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Open Letter on the report of the ‘First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration Design Team’

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In a matter of days, the Faculty Senate is scheduled to deliberate and vote on a proposal that, if passed, will constitute a sweeping, once-in-a-generation overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum at Stanford University. We the history faculty strongly urge the “First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration Design Team” and the Faculty Senate to delay these deliberations. This request is motivated by three primary concerns:

1. The proposal is too unstable, and the Senate schedule leaves too little time for faculty or student input
In September 2019, the First Year Design Team issued a detailed proposal, which circulated throughout the University. However, the recommendation that is about to be voted on bears little resemblance to this document. Through various means (private conversations, one-on-one emails, and closed-door meetings), we have learned that the proposal has been shifting continuously, in ways that few people outside the design team realize. For example, the proposed structure of the cornerstone, fall-quarter course seems to have been jettisoned; the names and themes of all three proposed courses are in flux; among a wide variety of other changes, large and small. Our concern is not driven by any one or another of these potential changes (changes which, we recognize, are likely the design team’s attempt to address widespread criticism from a host of campus stakeholders following the September circulation). Our concern is the very instability of the proposal itself. Given that none of these changes has been formally announced, and that mere weeks separate Senate deliberation (an “executive session” on March 5 in which no minutes will be taken) from a formal vote (April 16), the official Senate timeline leaves no window for thoughtful consideration of these myriad changes, nor for meaningful faculty or student input.

2. “Shared experience” is defined too narrowly, and faculty are trusted too little
History faculty are also concerned about the proposed approach to syllabus design, and the narrow way in which “shared intellectual experience” has been defined. Regarding the proposed first-year winter course, C 21: “Citizenship in the 21st Century,” the design team’s plan calls for a full 75% of the syllabus to be determined by a small, centrally appointed curriculum committee. Not only does this represent an immense concentration of pedagogical control, removing pedagogical decisions from the classroom and transferring them to a single body; it also rests upon one of the most narrow and pedagogically unimaginative ways of defining “shared experience”: That “shared experience” is achieved primarily by having everyone read the exact same thing (almost). Such an approach not only disregards other, more productive ways of defining “shared intellectual experience,” but will also almost certainly lead our University community back to familiar and counterproductive struggles over “canon”: what belongs in the canon, who gets to determine its selection, and why. Struggles of this kind are costly, fruitless, and bruising for everyone involved. The concept of “shared experience” needs to be patiently rethought, and the authorship of first-year syllabi needs to be entrusted to faculty to a far greater extent.

3. Eurocentrism
Finally, history faculty are deeply concerned about the underlying Eurocentrism of the proposed curriculum, both in its original form and in all subsequent versions we are aware of. It appears to be something of a cryptic revival of the “Great (Western) Books” model, only now rendered ostensibly “global” through the inclusion of scattered, Non-Western “counterparts” and/or “analogues.” A curriculum, globalized in this way, can never be meaningfully or critically global. Although we recognize the importance of having students engage with questions of enduring concern in Western traditions and canons, we are equally convinced of the need for our students to grapple with questions and problems derived from, and centered in, non-Western milieu. This would require, for example, engagement with problems generated within non-European cultural contexts beyond those produced in reaction to European colonialism; the inclusion of texts that pose questions and advance world views that might be radically different from anything many students have considered before; and, as importantly, engagement with questions and world views that are captured in modes other than the written word.

We the faculty of the history department are eager to support and teach in first-year programs. Our participation will be more vigorous, and the whole program will be more successful if the concerns above are adequately addressed. We have been and remain committed to collective efforts at meaningful pedagogy, and these criticisms are intended to strengthen the proposed program.

The Faculty of the Department of History, Stanford University

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