MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
The Contribution of the Faculty
to the Commons
The State of Undergraduate Advising
The Journey, Not the Arrival
A Global Education for MIT Students
The Broader Education
Flexible Majors in Engineering
On the Pursuit of Beauty at MIT
Welcome to the Machine:
First-Year Advising, Choice, and Credit Limits
A Proposal for an Alternative Framework
The Knowledge Debate
A Twenty-First Century Undergraduate Education for MIT Students
Igniting Passion in Our Students
Getting There From Here
The Challenge of Multidisciplinary Education for Undergraduates
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The Commons, the Major, and the First Year

The Contribution of the Faculty to the Commons

Daniel Hastings

As educators at MIT, we are fortunate to work with motivated students. They have shown by their decision to come to MIT that they are willing to work hard and are eager to learn. As faculty we have specific expertise that we want to impart to them. However, we also desire to give them the general education (knowledge, skills and attitudes) that will empower them when they leave. We wish to prepare them both for immediate contributions to society and 15 and 25 years out for continued growth and service. Part of the way we do this is through deep faculty engagement with the Commons here at MIT. To this we as faculty must commit some of our energy!

We start with the vision of what we wish to accomplish with the time we have with students. The Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons identified a bold vision: At MIT we are committed to providing an education which is one grounded in science and technology that:

  • Ignites a passion for learning,
  • Provides the intellectual and personal foundations for future development, and
  • Illuminates the breadth, depth and diversity of human knowledge and experience, in order to enable each student to develop a coherent intellectual identity (p. 19).

The need for this kind of education is greater than ever. In this century we face major societal choices that are shaped by and will shape science and technology, within a world transformed by globalization and values-driven religious and political struggles. Our education must prepare our students to serve and lead in this world.

We devote approximately half our educational effort to the General Institute Requirements (GIRs). All our undergraduates receive a core education in science and mathematics, a year’s worth of humanities, arts, and social science education, and are offered the opportunity to undertake a research experience with a faculty member through UROP.

Two important principles that go back to the founding of MIT underlie this educational mission. These are the unity of the faculty and the commitment of the faculty to participate in the Commons.

The unity of the faculty means that all faculty can teach undergraduates and graduate students alike, and all faculty have important contributions to make. We do not, like some schools, divide ourselves into a Management faculty and a Science faculty and a Humanities faculty, or a Graduate School Faculty and an Undergraduate Faculty, and only expect some subset to interact with our undergraduates.

The commitment of the faculty to the Commons means that we value, at every level, the unified faculty’s involvement in a set of activities that help provide for or sustain this common experience for our students. This set of activities includes:

  • Faculty teaching the GIRs
  • Faculty involvement in reading admissions folders
  • Faculty involvement in orientation (freshman picnic, FPOP)
  • Faculty involvement in freshman advising/mentoring and freshman seminars
  • Faculty involvement in committees (CUP, CoD, CoC, CSL, CUAFA) that oversee student education and life
  • Faculty involvement in Commencement
  • Faculty serving as Housemasters and House Fellows
  • Faculty providing UROP supervision and IAP activities for our students
  • Faculty engaging in special programs teaching/leadership (e.g., ESG, Terrascope, Concourse).

    Faculty involvement in these activities allows us to help choose and set the standard for excellent students, be involved in mentoring these young people when they arrive and where they live, and introducing them to the joy and rigor of research and learning.

    In order for us to more effectively pursue these worthwhile activities within the culture of a major research university, we need to come to terms with some of the barriers. The Task Force has pointed out that departments, for the most part, do not recognize or reward the desire of faculty to be involved in the larger community. This, combined with the lack of time (driven by the abundance of opportunities at MIT) that many of us feel, increases the stress levels for many of our colleagues and detracts from their ability to participate in the Commons.

    The offices of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE) stand ready to work with the faculty through the Faculty officers, School Deans, and Department Heads to re-emphasize the historic faculty commitment to the Commons. The DUE is committed to helping make our S&T-centric education the most sought after education in the country and to enhancing the education of all our students. We must reemphasize the faculty commitment to the Commons in a way that aligns with the faculty value propositions, recognizes the seasons of life for a faculty member, and appropriately recognizes and rewards those faculty who contribute to the Commons.

Daniel Hastings is Dean for Undegraduate Education.

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