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Sheehan on undergraduate education commission: 'Don't worry'

STANFORD -- By now, some have begun to wonder: Is the much- heralded Commission on Undergraduate Education taking its mission seriously enough? Will it really do anything?

Not to worry, said James Sheehan, chairman of the commission, during an update report to the Faculty Senate Thursday, Jan. 20.

"The danger is that we will try too little," Sheehan said, "and I hope that you'll be around to continually press us to try harder, to not be content with minor changes. If your point is, 'try hard to think of alternatives, be ruthlessly critical, be radically critical,' then we'll try to do that."

Several questioners expressed disappointment with the nature of the subcommittee format, fearing it indicated the commission might not deliver the landmark report some have anticipated.

Jeffrey Koseff, civil engineering, wondered whether the subcommittee format represented "business as usual" and indicated he would have preferred a more novel approach.

"I have trouble seeing how the subcommittee structure would enable you to get at such a fundamental question" as what should be the overall goal of a Stanford education, said Charles Kruger, vice provost and dean of research. "Of course, that question is much easier asked than answered."

"The subcommittees are not a devolution of the commission," Sheehan responded. "They are ancillary to the commission, which will reassemble on a regular basis next quarter to hear their reports and weave them together.

"An essential part of our success is to make whatever particular things we say into a vision. . . . It will be a vision, even if it's a re-statement. Don't worry."

Sheehan was asked by David Kennedy of history whether the commission "envisioned" proposing changes in the distribution requirements for undergraduates.

"Envision may not be exactly the verb I would choose," Sheehan said. "Personally, I devoutly hope that we would suggest a new one," he said to laughter.

For about an hour, faculty members questioned Sheehan on various aspects of the commission's yearlong task, which is to take a close look at the whole issue of how Stanford, a major research university, approaches the often sticky proposition of educating undergraduates, and to offer recommendations on how it might improve in this enterprise.

The commission began work in fall quarter, for the most part has broken off into subgroups for the winter quarter, and will reconvene to consider subgroup input and formulate recommendations during spring quarter. The commission plans to fine-tune its recommendations over the summer and deliver a report to President Gerhard Casper on or before Oct. 1.

Update on commission activities

Sheehan's report to the senate was intended to be purely educational - for both sides.

"We are at a point when we have begun to survey the terrain and outline some of the problems," he said. "But we are still at that very pleasant stage in this kind of an enterprise where options remain open and hard choices have not yet been made.

"I would like to hear from you those items that are not on our agenda . . . that you think are an essential part of our task," Sheehan said.

Senators' comments were all over the map, but several themes emerged:

Subgroups detailed

In his relatively brief report, Sheehan told the senate how the commission had broken off into subgroups that will report back to the full commission, and commented briefly on each of them, as well as several other winter quarter developments.

One group that was not previously announced, he said, would be called the Innovation Working Group, to be chaired by Wanda Corn, professor of art. It would be asked, he said, to "think beyond thought; to pursue those things we haven't come to" on the commission as a whole.

Sheehan reiterated that the subcommittee on the writing requirement headed by Gail Mahood, geological and environmental sciences, was an existing entity, the School of Humanities and Sciences' regular review committee on writing and critical thinking.

On the subcommittee for language requirements, Sheehan noted that this group would not be concerned with how Stanford teaches foreign languages, but why.

"The subcommittee will look at the language requirement: Should it be strengthened, should it be revised, should its character be changed? Is it a matter of proficiency, and if it's proficiency, at doing what? At reading Nietzsche, at reading a newspaper, or ordering a meal?"

The subcommittee exploring the breadth requirements, Sheehan said, has a virtual carte blanche on recommending changes.

"Using the undergraduate distribution requirements [as a study model] might commit us to the status quo," Sheehan said, "which we didn't want to do. So we said, start with an open set of options, see if we need them [the requirements], and if so, why do we need them?"

The subcommittee on majors, Sheehan said, would not exercise criticism on "each and every" major, but would rather try to determine "what a major should consist of, what the requirements are." In response to a later question from Regenia Gagnier, English, Sheehan pointed out that "for our purposes, there is no difference between departments and IDPs [interdisciplinary programs]."

"I realize that in many important ways they are different," Sheehan said, "but in terms of output, we're looking at them the same."

One important difference, he noted, was that while programs are subject to regular reviews, departments are not. This tradition, he suggested, might be questioned.

The issues being probed by the subcommittee on the academic environment, Sheehan said, involve "a complicated array of things: residential education, advising, that set of ancillary parts of education that make up its environment, its context."

The subgroup on the academic calendar may play a pivotal role in the final report, Sheehan hinted. It will look at "all questions having to do with time," Sheehan said, including everything from the "old reliable semester versus quarter system [debate]" to whether universities should attempt to confer some degrees in three years instead of four.

