One of the more hotly debated changes recommended by the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report suggests that all freshmen be required to take one Introductory Seminar (IntroSem). The response to this recommendation was swift, with current ASSU Senator Daniel DeLong ’13, currently mounting a campaign for ASSU vice president, publicly labeling it as “one of the most destructive recommendations that emerged from the SUES report.”
Some students agreed with DeLong, arguing that a mandate would transform IntroSems into something resented by undergraduates, much like the Introduction to Humanities (IHUM) requirement. However, this argument ignores several key aspects of both the existing and recommended structure of IntroSems. This Editorial Board believes that requiring IntroSems will enhance the overall quality of undergraduate education at Stanford.
The benefits of Introductory Seminars are numerous, including close interaction with faculty, the opportunity to explore a specific interest in-depth and the development of a network of peers with similar interests. IHUM struggled in part because its educational format limited these opportunities, with students placed in large lectures and given relatively little choice as to the topic of exploration.
The argument that suggests Stanford students resent classes merely because they are mandated is also flawed. The Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) requires two classes, but is generally well regarded due to the seminar environment and the variety of course topics that fulfill the requirement. The Introductory Seminar requirement would offer a similar breadth of choice, with students able to choose from seminars in the humanities, sciences, engineering and social sciences.
Statistics also don’t seem to support the fears of IntroSem detractors. Every year, 2,300 freshmen and sophomores, or 70 percent, take an Introductory Seminar. Given that these courses are so popular already, it would seem plausible that many students who do not take an Introductory Seminar are interested in taking one but do not have the time, a problem that is particularly acute among athletes and STEM majors. By paring down the length of IHUM to a one-quarter Thinking Matters course and diversifying class times, the SUES report recommendations create the structure necessary to give the remaining 30 percent of students an opportunity to take an IntroSem.
This is not to say that there will not be challenges in expanding the Introductory Seminars program, including ensuring a truly diversified set of classes to appeal to a variety of student interests, maintaining adequate funding and providing incentives for faculty whose IntroSem responsibilities may take them away from teaching larger lectures and higher-level courses.
Some say that a mandate will lead to more apathetic students taking Introductory Seminars, lowering the overall quality of the classroom environment. However, these arguments are predicated on condescending assumptions of Stanford students and faculty as unmotivated and disengaged, a fundamentally flawed premise. Students, faculty and staff at Stanford are here to engage deeply on the most exciting intellectual ideas of the day, and the structure of an Introductory Seminar offers an ideal mechanism through which freshman can join the vibrant intellectual culture on campus.
As an institution, Stanford does not shy away from challenges, and closing the gap of IntroSem participation is well within the realm of Stanford’s capability. The benefits of an Introductory Seminar are tremendous, and in mandating that all freshmen take one, the SUES report ensures that all students will access an exciting intellectual opportunity in their first year at Stanford.