Random Faculty Dinner Notes
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Last summer, the CUP (Committee on the Undergraduate Program) sanctioned an experiment – for this year’s incoming students – in which the Science/Engineering/Mathematics portion of the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) could be taken Pass/No-Record (P/NR) at any time during the student’s years before graduation.
There was general discontent that the SEM-GIR-P/NR decision was made over the summer. Some faculty felt as if oversight over curriculum had been relinquished. However, there is general agreement that MIT is about bold experiments which should be encouraged. The general discontent about this experiment took two forms: a) its curricular implications were ill considered; b) there was insufficient time to obtain faculty input.
Most faculty who spoke up agreed that the GIRs are foundational and exploratory – and the experiment sends the message that they are not. The motivation for the SEM-GIR-P/NR experiment – to encourage more exploration of majors – had the consequence of sending the message that the GIRs do not involve exploration; furthermore, the experiment sends a message that the GIRs are not to be taken seriously. There was anecdotal evidence that a fraction of students were completing only enough work to pass SEM-GIR subjects.
The first semester P/NR was designed to reduce stress and provide an opportunity for variations in student preparation before MIT to have a chance to equilibrate. Some incoming students were taking advanced topics for which they lacked prerequisites. This may increase stress, especially for those who are taking advanced subjects with the objective of getting an internship.
Some faculty voiced a fear that we are making MIT too easy in response to perceived institutional competition or perceptions that students want an easier path so they can have time to obtain other experiences. In particular, if MIT were to make things easier in response to perceived competition for students with other universities, then we will have lost what makes MIT special and decrease the value of the MIT brand.
Regarding the corollary effects of delayed GIRs, some believed that if a particular GIR has no direct bearing on a major, then it could be taken anytime. Others believed that learning a discipline without the context of fundamental GIR material created graduates who may be far too narrow in their understanding of the applications of their discipline.
The question is whether the GIRs should be designed for fundamental knowledge (as they are now) or whether they should be subjects that teach “skills of an educated person” for lifelong learning in the 21st century. For example, the GIRs could be organized around functions of “critical thinking,” “statistics,” “computing,” or “communication,” rather than around disciplines.
There was disagreement as to the extent to which students’ passion should influence curricular changes. Some believed that there is an obligation to provide opportunities for passionate projects or learning because that is the nature of the students admitted to MIT. Others thought that moderating freedom with a proscribed curriculum provides a more meaningful future passion, or allows the discovery of alternative passions. Others worried that we too often characterize the student body by focusing on a small set of the students.
The median sales price of homes in Cambridge has increased by a factor of three in the last 19 years; the current median price is currently just less than $1M. This price is likely to accelerate as MIT invests in Kendall Square and high-value companies locate nearby. Thus faculty costs of living are increasing more rapidly than their salaries and housing-assistance has not tracked housing costs: faculty express that we are a "victim of our own success."
There are many consequences of faculty housing costs: a) our ability to recruit junior faculty; b) stress associated with financial insecurity; c) the need to move ever farther from MIT which increases commute time and traffic; d) reduced engagement with on-campus activities.
Faculty point out that MIT plays a role as a landowner and a developer – why not do the same with real estate to benefit the MIT community? There were suggestions that MIT might invest in housing along the Red Line.
There was an interesting suggestion that – in parallel to student interest groups that organize around common interests and housing locations that appears to reduce student stress – faculty would benefit from living groups with shared interests. It was pointed out that faculty who were here in the 60s and early 70s would have valuable perspectives on such an endeavor.
Climate change was a recurring topic. It is viewed as a grave existential crisis and the most important problem conceivable. There is a consensus that MIT should – must – lead in mitigating climate change. Predictions of sea-level rise suggest that MIT would be under water – literally and metaphorically.
There is also consensus that technological fixes alone will not suffice. This is a problem that will require a multidisciplinary multi-dimensional approach.
Some wonder if the SCoC is a distraction from this more important problem. Others express hope that mitigating climate change might become a primary focus of the SCoC.
Many of the senior faculty bemoan the trend towards overspecialization of disciplines and its effect on scholarship. Previously, MIT had a substantial fraction of its faculty who were generalists – meaning that they had a conceptual understanding about a general discipline and could rapidly comprehend connections to other disciplines, and/or fields within their own. It was recognized that the value of such faculty transcend their nominative contributions and their influence was extraordinary. Such faculty could describe what they do, relate it to what others do – and were also able to converse about topics from any of the five Schools.
MIT has embraced specialization at the expense of promoting generalists. We do this in the way we hire faculty, promote faculty, and reward faculty. Now, it is becoming rarer that two random faculty can have a substantive conversation. (It was remarked that many faculty who attend the random faculty dinners do so because it provides a venue for substantive conversation and that the frequency could be increased to afford more such opportunities.)
There was great enthusiasm for the Killian Lecture that Prof. Gerald Fink delivered on “The Cell.” Those who attended remarked how uplifting it was to hear a colleague give an educational and inspiring lecture. It was suggested that once a year is far too infrequent. Why not one such lecture a month? Or, certainly several times a year?
In part, the rules of the academic system have changed. Nevertheless, the disappearance of polymaths has a correlative effect on comprehensive education and on the quality of faculty life. A junior faculty attendee said, “I wish I had the courage to write fewer papers.”
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