Departments assess impact of Thinking Matters

Sept. 18, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

A new freshman requirement designed to replace the often-criticized Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program will feature a lower student-to-faculty ratio and a much more diverse course offering, according to University administrators involved in its creation. However, with the program’s debut only a week away, department chairs are still assessing how this change in academic policy will affect their operations.

After a University report found dissatisfaction with the IHUM program, citing “(relatively) low course evaluations, poor attendance at lectures and a widespread failure to engage deeply with course materials,” the Faculty Senate voted in March to replace this requirement with a new program called Thinking Matters. This year’s incoming freshman class will be the first to take these new courses.

Thinking Matters’ drastically smaller class sizes and focus on individualized attention are the primary selling points of the new courses. The average Thinking Matters lecture size will be only 60 students, compared to 250 students in IHUM lectures, according to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam in an email to The Daily. The number of students in the sections will be similarly reduced.

To make such numbers possible, the Thinking Matters program offers more than 35 courses, a feat that requires substantial financial contribution.

Russell Berman, previous chair of the IHUM program and director of Thinking Matters, said that the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) provided “core development funds to faculty” that were necessary to create the curriculum for these new courses.

Elam declined to give any specific figures on the cost of starting up the Thinking Matters program, but stated that the “decisions are not cost-driven — they are educationally driven.”

Stanford professor and chair of the Philosophy Department Lanier Anderson, while not directly involved with the development of Thinking Matters, said that the lowered student-to-faculty ratio “was made possible by serious budgetary commitment on the part of the VPUE and the program.” But he added, “I think they basically funded the program at a similar level to what they used to have when it was IHUM.”

While IHUM lasted for the three quarters and only offered humanities courses, Thinking Matters will be just one quarter and draw from every undergraduate department in the University.

Anderson explained that Thinking Matters will require less commitment for many departments that were already involved in IHUM.

Under the IHUM program, two-quarter, winter-and-spring sequences depended on individual departments “to take responsibility for that track,” Anderson said.

“That meant that the department had to come up with faculty members to put in there and make sure that they got taught,” he added.

So while departments still contribute faculty and come up with ideas for new courses, they are no longer “locked into teaching IHUM,” Anderson said.

From departments not previously involved in IHUM, however, Thinking Matters requests a new level of involvement.

“For them, it’s on the one side an opportunity to teach freshmen that they didn’t used to get,” Anderson said, referring to social science, natural science and engineering departments. But he also anticipated some departments feeling pressure to make sure they have a course offered in the Thinking Matters lineup.

Robert Simoni, professor and chair of the Biology Department, said that it is too soon to determine if his  department’s new involvement in Thinking Matters will lead to any negative effects.

“There are three faculty in biology who are teaching Thinking Matters courses this year — they’re people who will be doing that instead of something else,” he said. “The question is if this will impact other things that we do.”

While the answer to that question will be provided somewhere down the road, Simoni said students in departments such as biology are likely to benefit most from the immediate effects of Thinking Matters’ decreased quarter requirement.

The biology major requires a rather rigorous commitment from students early on in their academic career, including chemistry, physics and math sequences. Thinking Matters offers two additional quarters that freshmen can use to take some of those core classes.

“Freshman year is really crammed for our students, so any relief would be great,” Simoni said.

Mehran Sahami, professor and chair of the Computer Science Department, said he likes the increased flexibility that Thinking Matters offers students. It allows freshmen to get a jump-start on major prerequisites but also allows them to explore more subject areas.

But the reduced quarter requirement could also demand more adaptation from the departments, as freshmen decide how to fulfill the newly freed up units.

“The uncertainty that (Thinking Matters) has created is what enrollment in courses will look like, especially introductory courses,” Sahami said. “It makes it more difficult for us to forecast what enrollment will be.”

But those in charge of developing Thinking Matters are trying to encourage freshmen to fill those spots with elective Thinking Matters classes.

Berman said he hopes that students take advantage of the diverse course offerings and sign up for more than the one required quarter. He emphasized the participation in the program by faculty from across the University, including two professors from the graduate schools.

The option will be particularly enticing next year, when some Thinking Matters courses will also fulfill the general education requirements needed to graduate.

Anderson said that by meeting general education requirements, the Thinking Matters program could help mitigate a lack of science and engineering courses that are designed for beginning students who don’t plan on pursuing the topic.

Similar to an Introductory Seminar, these classes “are not beholden to laying down the introductory foundation that people are going to need if they’re going to go on to major in the thing,” Anderson said.

Already, a select number of Thinking Matters classes are offered that fulfill the freshman writing requirement, replacing the traditional one-quarter Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

Despite some uncertainties, faculty said that hopes for the program remain high.

“I think there are a lot of things to play out, and one hopes that those will be developed and thoughtful,” Simoni said. “But I think it will be great.”

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