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
Printable Version

The Commons, the Major, and the First Year

The Journey, Not the Arrival

Diana E. Henderson

The questions asked during the past months’ faculty discussions have most frequently begun, “Did the Task Force ever consider…?” When Task Force members exchange a wry smile at such moments, it signifies something other than world-weariness or complacency: it is an indicator of the long educational journey we took collectively en route to these conversations, and a reminder that the report does not – and could not – capture much of that journey’s value. Nor are we traveling alone: across the country, faculty at research universities are reconsidering their roles and responsibilities, and discovering some common ground for improvement. Here is a particularly pertinent instance:

When talking about teaching and the curriculum, a major theme of the professors, deans and provosts involved in the Association of American Colleges and Universities is that it is time to shift attention away from debating whether students should take X semesters of the humanities and Y years of science, and to focus instead on qualities of learning that students need…
For students to have both the rigor of critical thinking and the substance they need for the changing world, … students also need exposure to multidisciplinary approaches to learning – that don’t sacrifice on subject matter, but that promote “integrative” education, combining disciplines, combining academic and non-academic experiences, and so forth.

At MIT we have and value a distinctive mission and curricular design, and much of the Task Force’s time concentrated on these. But we also learned about related student needs in light of a changing world and educational changes echoing what the AAC&U says, and found that what a student is required to take is only the first – and not the most important – step. What really matters is what the student takes in and from a class, and how it relates to the whole. Although most of the faculty reaction thus far has focused upon a few specifics of curricular design, the Task Force spent as much or more time reflecting upon learning processes, infrastructure, curricular content, and educational innovation. Granting the importance of ABET accreditations and HASS distribution, the most important questions involve the ways we can individually and collectively improve the conditions that assist both deep and broad student learning.

It is safe to say that none of the specific curricular issues raised at the faculty meetings have been entirely unexpected. These topics needed a public airing and would benefit from collective reflection: this was precisely why the report was issued with the acknowledgement that work remained to be done in refining its design and findings. The hope (not yet but perhaps soon to be realized) was that it would also occasion some searching conversation about the specific ways in which we could strengthen our sense of common purpose and community, and that MIT’s undergraduate education would more generally benefit from recent experimentation and the recognition of many individual efforts, both at MIT and elsewhere. We on the faculty need to be sharing perceptions about what actually works in the classroom, how those practices reinforce or undermine one another, and how we can make the whole more than the sum of the parts.

If the work of the Task Force and its subcommittees testifies to nothing else, it is that at least 50 faculty members are willing to think long and hard about building on MIT’s strengths and improving the quality of its undergraduate education for more and changing students. I have no doubt that if we can engage more faculty in the kinds of conversations and presentations we shared for over two years, the best of that educational journey will bear fruit across the five Schools.

It is clear that not all faculty believe that “one design fits all” nor can we all agree what the design should be: the same, we soon discovered, is true for MIT’s students.

The need for more attention to individual needs – what became “flexibility” as shorthand – has so far been discussed only at the level of curricular design; however, content, context, and modes of learning are equally or more crucial. If we sacrifice flexibility of this sort to an abstract ideal model that does not capture our students’ imagination, we will have failed. If our students do not understand the impulse behind and importance of the GIRs, they will be far less receptive to gain from even our best labors. Starting today, we can make a positive difference (with no more, just more efficient, effort) by repeatedly communicating the multiple values and contributions of what we are teaching – to one another, to our students, and to the MIT community as a whole. This involves active listening as well as talking.

One reason I agreed to take on a half-time administrative post in the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education was that the Task Force made apparent that there is still much work to be done that could be of immediate value for our educational community. We need more opportunities to learn about one another’s educational priorities and practices, and the support and resources to develop our own best practices. By talking across the disciplines, the Task Force found many points of commonality and a clearer sense of the different modes of analysis expected in different fields. I think we came to respect those differences and realize that most students’ experiences are made richer by the mixture itself: by the collision and cross-fertilization of disparate subjects and disciplinary approaches, not only (though also) by deep apprenticeship in one intellectual specialization.

Nor, given the diversity of our students and our fields, is there a single right combination of subjects or experiences. The world is big if not flat, and it demands scientists and engineers who understand its scale, complexity, and variety – and who can bring creativity and diverse approaches to bear upon whatever problems or situations they confront after their halcyon days in the pressure-cooker of MIT. Those last two dead metaphors are not at odds: for most of our students, an environment in which intellectual prowess is tested rigorously, where intelligence is a moral good, constitutes a paradise of sorts; it is also a special, unusual place where most likely they will not spend the rest of their lives. We must prepare them to succeed in more varied landscapes even as we hope they will value and respect the particular forms of “the life of the mind” that make MIT a remarkable, wonderful place to live and work. It is their journey as well as our own that, in the end, matters.

Diana E. Henderson is Dean for Curriculum and Faculty Support.

Back to top
Send your comments