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Despite warm reception, some faculty find fault with Thinking Matters

Thinking Matters replaced Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) this year and has been warmly received by many students, but some lecturers in the program fear that it marks a shift away from a humanities education.

Thinking Matters replaced the widely disliked IHUM program starting fall quarter 2012. While Thinking Matters Director Russell Berman avoided attributing excessive significance to fall quarter course evaluations, he cited Thinking Matters’ one-quarter requirement (as compared to IHUM’s three) and the ability of students to choose from a larger and more diverse selection of courses as critical factors in the new program’s warm reception.

Introduction, without the humanities

Of the forty Thinking Matters courses offered this school year, offerings in non-humanities fields have been among the most popular in terms of enrollment. Berman noted that student interest in these courses even exceeded administrators’ expectations.

“We didn’t know that the science courses would succeed as well as they did,” Berman said. “There was apprehension that these kinds of non-standard science courses might not thrive in this introductory environment, but they were very successful.”

Sharp declines in enrollment for the program’s humanities courses, however, have prompted concern among humanities faculty. The sense of apprehension has also been exacerbated by the likelihood of further reductions in the number of humanities courses offered under Thinking Matters in an attempt to maintain sufficient numbers within individual courses.

Eric Roberts, computer science professor and “Technological Visions of Utopia” lecturer, found that the diminished lecture sizes constrained faculty in how they approached and engaged with students and course material.

“There are some things you can do in a large class [but not elsewhere],” Roberts said. “There’s energy that builds on itself in a large class… Sometimes I feel like I’m getting less momentum in the class this year.”

“Some courses ended up quite small,” Berman said. “When courses get too small, they lose that lecture quality<\p>…<\p>We’re not going to have that hard and fast a rule, but there’ll be fewer [humanities courses].”

Humanities as ‘the tail to the Stanford dog’

History Professor Jack Rakove believes Stanford’s science-based reputation is partially responsible for the emerging imbalance in enrollment figures and called for greater efforts by the University to appropriately signpost opportunities for students across the humanities.

“We’re being whittled back to kind of a marginal position, where you can almost wonder what incentive we have to participate in the program,” Rakove said. “Humanities faculty [members] have often felt like the tail to the Stanford dog.”

Grant Parker, classics professor, expressed concern that students’ apparent unwillingness to explore humanities courses would be detrimental to the freshman experience and criticized the lack of direction provided students under Thinking Matters.

“The liberal education model is not entirely forgotten, but it’s seriously watered down,” Parker said. “It seems that the assumption is that the consumer is always right. Is that the best basis on which to plan a curriculum?”

But Berman disputed the asserted link between humanities courses and a liberal education, arguing that the Thinking Matters program’s emphasis on developing critical learning could be applied effectively across a range of academic disciplines.

“I don’t think the humanities have a monopoly on liberal education,” Berman said. “It is true that sciences play more of a role… than they did in the IHUM program, but that’s all for the good. There should be gateways to all aspects of the University in this introductory program.”

“In my experience, Stanford students are quite intellectually curious,” Berman added. “Science and engineering students recognize the appeal of some humanistic learning.”

While IHUM’s objective was to introduce students to the humanities, Thinking Matters’ is to develop students’ critical and analytical skills more broadly.

“The [specific course] subject is secondary,” said Jeffrey Schwegman ’01, a Thinking Matters lecturer and member of the program’s governing board. “It’s a vehicle for introducing students to college-level techniques for thinking and solving problems.”

Still, Berman suggested that the introduction of a revised system of breadth requirements in the 2013-14 school year–weighted more towards the humanities — and the projected applicability of Thinking Matters courses towards these requirements may prompt further student interest in humanities courses.


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