Faculty lauds IntroSem delay

April 9, 2012, 3:05 a.m.

While the Faculty Senate declined after contentious debate to begin requiring introductory seminars (IntroSems) for freshmen, as recommended by the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report, both University administrators and SUES members have welcomed this revision to the report’s recommendations.


The Faculty Senate supported an amendment to the SUES recommendations to delay considering mandating IntroSems until 2016, though other significant changes to the freshman experience will take place this fall. Following the SUES recommendations, the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program will be replaced by a one-quarter Thinking Matters course.


“The very notion of required seminars had produced controversy among faculty and students,” said Russell Berman, director of both the IHUM and IntroSem programs. Berman proposed the amendment that will see the Senate revisit the issue of mandatory seminars in 2016.


“Many people — faculty and students — who admire the seminar program were concerned that turning them into a requirement might have a deleterious impact,” Berman added. “We really feared that students might end up in seminars far from their own areas of interest.”


Other faculty members echoed Berman’s sentiments.


“I think [the recommendation] is a very wise decision,” said Susan McConnell, SUES committee co-chair. “The idea of mandating a seminar program if a significant fraction of the faculty were not enthusiastic about it seems to me a dangerous one. Although I do believe quite wholeheartedly that every freshman should take a seminar, I think that the decision to reevaluate in four years is a very wise one.”


James Campbell, SUES committee co-chair, also supported the amendment, voting in favor of it at the Senate’s March 8 meeting.


“The recommendation, while it’s clearly not what the SUES committee had hoped, is broadly in the spirit of what we recommended,” Campbell said.


The SUES report’s original proposal required students to take two Thinking Matters courses, with the option of replacing one of these courses with an IntroSem. In 2014-15 and subsequent years, freshmen would be required to take one Thinking Matters course and one IntroSem.


“Professor Berman worried that students who did not get into an oversubscribed seminar would be put into a Thinking Matters course as a second choice, having the potential to adversely affect their attitude towards the class,” wrote Harry Elam, vice provost of undergraduate education (VPUE), in an email to The Daily. “He, like all of us, very much wants the new Thinking Matters program to succeed.”


Additionally, many faculty members worried that the University would not be able to provide enough freshman seminars in the next year to effectively support a requirement while maintaining a high level of student interest.


“There were also concerns about whether Stanford had the current capacity to deliver adequate number of faculty-taught seminars, particularly those that would reflect the shape of student demand,” Campbell said. “The demand will change fairly substantially now that the IHUM requirement has been removed.”


In the interim period, the office of the VPUE and IntroSem administrators plan to identify and explore new ways of encouraging greater numbers of freshman participation. Currently, only 50 to 60 percent of freshmen enroll in an introductory seminar, according to McConnell. Faculty members would like to raise that number to almost universal participation.


“I think there’s a widespread consensus that the seminars are great and that everyone should do them,” Berman said. “The question is only about what’s the mechanism by which we get to effective universal participation. I think we have the time from now to 2016 to try and see how close we can get to universal participation on a voluntary basis.”


Berman said that faculty and administrators hope to produce more seminars in traditionally underrepresented areas, such as engineering, social sciences and the professional schools. The scheduling of seminars will also be shifted to accommodate more students.


“One of the goals of SUES is to strengthen the culture of teaching and learning at Stanford,” Berman said. “That means that the University community should value teaching and learning more and more. In that sense, if anything, the moral incentive [for a faculty member] to participate in the seminar program has only grown.”


Berman added, however, that attaining universal participation may simply be impossible.


“When all is said and done, there may well be students who just don’t want to take seminars,” Berman said. “I’d be eager to hear from them why.”


While the amendment received majority support in Faculty Senate voting, some faculty members continue to be concerned with the impact of dropping yet another freshman requirement.


“The reason that I care so much about the freshman seminar requirement — or at least that opportunity — is that the really critical thing for students in their freshmen year is to get to know faculty,” said Jeremy Weinstein, professor of political science. “Increasing the number of freshman seminars has to happen, whether it’s a requirement or not.”


“My concern is that by putting this off for another three or four years, we’re not taking the recommendation from the SUES committee,” Weinstein continued. “I don’t want us to set ourselves up for failure by not requiring it.”


Andrea Goldsmith, professor of electrical engineering, expressed concern that leaving the freshman year with only two required courses — Thinking Matters and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) — would constitute an inadequate introduction to university-level education for incoming freshmen.


“I personally believe that freshmen need some common transformative learning experiences in their first year to prepare them for the remainder of their university education…as well as to create a sense of community and shared pedagogy,” Goldsmith wrote in an email to The Daily. “I worry that one Thinking Matters course and one writing course is not sufficient to accomplish this goal.”

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