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)

Recognizing the First Rate

Steven B. Leeb

The Task Force has done tremendous and cogent work, for which we should all be grateful. The presentation of point and counter-point in the report is so complete that in most cases I found my concerns articulated. In some cases I draw different conclusions, and I appreciate the opportunity to share these with you.

In his 1959 inaugural address, President Stratton said, “by precept and example, we must convey to [our students] a respect for moral values, a sense of the duties of citizenship, a feeling for taste and style, and the capacity to recognize and enjoy the first rate.” A basic approach for meeting this charge is offering our students appropriate challenges at appropriate points in their careers. When I arrived here as a freshman, I expected to be posed a set of challenges, developed by a community of people I admired and sought to emulate more than any other, anywhere else. I expected completion of these challenges to signal readiness (in theory at least) to make intelligent choices about my career and my work. A person is not ready to be a team member, to exercise choice, to plan wisely for the future, until they have individual skills to use and share. We meet President Stratton’s charge by leading by example, by offering an educational experience that reflects our consideration and values, by offering crafted opportunities that are first rate. Our students’ successful experience with these first-rate opportunities cannot rely on wisdom and perspective that they may not yet have.

The report offers “menu” systems for the science core, either a “five-out-of-five” or “five-out-of-six” structure. Each category will have multiple choices, so that under either system, students will be forced to choose a subset of classes from a larger pool, e.g., “five from fifteen” or eighteen.

This menu plan is a lowest-common-denominator solution that will encourage entertainment over education. It will encourage grade inflation.

The report acknowledges potential deficiency on page 52: “With certain GIR choices made in the five out of six structure, it is easy to see how [students] could find some majors impossible to complete in four years.” It is equally easy to see this impossibility in the “five-out-of-five” (resulting in a five from fifteen choice, for example). The report prefaces this concern with a presumptively ameliorating provision demanding “excellent first year advising to reduce the incidence and impact of bad academic choices in the first year.” Unfortunately, no advising system can flawlessly advise entering students who have not decided their paths. The menu plan imposes an impossible burden.

An essential benefit of our current science core is that it intentionally does not handicap a subset of students through a lottery whose winners are selected based on their prescience.

A Task Force member characterized the plan as one that would leave “some departments feeling burned.” I agree with this disappointing assessment. The proposed plan does little or nothing to promote collegiality and understanding.

The most important aspect of our core should be committed and passionate instruction for every minute of these classes. These teachers must bring a love for the material they teach and for the intellectual growth of the students. The menu plan offers only competition and a curricular maze. It would be an “every person for himself” plan, for both the students and the faculty. It offers no compact with the Institute leadership, and no assurance that resource allocations will be made for the greater good of our faculty, staff, and students.

Many other possible plans would address the goal of igniting passion. For example, with no other change to the science core as currently incarnated, we could replace the Institute Laboratory requirement with a requirement for one engineering project-based (PB) “sidecar” class selected from a menu, possibly specifically identified as pairing with a particular science core class. These PB sidecars, already in concept demonstration with D’Arbeloff funding, would provide hands-on learning, experiment planning, a serious research experience, and closer faculty contact for the freshmen. They offer the possibility for science and engineering faculty to collaborate and to potentially support the first-year advising program in new ways.

There are subtle concerns with other recommendations in the report.

For one example, the report recommends “making assessment an Institute policy.” Of course, we must hear and be responsive to the voice of our customers. Great care must be taken, however, as this information is mined and milled to play a finer role in our administrative processes. The report makes the inarguably laudable demand to employ the same “scholarly rigor and data-driven attitude” as employed in our scientific research. Will we deploy resources to conduct honest double-blind studies of different teaching methods? If we choose other methods such as longitudinal or statistical studies, will we develop reliable means to distinguish generalized best practices from what amounts to Hawthorne effect? If taking advantage of a practical Hawthorne effect is its own best pedagogical practice, how much additional assessment is needed over our current practices to simply support sustained pedagogical renewal? A recent move to on-line evaluation was touted as “more convenient for those students who don’t go to class to get their voices heard.” Are we comfortable having such “data” used with thresholds for evaluating promotion cases? If not, will we invest the resources to nurture pedagogy and conduct compassionate and meaningful assessment before we further expand the administrative role of assessment data?

We led the world with the education system we developed in the last half of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, every university faces the straining challenge of breadth. We have the opportunity to rise to this challenge. A gift of our past success is access to resources and collaborative opportunities unavailable in many other venues. We need to articulate a sound, clear vision in order to plan, to build, to embark on fund-raising, and to win.

I hope to assist with whatever program we decide to pursue, and I appreciate your time and patience.

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