The Commons, the Major, and the First Year
Welcome to the Machine:
First-Year Advising, Choice, and Credit Limits
The Task Force report has rightly underscored the need for increased faculty participation in first-year advising as a means of encouraging students to engage more actively and fully from the outset in shaping their MIT education. That suggestion points to a deeper concern that is worth spelling out: we need not only increased faculty participation but, more importantly, an educational structure that allows a different kind of participation with regard to the academic aspects of advising.
Consider the guidance an advisor currently needs to provide freshmen as they select subjects. The first semester effectively prescribes single-variable calculus (or multi-variable, should the student’s pre-college record allow), mechanics, introductory chemistry or biology, and a subject chosen from the distribution and communication-intensive HASS offerings that fits a schedule primarily determined by the first three choices. If the second semester is less constrained, it is not so by much: a second semester of calculus (or differential equations), electro-magnetics, (often) either chemistry or biology, and then one other subject (from the range offered by HASS). And then – at the end of a year in which opportunities to explore one’s areas of intellectual interest have been so, so wide-ranging – the student is expected to declare a major.
The intellectual challenge of advising and the student’s own decision-making process essentially boil down to discussions of which flavors of calculus, chemistry, etc., are likely to suit, and which humanities, arts, and social sciences subjects (depending on schedule constraints) a student should take.
Within such a framework, it remains unclear to me, after years of freshman advising, why faculty participation is even necessary – surely a machine could do nearly as well.
I am, of course, making my case in an overly pointed fashion – advising involves more than academic guidance (but why would we assume that faculty are more qualified to provide that kind of support?) and students enter at different levels of preparation, leading to different trajectories. But it can hardly be contested that the first year of an MIT education currently rests firmly on a one-size-fits-all model aimed in practice at producing homogeneity. One need only compare our first-year demands with those of any other major research university to see how slight in practice is our attention and commitment to intellectual diversity, to exploration, to making active choices, to allowing room for what may sometimes (in retrospect) seem a non-optimal decision – in short, to the kinds of learning the first year should be about and to which academic advising should contribute.
And it is this endeavor that the Task Force’s recommendations regarding the science and engineering core seek to support: by offering a modicum of flexibility in the choice of scientific domains of enquiry and by permitting a richer and broader mix of topics in each domain.
Those who have argued that these changes are not radical enough are correct: they aren’t radical enough – as many in the Task Force were well aware. However, the proposed changes represent what seems achievable (and indeed the very least we should aim to achieve) in an intellectual culture still far too strongly wedded, in my view, to the existing educational structure, and to an understanding of the first year as serving primarily a pre-requisite function (for which the production of homogeneity is central). It is this culture that the Task Force seeks to change, and such an alteration, through steps that are small but cumulative, has never been so necessary. Students come in different sizes, students grow to different sizes. The first year at MIT needs to acknowledge these variations and to encourage them.
Variety in what one learns, and in how one learns what one learns, has been further squelched in our recent past by another regulation, one the Task Force does not address: the imposition of credit limits throughout the freshman year. To convey my sense of how pernicious this development has been, I need to turn briefly to my own experience as an MIT freshman in the pre-limit days. Being able to take and to handle five subjects meant that I was able to continue studying a foreign language, to do philosophy and to explore circuits (thereby testing my own original intention to major in Course 6). Having completed a greater number of subjects in my freshman year had a knock-on effect, making it easier for me to pursue interests in other fields in later years, and complete a double degree. Indeed, it was my second degree – then thought of as secondary – that later became primary. People grow and learn differently – and often unpredictably. Education needs to make room for that. Consequently, and more concretely, we need at the very minimum to consider lifting the credit limit for the second semester where students are now already on grades, and where their choices make a more public difference (on their transcripts and for their careers). Rather than strait-jacketing those in the freshman class capable of and itching to do more, we need to let them explore other areas of interest, or pursue in greater depth an area they have already decided upon. We need to free them not only to do so, but to “learn by doing” the consequences of their own decisions.
By opening choices and risks in the ways described above, we not only involve students more actively in their own learning, but render necessary a different kind of advising. Such advising would truly call for faculty who can help students reach decisions of more import than the choice between two excellent varieties of introductory chemistry, faculty who can engage students more fully as individuals choosing and finding their own trajectories in a new place – and faculty who have indeed the power to decide, for instance, whether a student has shown the drive and ability sufficient to allow him or her to break out of the one-lowest-common-denominator size that our first year currently imposes. Advising needs more faculty participation, but in an educational environment where advising means more than making sure that students check the right boxes.