,” said Russell Berman, chair of the IHUM program. Berman will oversee the transition to the Thinking Matters requirement if the Faculty Senate votes in favor of the SUES committee’s recommendations in its March 8 meeting.
“These are courses designed to move students from high school thinking to college thinking,” Berman added. “This has always been an implicit goal of IHUM, but now we’ll be undertaking this specific freshmen pedagogy across the University.”
The transition to Thinking Matters may also serve practical scheduling purposes. Freshmen will be required to take one quarter — rather than the three quarters currently mandated by the IHUM program — of a Thinking Matters class, allowing them greater flexibility as they design their first-year course load.
“The growth of unit-intensive majors — that is, majors that have explicit, but more importantly, implicitly high unit-level requirements…has just eroded student flexibility,” Berman said. “The University has not addressed this problem, and a result is a cutting back of General Education Requirements (GERs) in order to make room for high levels of unit demand in majors.”
Lanier Anderson, chair of the SUES subcommittee on the freshman year, agreed that freshmen face enormous pressure to balance exploration with the fulfillment of important prerequisites. The SUES report noted that many freshmen — constrained by major prerequisites, three quarters of IHUM and a Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) course — have “zero space for exploration.”
“Students really are trying to hold open for themselves two or three possible pathways, and in order to keep all those pathways open while they explore, they have to do the prerequisites for all those things,” Anderson said.
“Freshmen get here, and we tell them it’s a liberal education…You’re supposed to explore, and they feel they have zero degrees of freedom,” Anderson added.
In accordance with the SUES report’s recommendations, Thinking Matters courses would be integrated into the University’s breadth requirements in order to further alleviate the issue of constrained scheduling. Students will thus be able to explore a potential major or fulfill a GER requirement while also completing the mandatory freshman curriculum.
“If you can’t define a core of knowledge that you’re prepared to say everyone should encounter, then it’s nearly impossible to maintain a full-year core requirement, which IHUM was,” Berman said. “But this is the distinctiveness of Stanford, that we’re prepared to try new things, which is good.”
While arguing that the reduced obligations posed by Thinking Matters courses will better conform to student needs, Berman also expressed some preliminary concerns about the impact of expanded academic freedom on course selection.
“I worry a little bit that in our effort to give students maximum choice, and in our reluctance to find core requirements, we may be reaching the point where there’s too much choice that can produce a kind of alienation,” he said.
Both Anderson and Berman highlighted the ability of the Thinking Matters program to thrive beyond the humanities sector of the University. James Campbell, co-chair of the SUES committee, told a Feb. 23 Faculty Senate meeting that currently planned Thinking Matters programming includes classes in areas such as medicine and law, as well as the humanities.
Noting that faculty members have expressed concern about the lack of science and technical education offered to students majoring in other areas, Anderson expressed optimism that the Thinking Matters program would remedy the issue.
“You’re taking expert knowledge and bringing it out to a generally educated audience who might never take another class in this field,” Anderson said. “You’re trying to show them what a particular way of thinking has to offer people in general about a particular type of question.”
History professor Jack Rakove, whose “Can the People Rule?” IHUM course is slotted to continue as a Thinking Matters course, said that the opening of the freshman program to disciplines beyond the humanities has enormous teaching potential.
“The Thinking Matters framework makes it easier,” Rakove said. “A university like Stanford, this is who we are, this is what we do. I don’t think you want to impose constraints on how scholars teach…Even in a freshman level class, the closer we are to how teachers think, the more effective the class will be.”
However, the ultimate impact on the humanities at Stanford remains unclear.
“For some students, humanities exposure in the freshman year will be less than in the present system,” Anderson said. “I myself don’t think that’s a bad thing, because the way I think about it — for those students, what the previous system was doing was concentrating all of their humanities-directed effort in the freshmen year, after which they left that behind and never came back.”
“One possible result will be that freshmen will take less humanities courses,” Berman said. “Another possible result is that, because the humanities aren’t required, students will take them voluntarily in greater numbers. Time will tell.”