From The Faculty Chair
Freshman Advising and MITx
Most people, especially outside MIT, are surprised to learn that I teach blacksmithing at MIT. I was inspired to do so in 1984, when it struck me that I could learn much from the craft that would add to my knowledge of my professional field, physical metallurgy. That’s proven true over and over again.
My department, Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), is one of the Engineering School’s smaller departments, and we have striven to build our undergraduate enrollment for as long as I’ve been on the faculty. The challenge has been to inform students that the field of materials science and engineering exists, what it’s about, and that it abounds with professional opportunities. While the field’s prominence has gradually increased, we still actively recruit MIT freshmen.
When I conceived of the idea of introducing blacksmithing, it was an easy sell to my department head, on the basis that it could help “spread the word” about MSE by first engaging students with the craft, then weaving into the experience explanations of how the material they were working with was behaving, and finally broadening the discussion to the MSE field. I first offered a class during IAP, then it became a Freshman Seminar, and it was among the first group of six Freshman Advisor Seminars that were launched in 1986, largely through Travis Merrit’s efforts. Much of the initial success of the seminar was due to the early involvement of a highly skilled local blacksmith, Forrest Whitcher. Over the years, I’ve had the assistance of a Technical Instructor and often an Associate Advisor, who had previously been my freshman advisee.
Over the past 25 years the Freshman Advisor Seminar has been taught nearly every year, as has an IAP blacksmithing activity. We’ve certainly gained a significant number of majors in Course III via the classes we offer, so the effort has paid off for my department, too.
Combining freshman advising with a six-credit seminar was a brilliant idea. A challenge of being a “traditional” freshman advisor (advising without having your advisees in a seminar) is establishing a relationship and maintaining regular contact with one’s advisees. The seminar meets weekly, and as a Freshman Advisor Seminar leader you get to see all of your advisees, as a group, at least once per week.
I meet with my advisees for an hour in my office, and for an evening blacksmithing session in our forge. The informal setting of the forge makes a great environment for developing close relationships with my advisees, and among the advisees themselves.
As we look to the future, interactions of the type I’m experiencing with my freshman advisees need to be a greater part of the residential educational experience. I’m certain that most faculty have interests that could be shared with freshmen or other groups of undergraduates that would foster advising/mentoring relationships and contribute significantly to our students’ education. Creating opportunities for these relationships to develop and flourish needs to become an Institute priority. Faculty need to know that their investment of time and energy into the advising/mentoring sphere is highly valued.
As Chair of the Faculty, I’ve been surprised to see how broad the spectrum is for annual reporting of our individual activities and contributions to “Institute Commons,” such as teaching GIR subjects, freshman advising, reading freshman admissions folders, serving as a Housemaster, and UROP supervision. Some departments ask for such data specifically, and others don’t. By asking for the data, the message is conveyed that contributions to Institute Commons are valued. If the data are collected, how are they evaluated? Are they important enough to factor into annual salary increases? To help make a successful promotion case? If faculty participation in these activities needs to be increased, these questions need definite answers.
In December, MIT announced the bold extension of OpenCourseWare (OCW) into MITx. OCW has delivered online course materials for free, and MITx aims to provide an environment for free online learning. A major question about the potential impact of MITx is this: If MITx is wildly successful, what is the future of the residential education experience that has been our mode of teaching for MIT’s entire history? If students can master course materials online for free (or for a modest “credentialing” fee), what incentives would there be for anyone to invest in an expensive residential college education? In short, what will be the “added value” of a residential education that will justify a residential student’s financial investment?
Considerable effort over the past four years has been directed at envisioning the ways in which technology-enhanced learning will affect MIT’s residential educational experience, but from my perspective this has been a challenging task that is by no means conclusive.
There has certainly been focus on what technology-enhanced delivery of courses might look like, but not so much on the long-term impact on our residential students. But the long-range projection that distance learning may ultimately jeopardize the viability of our current residential education experience has received insufficient attention, in my view.
Clearly activities like the blacksmithing Freshman Advisor Seminar (and many of our current offerings) cannot be replicated in an online learning environment. I believe we need to consider the inherent value of the activities that can’t be replicated online, and to diversify our offerings to ensure that every student participates in them. This can’t be left to chance. The Institute’s value system needs to ensure that faculty who develop innovative ways to learn and emphasize interpersonal experience are appropriately recognized.
Currently, 72 faculty serve as Freshman Advisors, and 27 lead Freshman Advisor Seminars. We are approaching the time of year when the Dean for Undergraduate Education and others will make appeals for more faculty to participate in freshman advising. The specific satisfactions that come from being a freshman advisor have not been the focus of this article; rather, the aim has been to emphasize the need for activities like the Freshman Advisor Seminar to proliferate. That said, participating in freshman advising is extremely important and holds the potential for great personal satisfaction. Please give the Dean’s invitation to participate serious consideration.