Ever since the 1920s, the Stanford administration has grappled with the issue of designing an integrated first-year curriculum. The curriculum would aim to foster a bond of intellectual camaraderie among incoming freshmen, while at the same time preparing new students for the high-level of intellectual rigor that will be expected of them during their college years.
This task has proved to be rather difficult; for the last century or so, the university has gone through many different attempts to solve this problem, the most recent manifestation of which is the IHUM series, which, to say the least, is not the most popular program on campus.
IHUM’s unpopularity is in spite of the fact that the University spends the utmost care and dedication to ensure the success of the program. The courses are often taught by some of Stanford’s most esteemed professors; post-doctoral fellows are hired for intimate discussion sections with students; and a faculty governance board is actively involved in reworking the curriculum to meet student demands. Despite these initiatives, students remain unsatisfied with the program, as it consistently gets low reviews on course evaluations.
As James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson professor of history at Stanford University and co-chair of the recent SUES report regarding the state of undergraduate education at Stanford, has written, “Obviously there are no guarantees that any new program will flourish, and even the most successful, thoughtfully designed curricula may eventually run out of steam.”
Campbell explained, “We on the SUES committee concluded that this had happened with IHUM, not least because of the jaded way in which many undergraduates described it to us in our meetings with them.”
The report notes that the main causes of student dissatisfaction with the program are the perceived arbitrariness of the grading, the general derision that students face when they attempt to bring topics from their I-Hum classes up in casual conversation, and the fact that I-Hum does not often count towards students’ majors or general education requirements.
As Joe Maguire ’13 has stated, “A lot of the kids in my IHUM class didn’t want to be there…I would rather have just taken other humanities classes instead of IHUM.”
In recognition of these issues, the SUES committee has proposed an entirely new structure for freshman classes that would dramatically decrease the net number of requirements during the freshman year in order to give students more time for intellectual exploration.
The new program, entitled “Thinking Matters,” would make it mandatory for every freshman to take one writing course, one “Thinking Matters” course, and one introductory seminar.
“With Thinking Matters, the plan is that students will know fundamentally why they are taking these courses,” wrote Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, in an email to the Review.
The structure of the Thinking Matters course would be similar to the structure of IHUM, but with several key differences. For one, by requiring only one quarter of Thinking Matters per student, the SUES committee expects to significantly decrease class size, making it easier for students to make an impression on professors and potentially form relationships.
Secondly, the SUES committee recommends that Thinking Matters courses fulfill University breadth requirements and count for major credit, as to not put an onerous burden on students during their freshman year.
Finally, the Thinking Matters courses would not necessarily be humanistic in nature. The SUES report reads, “Every discipline asks profound questions about the world and our place within it… All offer students fruitful pathways into the university, and all should be welcome in the freshman curriculum. “
Susan McConnell, co-chair of the SUES report and professor of Biology at Stanford, believes that these changes will allow students to be more engaged with their Thinking Matters class. She believes that the range of subject matter will, “increase contact with all disciplines…” and not only concentrate on the humanities. She thinks that in the long run, Thinking Matters will “have a really profound effect on liberal education.”
“The range of courses in the Thinking Matters offerings should reach out to all students across the board,” Elam stated. “We plan to have courses in areas ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities, as well as courses taught by Law School and Medical School faculty.”
The other aspect of the report’s suggestions is that every student be required to take a freshman seminar. The report observes that freshman seminars generally receive outstanding reviews, and that long-term relationships and mentorships often develop between students and their introductory seminar professors. The only issue with introductory seminars currently, according to the report, is that not enough of the student body enrolls in them.
However, some members of the committee raised doubts about the viability of creating enough seminars for the entire freshman class. Others questioned whether making introductory seminars mandatory would make students less enthusiastic, and therefore decrease the overall quality of the experience for other students and faculty. Professor McConnell acknowledges both of these issues, but cites the example of Northwestern University, which mandates that every student take two introductory seminars, yet is capable of meeting the demands of all their students. She also believes that the faculty could develop a computer algorithm to ensure that both faculty and students are satisfied with the seminar in which they will end up enrolling.
Even so, McConnell recognizes the potential drawbacks of this new policy, and recommends that the program be evaluated no later than a few years after its implementation, to assure that it continues to be a positive experience for students. Regarding this issue, she stated, “If it’s everybody’s worst nightmare, and ruins the program, we will end it. But let’s see if it works, because the advantages are huge and well worth the risk.”
It is also important to keep in mind that the new first-year curriculum is only one part in a much larger attempt to reorganize the culture of the University in general.
“At the end of the day”, wrote Professor Campbell, “we’re less interested in specific requirement regimes than in the broader culture of teaching and learning on the campus. And we think we have some original ideas about how to enrich that culture.”
Other recommendations in the SUES report include more residentially-based education environments (loosely based on SLE) and a re-evaluation of general education requirements to put more emphasis on learning capacities rather than disciplinary categories.
However, all of these changes have yet to be approved by the Faculty Senate. The recommendations, if approved, will not take effect immediately. As Elam noted, “students, staff and faculty should all understand that the recommendations will not be achieved overnight. Rather, SUES will be phased in over a number of years.”