Task force on undergraduate education gives an update to the Faculty Senate

The senate heard presentations by James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, and biologist Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor, co-chairs of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford.

L.A. Cicero James Campbell speaking with Susan McConnell and Joshua Landy in background

At Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting, Susan McConnell, biology, left, and James Campbell, history, center, co-chairs of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford, give the second update from the task force. Faculty senator Joshua Landy is at right.

The task force reviewing undergraduate education at Stanford is exploring the idea of establishing a "Big Ideas" course for freshmen, integrating general education requirements across all four years and requiring first-year students to take freshman seminars.

Speaking at Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting, James Campbell, co-chair of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford, said those were among a "host of ideas" under discussion by the group, which was established in January 2010 to review Stanford's curriculum, reaffirm or revise its goals for undergraduate education and ensure that general education requirements reflect its stated goals.

Standing at a lectern and speaking from prepared statements, Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, and co-chair Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor in the Department of Biology, delivered impassioned progress reports to the senate. Their 30-minute presentation was their second update to the senate.

Campbell said the central aspiration of the task force is to reclaim a vision of liberal education.

"When we speak of liberal education we are not simply talking about draping a few ornamental gewgaws on our students so that they can hold their own in polite company, while going on with their careers as doctors or captains of industry," he said. "We're talking about the totality of students' education. About equipping them with the knowledge, the intellectual and practical skills, the capacities for synthesis and integration and continuous growth that will enable them not simply to function successfully in the professional world, but also to function successfully as human beings, to live lives that are creative, responsible and joyous.

"It is our profound conviction that we can do this here and that we can do it with no compromise in the superb quality of our existing undergraduate programs," he continued. "On the contrary, we believe that the skills that liberal education instills are precisely the skills that our students will need to function professionally in a world that's always changing in unpredictable ways."

McConnell said the committee has spent a lot of time thinking about the freshman year, and the tradeoffs between structure and freedom.

"We are wrestling with the idea of how to provide students with enough freedom and scope to explore their interests and passions in their freshman year, but enough structure to provide guidance and some sort of semblance of a common experience for freshmen during that year – and how to protect the freshman year from the majors encroaching in that period," she said.

"We're drawn, first of all, to the idea every freshman should take some sort of a 'Big Ideas' course that engages beginning students in the rigorous consideration of some sort of compelling idea, question or problem that has enduring or lasting significance. These kinds of courses can fire students' imagination and spark their curiosity and it can bring them into university-level thinking."

She said the task force believes that "spreading the humanities across all four years will be more effective for students than front-loading this requirement during freshman year," referring to the Introduction to the Humanities Program (IHUM).

The IHUM Program is designed to give freshmen a strong foundation in liberal education through close study and critical interpretation of important texts from literature, history, philosophy and the dramatic, visual and material arts. Freshmen are required to take a three-quarter IHUM course sequence.

McConnell said the task force also is discussing the idea of requiring freshman seminars, which provide first-year students the chance to work closely with faculty.

"Taking a freshman seminar has a powerful impact on how students progress through and succeed at Stanford in the years to come, and this is particularly true for at-risk students," she said.

Two-thirds of first-year students take freshman seminars and by the time they reach the end of sophomore year, the percentage rises to 75 percent, she said.

That's great, she said, but it means that about 600 freshmen don't take seminars.

"The main worry is that requiring it might ruin a great program," she said. "There are worries that students might automatically resent or discount any required course, and that would particularly be true if students weren't able to get into a seminar that is their top choice, or if we as a faculty can't deliver enough courses in key areas of student interest."

McConnell said the committee suspects that more students would take seminars if the university didn't require the three-quarter IHUM course sequence during their first year at Stanford.

The task force is expected to present its final report and recommendations in the autumn quarter of 2011.

Minutes available next week 

The full minutes of the meeting, including the question-and-answer sessions that followed the presentations, will be available next week on the senate's website.

The next senate meeting will be held May 26.