MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 5
May / June 2011
A Letter to the Class of 2011
A Call for Nominations to
Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board
An MIT Housing Dream Finally Comes True
Can Nuclear Disarmament Become a Reaility?
Faculty Governance @ MIT:
Strengths and Future Challenges
Faculty Priorities for MIT
Thanks to the 150th Staff
Technology Enabled Transformation
in the MIT Learning Experience
Interim Report on the HASS First-Year Focus Pilot Program, to be Renamed the HASS Exploration Program
Sam Allen New Chair of the Faculty
Preventing Utter Devastation in Tornado/Hurricane Prone Areas
MIT Subject Evaluations Now Online
MIT Class of 2015: Incoming Freshmen Stats
Center for Work, Family & Personal Life Changes Name
Sponsored Research Expenditures
(2001 – 2010)
Printable Version

Interim Report on the HASS First-Year Focus Pilot Program, to be Renamed the HASS Exploration Program

Jeffrey Ravel

Over the past several years, MIT faculty members have created classes in the humanities, arts, and social sciences geared specifically towards first-year students and focused on “big ideas.” Funding from the d’Arbeloff Funds for Excellence in Education and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) Dean’s Funds has supported these pilot subjects. In May 2009, the faculty voted “…to continue experimenting with creating a special program within the HASS Requirement, addressed particularly to first-year undergraduates, termed the ‘First Year Focus (FYF) Program,’ that would provide opportunities and materials for a shared conversation among undergraduates, particularly first-year students.” The Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) Subcommittee on the HASS Requirement (SHR) was asked to oversee this pilot program and recommend no later than fall term AY2014 whether it should become part of the HASS General Institute Requirements (GIRs).

During the past year-and-a-half, SHR members have undertaken a review of the FYF experiment thus far.

The Subcommittee began by revisiting reports and proposals from earlier groups who had carefully articulated this concept, to understand the perceived needs in the undergraduate program and the ideas of those faculty members. SHR also surveyed first-year programs in the humanities at peer institutions. Members reviewed assessment activities and findings of the current pilot subjects, spoke with colleagues who have created and taught FYF subjects, and worked with the Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL) to continue assessment of faculty and student downstream experiences. This summary reports the Subcommittee’s key findings of the initial phase of the experiment and its recommendations for its second phase.

During the First Phase of the First Year Focus experiment, 10 pilot subjects with various approaches were created and taught by faculty from seven Departments/HASS teaching units. Enrollments in these classes varied between 4 and 75 undergraduates from all years.

The Subcommittee found that the pilot was a success, in the sense that faculty members created a limited number of subjects that were interesting and appealing to students and faculty.

These subjects met the criteria articulated in the 2006 Report of the Task Force on the Educational Commons, and they appear to be sustainable from a faculty perspective. The Subcommittee concluded that there is value in offering these subjects to students. Some specific findings include:

  • Students appreciate the interaction between first-year students and upperclassmen as part of their learning; some faculty members agree there is a benefit to having upperclassmen in these subjects.
  • Students also appreciate the interdisciplinary learning experiences and benefit from the more interactive modes of instruction.
  • Instructors value collaborations with other instructors. They cite the opportunity to learn new content and teaching strategies.
  • Teaching experiences require more preparation before and during the term than other classroom commitments.
  • Continued funding to support creation, evolution, and assessment, as well as administration, is needed.

These findings and others lead SHR to conclude that FYF subjects are a valuable experience for many of our students, and a stimulating teaching exercise for faculty. We do not currently believe, however, that they should become a required part of the HASS Requirement, nor do we think their enrollment should be limited to freshmen.

Students clearly do not want another large, anonymous lecture/recitation subject required in the first year. HASS faculty would prefer to provide the students with a more intimate, interactive, classroom experience. Furthermore, limits on faculty resources make us skeptical that it would be possible to offer enough FYF subjects to provide places for every member of each incoming class. At present, therefore, we do not recommend that the Institute make FYF subjects a required part of the GIRs. Instead, we suggest the continuation and expansion of the current FYF program, with the goal of making it a recommended, not required, part of the MIT undergraduate curriculum.

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SHR furthermore proposes that we rename the program “HASS Exploration,” to underline the fact that these subjects provide an opportunity to explore the interdisciplinary content and disciplinary methods that characterize the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT, and that they are open to all undergraduates.

As recommended, during the Second Phase of the experiment (AY12 - AY14) SHR will actively foster the creation of new subjects to supplement the promising HASS Exploration subjects already established during the First Phase. These subjects should fit the following criteria:

  • They should introduce students to major interdisciplinary concepts and to disciplinary methods in the Humanities, Arts, and/or Social Sciences.
  • They should encourage students to think critically and analytically, and expose students to ambiguities inherent at complex levels of analysis within fields.
  • They should feature pedagogically innovative techniques, as well as extensive opportunity for faculty/student interaction.
  • Regular faculty should lecture and lead recitations, possibly in collaboration with Senior Lecturers.

By fall 2014, SHR hopes to present a program to the CUP and the faculty as a whole that will include approximately 15 subjects taught annually.

Collectively, these subjects should offer approximately 650 spaces to students, or enough to accommodate one-eighth of the entire undergraduate student body, or half of one class. Subject capacity will vary in size from 30 to 60 students.

The complete SHR Interim Report on the First Year Focus Pilot Program, with a list of the pilot subjects, will be posted by the end of the spring term on the SHR section of the HASS Requirement Website.

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