In addition, he said, that subcommittee will look at "the infamous disappearing dead week question" as well as the relationship between units and academic effort.

About the panel considering the issue of technique and technology in teaching and learning, Sheehan said, "The choice of those four words suggests what we hope this subcommittee will do. We're reluctant to make this merely a discussion of hardware.

"We're not merely interested in having better machines so we can teach better," he said. "We're interested in [solving] problems of technology and problems of technique that will enhance both sides - our ability to teach and our students' capacity to learn."

Beyond the subcommittee assignments, Sheehan said, each group has been charged with shared responsibility for reporting back on issues that are common to many: overseas studies, the "particular problem of students of color" and the "larger problem of values, goals and the things that we have made a preliminary attempt at discussing - called undergraduate education at a research university.

"What are the particular problems, what are the particular opportunities, what are the powerful limitations imposed upon us by the fact that . . . we attempt to be both a distinguished research university and that we also provide a distinguished undergraduate program?"

DRs scrutinized

The subject of distribution requirements was brought up by several senators, including David Kennedy of history.

"Our distribution requirements have grown, and they lack whatever coherence that they might once have had," he said. "I hear frequent complaints from students that there are too many of them."

The amount of courses required, said John Bender, English, "has harmed the capacity of students to engage in serious study in a second [academic] area. I would have to see the opportunity for students to do a double major or something similar get washed out."

But both David Abernethy, political science, and President Gerhard Casper noted that many students later realize that courses they were "forced" to take turned out to have provided some of the most rewarding experiences of their undergraduate careers.

Curtis Eaves, operations research, offered an engineer's perspective on the distribution requirements.

"Our school is stronger because our students are exposed to the humanities and social sciences," Eaves said. "Maybe we could have the other side of the university think that they are stronger because their students are exposed to the sciences."

Ron Rebholz, English, asked whether the commission or the breadth subgroup would assess the Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program on a track-by-track basis.

"I don't think we'll be able to, nor would we want to," Sheehan said. "I think what we'll do is look at the purpose of CIV as it is stated. An important issue is the common character of the tracks. Do they really share enough to be part of the same program? Is there enough uniformity in the subject matter and its approach?"

"If there's not sufficient uniformity, there's almost no reason for requiring CIV," Rebholz responded.

"It's a good question," Sheehan said.

Several senators echoed Bender's concern that the number of distribution requirements made it difficult for students to pursue double majors or similar academic challenges.

"Many of us feel that honors projects can be one of the most valuable parts of an education," said Pat Jones, biological sciences and chairwoman of the senate. "Many students who might otherwise be interested are almost precluded from doing that because of the requirements."

Jones also suggested that the commission might consider making an honors project or some other senior-year project a required element for graduation.

Alexander Fetter, physics, urged the commission to look at the difference between majors closely.

"I've always been struck at the incredible disparity in requirements for different majors," he said. "I don't know whether that's a problem. I guess I would hope you would at least look at that."

Rebholz said the writing requirement deserved a campus-wide inspection.

"It would be valuable if the committee did a survey of university departments, asking to what extent the departments believe that writing is a part of the process of learning," he said. Abernethy also said the writing requirement might be broadened to include speech and other forms of communication.

Provost Condoleezza Rice said the commission should determine "whether we really challenge our undergraduates enough."

"The prevailing sense among faculty is that a Stanford student can be challenged, if he or she chooses to be challenged," Rice said. "Given that we're given extremely good raw material, it's our duty to make sure that it doesn't, over four years, atrophy."

High-tech future looms

The commission was urged to formulate its report with an eye toward the future.

"We have to keep remembering that our students may be more technologically sophisticated than we are, probably are more technologically sophisticated than we are, because they've grown up in a world that is moving much faster," Rice said. "I don't want us to get caught behind because of our own prejudices toward technology. Technology is permeating every aspect of education, and certainly education in the future."

Rice suggested that the issues of technology and technique be looked at as "one of those threads" running through all of the subgroups. Casper agreed.

"None of us has sufficiently realized under what radical challenges higher education will be in the next decade, particularly in technology," he said. "We have to understand that the ordinary ways of instruction are going to change."

Casper also noted that this examination of undergraduate education would be with us for some time.

"This is an exciting enterprise," Casper said. "We are trying to do something that we haven't done in a long while. I remind all of you that we look to the commission for essential guidance on the future of undergraduate education at Stanford.

"After that, for at least another year, this senate will have to think hard about how to implement [recommendations]," Casper said. "We will be engaged in the discussion of these matters, I hope, for at least another two, but more likely three, years."



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