Humanities IntroSems applications decline

Feb. 12, 2013, 11:57 a.m.

Despite extensive praise for the Introductory Seminars (IntroSems) program’s ability to introduce students to university-level thinking across a range of disciplines, humanities faculty members have expressed concern about low enrollment in their IntroSems compared to enrollment in more technical IntroSems.

Data from the Simple Enroll feature on Axess revealed that 62 IntroSems were offered this quarter, with an approximately equal distribution of courses offered by humanities and science departments.

Though IntroSem Program Director Russell Berman refused to release enrollment numbers, Simple Enroll shows that 19 of the 62 IntroSems offered this quarter are currently closed for enrollment, indicating that those courses are filled to capacity. Science departments offered thirteen of these full-capacity IntroSems, while humanities departments offered four and the Graduate School of Business (GSB) and the School of Law provided the final pair.

Of the 16 IntroSems with enrollment at less than half of maximum capacity, 14 were in humanities departments, with one offered by the School of Education and one by the School of Medicine.

Susan McConnell, professor of biology and co-chair of last year’s Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), said that the committee noticed disparities in enrollment numbers among departments while investigating the IntroSem program. The SUES report recommended requiring freshmen to take at least one IntroSem.

“Certainly there was an awareness that some of the engineering and science courses were overenrolled and some of the humanities courses were underenrolled,” McConnell said. “We were absolutely aware of that.”

Charlotte Fonrobert, associate professor of religious studies, was also a member of the SUES committee and currently teaches an IntroSem titled Religion and Politics. She said that the low interest expressed in humanities IntroSems is “not so surprising.”

“In general I think it is true that students have tended to take much more of the science and social science classes in the recent couple years,” Fonrobert said.

Religion and Politics currently has 9 students enrolled and 9 available seats. Fonrobert, who said that IntroSems are her “favorite type of class,” previously taught an IntroSem about religion and gender that averaged 10 to 15 students each of the three times the class was offered.

Helen Brooks Ph.D. ’80, senior lecturer of English, also expressed little surprise about the low interest in humanities IntroSems.

Brooks estimated that she has taught six to eight IntroSems during her time at Stanford and said that she received four applications for the English IntroSem she is teaching this quarter, “Tis All In Pieces, All Coherence Gone”: John Donne, the Neurosciences, and the Early Modern World.

This small number of applications marked a drastic decline from previous years, when Brooks often received 20 to 25 applications for similar IntroSems. According to Brooks, other humanities professors have had similar experiences.

“It seems like now there are fewer applications, and I’m hearing that from other faculty, too,” Brooks said. “There has been a decline in interest in humanities courses, which is something I’m really concerned about.”

Brooks attributed that diminishing interest to a variety of factors, including a difficult economic climate and parental pressures to enroll in classes that are traditionally considered more practical.

As a pre-major advisor, Brooks said that she often speaks with students who are reluctant to explore their interests in the humanities because their parents have encouraged them to commit to a different career field.

“Students are saying, ‘I have this interest but my parents want me to do something else,’ so that creates some tension in terms of what students are going to pursue,” Brooks said. “I have personally encouraged the University to provide an orientation for parents about majors and the changes that are occurring in different fields.”

Brooks also expressed hope that humanities courses in the IntroSem program become more interdisciplinary in order to attract a wider variety of students.

While humanities professors have struggled to attract students to their IntroSems, many professors teaching science and technology IntroSems receive an abundance of applications.

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Shilajeet Banerjee M.S. ’00 received over 230 applications for his IntroSem, Think Like a Designer, this fall. Banerjee said that he has taught the class four times since fall 2008, and that student interest in his IntroSem has grown over that period.

While Banerjee hesitated to identify any single factor in the popularity of the class, he speculated that the increasing popularity of design might be responsible. He said that he has noticed that students are particularly interested in courses that offer the opportunity for hands-on work and field trips, which explains high interest in science and engineering courses in which students visit design firms or manufacturing plants.

Elisha Marquez ’16, who took an Environmental Earth System Science IntroSem last quarter, said that low enrollment in humanities IntroSems reflects the interests of the student body.

“By virtue of the fact that we go to Stanford, I think there is a larger interest in the sciences in general, which correlates to larger interest in science and math IntroSems,” Marquez said.

Marquez, a potential International Relations major, added that science IntroSems are often more popular among students who are not majoring in a science or math-related field than humanities introsems are among students majoring in a non-humanities field, as more science IntroSems tend to fulfill a General Education Requirement (GER) than humanities IntroSems.

“There is an incentive for people to take science and math IntroSems even if they don’t have an interest in [them] because they want to fulfill their requirements, and IntroSems are an easy way to do it,” Marquez said.

On the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education’s Course Administration website, there are 33 introsems listed for the 2012-2013 academic year that fulfill the humanities GER. Twenty fulfill the engineering and applied science GER, 14 fulfill the natural science requirement and eight satisfy the social science GER. No introsems fulfill the math requirement this year.

McConnell said that the Office of Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education will be tracking IntroSem enrollment numbers, and she expressed optimism that interest in humanities IntroSems will increase.

“I think that humanities IntroSems are a fabulous way of getting introduced to the humanities,” McConnell said. “Learning about the humanities is so important regardless of what someone wants to major in and IntroSems are a perfect forum for learning about something that is completely new.”

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