Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, talks about what comes next in implementing SUES recommendations

L.A. Cicero Harry Elam portrait

'We need to give our students breadth of understanding and adaptability for lifelong learning,' Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education.

In January, members of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University (SUES) released a 128-page report with 55 recommendations to better prepare students to face the challenges and opportunities of an ever-changing world. Recommendations creating new Thinking Matters courses and the Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing breadth requirement were passed by the Faculty Senate during spring quarter. Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, talks about what comes next for the SUES recommendations and what it will take to reinvent the Stanford undergraduate curriculum in recognition of the needs of the new millennial learner.


What do you hope to achieve this academic year in terms of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University (SUES) recommendations?

The major focus will be on the 35 new Thinking Matters courses and ensuring they are successful. We'll also be working with the faculty who are implementing the new Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing breadth requirement. We need to begin allocating courses to the eight new areas for 2013.

We'll spend time thinking about how to enhance senior capstone experiences. That work will be ongoing.

We have built a new online advising feature called Cardinal Compass, which is a tool for freshmen that helps guide them to other courses if they find a subject within Thinking Matters that they enjoy.

We're going to conduct a faculty survey about undergraduate teaching and how it relates to faculty members' research, departmental duties and so on. The Faculty Senate should see that sometime in the spring. We're also going to redo course evaluations. We need a system that better helps faculty think about teaching and students think about learning.

Also this year, we'll begin offering Designing Your Stanford for sophomores. It will be taught by the d.school, and we'll enroll about 200 students each quarter as a pilot. The course will give sophomores a chance to think about what they want to achieve at Stanford. The d.school already teaches a course for seniors called Designing Your Life that applies design thinking to a career path. The changes in curriculum are all designed to give students more time to discover, and we want to help them drive the choices.


What resources will be needed going forward?

SUES has to be about more than just what the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education can do. We need a commitment from faculty members and departments to become involved. I am confident that SUES is something that they believe in and want to be involved in.


You've said that Stanford needs to be willing to experiment with undergraduate education. What do you have in mind?

Broadly speaking, SUES is working on three tracks. The first is the legislation – things that we have to do. Then there is the second track – opportunity. That's all of the recommendations from which we will have to decide what to take up or not. The third track is the most difficult: That's the cultural change track. Right now, everything in that third category is broadly called "X-Ventures." We'll be bringing a Silicon Valley perspective to undergraduate education. We have to try different approaches to pedagogy and not be afraid to fail. A good example is helices, which SUES sees as courses from different disciplines related to a similar topic, like food – food sourcing, food science, food ethics, the business of food. What happens if you get all the faculty members together who are teaching courses related to food?

Bottom line, we want to encourage experimentation. Let's try things out over the next three years and see what sticks. We learned a lot from implementing the Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE) recommendations in the 1990s. Some of the things that, today, we think of as fundamental to Stanford, like Introductory Seminars, weren't even in that report. They came as a result of subsequent discussion. Just like CUE, I expect a period when new ideas begin to take shape.


How do you keep Thinking Matters from turning into Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM)?

From the outset, students have to understand the rationale for this requirement. This was not the case with IHUM, as many students did not know why it was required. In addition, one way that we will try to ensure the program's success is that we are going to continually assess what is happening. Thinking Matters, however, is different. It looks at questions that students will want to engage in and think about. It will teach them what critical thinking can do to produce answers to questions or issues. Plus, the courses come from all over the university, including the Medical School, so students can choose a humanities perspective or many others.


What do you think freshmen will do with the time they once spent in IHUM courses?

We hope that they will take Introductory Seminars, and we hope advisers will help us encourage that. Consistently, students say the reason they don't take seminars is because they don't have the time. We also hope that they will take new introductory courses offered by various departments targeted at freshmen.


How do you begin to summarize what we are trying to achieve with undergraduate education over the next several years?

The new millennial students – because of how they have come into higher education – don't necessarily value the notion of a liberal education. That's not necessarily what they think they want. But SUES reaffirms the value of a liberal education. We need to give our students breadth of understanding and adaptability for lifelong learning. Our job isn't to prepare them for their first job. It's to help them lead change in the world.

What we see among millennial students is a sense that they are coming to school very much aware of the world and of the economy. I [read an article that] called them "Generation Screwed." They come to school thinking of college as a means to an end – and they are really worried about that end.

That means we need a culture change. But it won't happen overnight. We need a different approach to teaching that speaks to these students where they are. A member of the faculty recently told me a story about a conversation she had with another professor. He said, "I don't understand. I am teaching the same way I have for 10 years, but my evaluations are going down." In other words, he didn't get it.

Stanford needs to be different to be able to teach this generation. If we want to continue be at the center of excellence and able to deliver quality undergraduate education, we have to be open to change. Stanford has changed, students have changed and the world has changed in the 25 years since CUE.


How will the changes in the breadth requirements through Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing achieve that goal?

There are eight parts of Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing. There are three that are critical in terms of what is different about Stanford's approach to undergraduate education.

The first is creative expression, and there it's going to be tricky to figure out what counts. Bottom line, it is really about the practical innovation skills you need to be a global citizen in the 21st century. MIT, by comparison, has an art requirement. But what we are trying to get at is reaffirming the value of thinking creatively to solve problems.

The second one is moral and ethical reasoning. We are saying that critical thinking is crucial to dealing with great moral questions. One of the principles of SUES is helping students cultivate personal and social responsibility. It harks back to the university's Founding Grant, where the Stanfords talk about producing "cultured and useful citizens."

The third one is called engaging difference. We mean socio-economic differences, gender differences, sexual differences, racial differences. We're saying that being able to negotiate difference is fundamental to success, life and leadership.

Most universities are still approaching undergraduate education from a discipline-based system. We're moving in a different way and a way that is distinctively Stanford.