The Commons, the Major, and the First Year
The Broader Education
The alarm buzzes again. Her roommate yells at her and Elizabeth reluctantly pulls herself out of bed and into the shower. It is 8:10, but she’s had only six hours of sleep as she finished an important part of a major project late last night. She hustles to get herself ready and heads downstairs to grab some juice and a bagel. A number of other tired colleagues are quickly grabbing some food as they head into a cold New England day in pairs and threes for that sometimes harsh walk. Elizabeth grabs a coffee on the way, but that makes her a few minutes late to her 9:00 class and she gets that “stare” from the professor. The information flows at a rapid pace and Elizabeth can barely keep up. She checks on e-mails using remote access and notes she’ll have a few to get to, but doesn’t have time to get into their contents. Normally 10-11 on Wednesdays is time to catch up, but she’s meeting with one of her HASS class team members to go over some key items. She hustles to that and then back across campus to her 11:00 engineering design class. At noon she has lunch in the Student Center with some other student government associates to discuss key items from the latest meetings. This trickles over into the next hour and she decides to stay in that intense engagement. She gets over to her HASS class at 2:00 and after an hour of interesting directed discussion on their latest readings, she gets together with two friends from her morning class and they work on the latest problem set until 5:00 when she goes over to the Z-Center and her team practice. She misses dinner at the house tonight and picks up a sub at LaVerde’s before getting together with her project design team to review their accomplishments. That meeting is over and she finally gets home, using Safe Ride, after 9:30. She is pretty tired, but there’s a good amount of work to do. She sits around with a few sisters for awhile and they just talk, catch up, and relax a bit. Then it’s to her room and some reading and work on another problem set due Friday. She gets a call at about 11:30 from a friend in a dorm who needs help on a problem and they talk it through. Her friend reminds her of their religious group activity upcoming Saturday afternoon. She calls it quits at 1:15 knowing tomorrow will be just as intense. On top of this, her cold seems to be getting worse.
What’s the point of this story about Elizabeth? This may not be the typical day for our undergraduates (if there is such a thing as a typical day), but it is hardly atypical.
Our students are involved in a large number and great variety of activities. Read the list of student groups recognized by the Association of Student Activities to get a feel for that. They are members of sports teams, intramural squads, houses and dormitories, religious groups, performing groups, and research groups. They have social lives, significant others, best friends, fights with friends, families at near and far distances, health issues, and favorite TV shows. They are searching for internships, careers, majors, direction, help, and friendship. And what role do we, the faculty, play in all this? A typical undergraduate student spends 16-25 hours per week in classes (if they attend all scheduled). Not all of those are taught by faculty. Sure, we assign the problems and projects they work on, but even then, that is an additional 30-40 hours of their week and the interaction with us there is generally quite minimal.
Our undergraduates are here for four critical years in their development and growth as people. We, as faculty, do a great deal to teach the academic piece of their development, but what of their broader education? Our students are nearly always learning through a multitude of activities, engagements, and interactions – seven days a week and oftentimes 16 or more hours a day. With all this, they emerge as leaders and outstanding people in many ways. Yet so much of this is accomplished because of what they do, and is not attributable to our help. If they can accomplish so much without us, what could they do with a greater support of the faculty? As Chuck Vest noted in his 1998-99 Presidential Report [“Massachusetts Institute of Technology REPORT OF THE PRESIDENT for the Academic Year 1998-99”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 1999], “By engaging with students beyond the formal classroom and laboratory, we can help to develop wisdom and understanding as well as knowledge and skill.” The current engagement of our faculty in such activity is more than wanting. For example, only 66 faculty serve as freshmen advisors resulting in only 37% of our freshmen (yes, less than half!) having that direct out-of-classroom contact with faculty when they arrive. Most of us are parents. How would you feel paying this cost of tuition and with the expectations you have sending your son or daughter to a top school, only to find out that s/he were not advised by a faculty member?
We all are faculty of MIT first. Certainly we have responsibilities to our local units – laboratories, departments, etc. But we all also have responsibilities to the broader Institute and this includes the broader educational engagement of our undergraduate – in large part, the “overall Commons.” As we look at curriculum holistically, the student holistically, and the student process holistically, we must also look at the overall Institute holistically. We are one big system and must engage in that manner. It has been clear for years that there are forces in action to keep faculty from participating in these broader “overall Commons” activities. There are only two ways to overcome this. One is to provide force in the opposite direction to overcome the counterforce. This results in having forces in opposite directions with the people in between always being in tension. That’s what we have now and this results in people dropping out of these engagements or having to put in more effort than is really needed. The other approach is to eliminate the force in the “wrong direction.” That allows everyone to prosper in such engagements.
If we truly want to better the overall education of our undergraduates and achieve those broader visions this Task Force, and its predecessor, have laid out, we must fundamentally change our Institute and its culture to support these happenings. We need to commit to a fuller engagement in and support of the integrated educational experience of our undergraduates through their four years in this community. Central to this is support of their broader learning through participation in the multitude of activities and general day-to-day living that go beyond, and yet can be integrated with, the classroom. Let’s work together to do this to make the full educational experience of Elizabeth and all her colleagues for years to come to be the one of true excellence they all deserve from MIT.