MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Grappling with Change
Overview of the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Introduction to this Special Issue
Will the Task Force HASS Recommendations Increase Student Apathy?
A "Nerd Track" for MIT?
Reasons to Continue to Require 8.02
Diversity in Foundational Skills
and Knowledge
"Big Ideas" and the High School Asymmetry
More Science, Not Less
Recognizing the First Rate
Five-Out-Of-Six Model is Not Viable for MechE, but Five-Out-Of-Five Model Is
The Changing Nature of "Fundamental"
AP Credit for 8.01 is Appropriate
Arguments for Five-Out-Of-Five
The Case for a Shared Freshman
Knowledge Base
Educating Leaders for a Complex World
Toward a Liberal Scientific and
Technological Education
A Serious Equivocation:
The Issue of Foreign Language Study
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
Printable Version

The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)

Will the Task Force HASS Recommendations
Increase Student Apathy?

Thomas F. DeFrantz and Caroline Rubin '08

The proposed changes to the HASS portion of the GIRs address many long-bemoaned shortcomings of the current system, such as the somewhat bewildering complexity of the HASS-D and CI-H requirements and the paucity of collaboration between faculty in SHASS and those in science and engineering. However, the proposed First-Year Experience classes jeopardize one aspect of the current system that is not only unproblematic but actually beneficial: the wide variety of intimately-sized HASS-D classes available to incoming students. In attempting to fix what isn't broken as well as what is, the proposed changes have the potential to degrade the quality of students' HASS education. The thoroughly researched history of HASS education at MIT and the carefully laid out suggestions for its improvement contained in the Task Force report evidence its authors' dedication to improving undergraduate HASS education, and we make these recommendations in the spirit of that shared goal.

The Task Force recommends replacing freshmen's current selection of many small HASS classes with a limited number of large enrollment ones in the name of creating larger intellectual communities. The interdisciplinary nature of these new classes is intended to ignite freshmen's interest in their content and in the larger goals of SHASS as a result, but we are concerned that several features of the proposed requirement may work against these goals: first, the dramatic reduction in number of class choices, and second, the move towards larger, more impersonal classes. If these aspects of the proposed requirement are not addressed, student apathy towards SHASS and its goals is likely to only deepen.

Under the current system, incoming students have over 50 HASS classes to choose from, ensuring that everyone can find at least one that sparks their curiosity. If the proposed First-Year Experience classes are implemented, freshmen will have to hope that one class out of fewer than 10 options appeals to their personal interests.

Since each of these classes is slated to have enrollment minimums and maximums, it is inevitable that many of the less popular classes will be filled with students who did not choose to be there. Given that the vast majority of these students will be on pass/no record and not required to do any more than is required to earn a C, they will already have little motivation to do more work than the bare minimum. Placing them in a class they felt was the least unappealing of limited choices or that they did not choose to be in at all will only lessen their incentive to put in more effort than is required, especially if the class consists mainly of large lectures in which students neither have a relationship with nor are personally accountable to their professor – a format the proposed Freshmen Experience classes will hopefully strive to balance with smaller, more intimate sections. We hope that students will never be forced into classes that do not interest them, and therefore provide little incentive to strive for excellence.

Ideally, all MIT students would appreciate both the importance of science and engineering and the world in which science and engineering takes place. The goal of the HASS requirement is to instill this appreciation in students, a goal that is undermined when, as is the case for some students now, the HASS requirement is not taken seriously. Introducing students to the HASS requirement by mandating enrollment in a large class on a topic they are not interested in when they have no incentive to put in any more than minimal effort is not likely to make them take the requirement more seriously. For incoming students to have a positive HASS experience that sets the stage for a positive future outlook on the HASS requirement, they need to be able to take a class they are interested in that has at least some section small enough for them to have a relationship with and feel a sense of responsibility to the section instructor. The proposed Freshmen Experience HASS classes should balance small-group meetings with large-group lectures, should not be mandatory for students whose interests lay outside of the available options, and should be closely monitored to ensure that they are of the high quality definitive of an MIT education. As members of the HASS Overview Committee it is our responsibility to ensure the quality of students' HASS education, and therefore we feel it is critical that these concerns be addressed in the process of implementation.

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