By Avery Rogers
At the end of this quarter, many other freshmen and I will have completed the first-year THINK and PWR requirements that constitute Stanford’s closest analogue to a core curriculum. Unlike the WAYS requirements, which can each be satisfied in thousands of ways, THINK and PWR are relatively streamlined, all following a set of predetermined learning goals, lecture and discussion schedules, and, in the case of PWR, paper assignments. In many ways, THINK and PWR are the heart of undergraduate-specific education at Stanford, and their strengths and weaknesses reveal much about Stanford’s pedagogical aims and shortcomings.
I took THINK 50 in the fall with Professor and Dean of Religious Life Rev. Jane Shaw. Our topic was Empathy, and our readings spanned the fields of biology, psychology, religion, philosophy and aesthetics. Empathy, as you can imagine, has been defined in countless ways by different scholars and public thinkers, and can carry strikingly different connotations in different circumstances. By the end of the quarter, my classmates and I were apt to cringe at the word empathy used in casual conversation, resisting the urge to dive into a philosophical tangent about what empathy really means (or I was, at least). This is not to criticize the class, but to attest to the depth of inquiry and nuance represented in our reading list and class discussions. Empathy class did not give me one clear answer, but a range of responses to the question: “What is empathy and how should we use it?” Perhaps the Empathy curriculum is an outlier because of its ambiguous topic area, but I thought THINK excelled in its ability to weave together an interdisciplinary syllabus that introduced us freshmen to a host of new fields to explore.
From my experience, THINK was also well-structured and capitalized on the presence of teaching fellows during discussion sections. Lectures often summarized reading material, which could feel repetitive, even though Prof. Shaw was a skilled lecturer. Discussion sections, however, gave us space to analyze our readings beyond summary. Our fellow regularly asked us to criticize the authors we read, forcing us to shift from a passive, information-absorbent role to an active, information-creating role in the classroom. Sessions were organized and goal-driven, and our 50-minute periods generally went by fast.
Overall, I thought THINK was a great introduction to Stanford. It taught me how to participate in university-level class discussions, how to critically read a variety of texts and how to think about disparate fields in an interdisciplinary fashion. I might revise the lectures to include more thought-provoking material rather than summary, but otherwise found both lecture and section to be valuable uses of my time. Deadlines and expectations were clearly laid out before each project and paper, and the workload was intense but manageable.
This quarter, I am about to finish PWR with a fairly different taste in my mouth. I’d heard from fall quarter PWR students that PWR was the bane of their existence, but written off this assessment as the lamentations of CS majors who felt lost in an English classroom. As an aspiring writer, I was excited about PWR, hoping it would mirror my THINK class experience with an emphasis on writing.
Unfortunately, though, PWR failed to deliver on my expectations from THINK. Unlike THINK, my PWR class lacked substance, but rather focused on ushering us from one paper to the next with deadlines thrown together at the last minute. Despite the heavy top-down regulation of the PWR curriculum, I often felt lost as the quarter progressed, not sure what I should be completing and when. The papers are, from my experience, what you make of them; if you can find an intriguing topic, the research might be fun, but otherwise the writing process is largely a scramble to understand what is being asked for in a Rhetorical Analysis, Texts in Conversation or Research-Based Argument according to the PWR gods (the administration).
I expect that the huge number of available PWR classes makes it hard to provide engaging curriculums for each. In terms of organization, the culprit is less easy to pinpoint. Maybe my experience has been largely shaped by my teacher, who, though a wonderful person, has struggled to keep us on track and provide us with clear guidelines. But perhaps she, a PhD student and mother of three young children, also received minimal direction from the PWR administration and felt lost herself.
In any case, I believe PWR falls short of THINK in terms of content, organization and learning outcomes. That is not to be entirely negative; in many ways, it’s more of a compliment to the THINK curriculum than a criticism of PWR. However, I would ask the current undergraduate administration to consider how they might model their PWR classes more like their THINK classes, providing more structure, deeper inquiry and more easily understood expectations for the quarter.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.