MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
The Contribution of the Faculty
to the Commons
The State of Undergraduate Advising
The Journey, Not the Arrival
A Global Education for MIT Students
The Broader Education
Flexible Majors in Engineering
On the Pursuit of Beauty at MIT
Welcome to the Machine:
First-Year Advising, Choice, and Credit Limits
A Proposal for an Alternative Framework
The Knowledge Debate
A Twenty-First Century Undergraduate Education for MIT Students
Igniting Passion in Our Students
Getting There From Here
The Challenge of Multidisciplinary Education for Undergraduates
Printable Version

The Commons, the Major, and the First Year

A Proposal for an Alternative Framework

Emanuel Sachs

We all know the feeling of proposing a new idea to our colleagues and meeting with resistance, especially when the idea concerns teaching! Accordingly, I hope that after reading other comments in this Faculty Newsletter, I change my mind and come to see the proposal of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Commons as exactly what we need. For now, I would like to: i) express reservations, and ii) propose an alternative framework.

The section of the Task Force Report entitled “Educational Goals” (pp. 20-21) is, I believe, the pivotal portion of the report. Due to space constraints I can only summarize and quote selectively here, and therefore I urge my colleagues to read this section in its entirety. First, the charge to the Task Force is summarized. Some history of curriculum revision at MIT is reviewed, with an endorsement of the drive toward “…a more varied curriculum and an array of learning environments.” Then, the Task Force adds its own imprint – as they ought to. The Task Force seeks to address the aspirations of each individual student. They further state that this aim, together with the addition of more flexibility into MIT’s core curriculum as embodied in the proposed changes to the Science Requirement, will present students with “…important academic choices upon their arrival at MIT; these choices will make the pursuit of some academic paths considerably easier than others.”

The notion of very early down-selection seems to me to violate, or at least not support, the first goal in the Task Force’s own charge, “Every MIT Undergraduate will be equipped with a broad understanding of and easy facility with the most important concepts in modern science and technology.”

I believe that the Task Force has a fundamental misconception of what is desirable as far as variety is concerned. The Task Force seems to believe that a large variety of subject offerings constitutes the desired variety.

Rather, I believe that each student should be exposed to a wide variety of subjects. Further, the report does not adequately address the issue of variety in the context of learning environments.

The stress of early down-selection on students, faculty, and advisors seems to me to be unfair and unsustainable. I can say with some certainty that very few incoming freshmen have a good sense of what engineering is about – after all, it’s not taught in K-12 education. Perhaps the same is true of some other fields as well. I strongly believe that many/most of them need considerable time before they begin reducing their options. Isn’t the freshman year stressful enough already (if not, why do we maintain Pass/Fail grading for part of the year)?

Through faculty meetings I have come to appreciate that part of the aim of the Task Force was to get students more invested in the freshman year and their approach to this was, in part, to have the students actively making decisions. This is wise. However, the particular decisions required may not be in the student’s best interest – for the reasons described in the previous two paragraphs.
I propose below a concept which, as I understand it from two members of the Task Force, was not identified (and therefore not evaluated). The proposal has an aspect concerning subject matter and packaging, and it has an aspect concerning teaching and learning.

Subject Matter and Packaging

I propose that for the freshman year only we run a quarter system with the beginning of the first and third quarters coinciding with the beginning of our standard semesters and with the ends of the second and fourth quarters coinciding with the end of our first and second semesters. Some subjects would be two quarters long. Others would be one quarter long and would be designed to expose the student to the particular character and perspective of the discipline in question. With a quarter system, there would be more opportunity to sample from the breadth of human knowledge. Some of this sampling can be prescribed and some can be by choice. However, the broader exposure will allow students to make a more considered choice of major and they will be better equipped to work at the fertile boundaries between disciplines.

Teaching and Learning

I propose that an aspect of choice and decisions be presented explicitly to the students on the question of teaching and learning environments and styles. It should be a goal of their freshman year to understand a variety of approaches and to understand how they can benefit from each modality. Perhaps personal preferences will develop which students can use to help guide their educational careers. The faculty would, through coordination, offer different subjects in explicitly different modalities of teaching and learning.

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