Faculty debates CFYP plan
By Seth Gordon
Undergraduate Association President Jonathan Katz '90 expressed "reservations" about a proposal to eliminate the second semester of freshman pass/no-credit grading at Wednesday's faculty meeting, while faculty members gave mixed reviews to proposed changes to the undergraduate core curriculum.
The proposals were made by the Committee on the First-Year Program and the Science-Engineering Working Group. The CFYP recommended that second-term freshman pass/no-credit be eliminated, while the SEWG called for the introduction of a two-semester course in chemistry, materials science, and biology, into the Institute undergraduate requirements.
Associate Dean of Engineering Jack Kerrebrock, a member of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, said the CUP did not unanimously support all of the CFYP's recommendations. Because the issues involved were so complex, the CUP felt that they should be presented to the whole MIT community for discussion before a formal motion, to be drafted by Kerrebrock and Professor Anthony P. French, is submitted to the faculty for voting.
Stressing the importance of flexibility, the CFYP had two complementary proposals: first, to encourage students to spread their freshman requirements out into the sophomore year, and second, to rework the entire pass/no-credit distribution system.
The committee recommended that the present pass/no-credit system be eliminated in favor of a system under which students would be able to take one credit/no-credit subject per term beginning second-term freshman year.
Katz, a member of the CFYP, expressed reservations about the change. He observed that it would increase the pace and pressure of undergraduate life, which is already aggravated by greater rigor in humanities and social science subjects, increased tuition, and increased self-help levels.
Katz also noted that the pass/fail option for juniors and seniors is rarely used, so the credit/no-credit option of the proposed system probably would not be used either.
Yonald Chery G, the student representative on the CUP, argued that there was not enough evidence that the CFYP's proposal would help students.
The CFYP's report stated that some students want second-term grades. "This passage cries out for clarification," Chery said. "How many students express this opinion? How is it determined that students have made the bulk of adjustment during the first term?"
From forums held last term, he observed, the opposite seemed to be the case, because the real challenge of adjustment comes during the second term, when students' high-school backgrounds and prior knowledge run out.
There is a growing belief among faculty that incoming students are less prepared than they used to be, Chery noted. Lack of student preparation was one reason freshman pass/no-credit was established in the first place, he said.
One professor who had taught a freshman seminar thought that some complaints about freshmen overloading during their second semester were justified, but he did not favor the CFYP's proposal. He suggested that some subjects be designated as pass/no-credit and all others be put on grades.
Kerrebrock responded that pass/no-credit subjects might develop "second-class" reputations, and that the problems requiring pass/no-credit stem from the time period, and not from specific subjects.
Professor Alvin W. Drake '57 said that he had been strongly against freshman pass/no-credit when it was first introduced, but now supports it over the current proposal, because student quality of life is better. He suggested that pass/no-credit was especially good for students who were not sure whether they belonged at MIT.
Associate Professor Edward F. Crawley '76 spoke in support of the plan. He said that it might actually help pace and pressure. Students, he said, sometimes do poorly in their second term and then have even more trouble getting through sophomore year. Second-term grades, therefore, might help "relieve pressure downstream," while the new credit/no-credit option would act as a safety valve.
Science core changes
Professor David N. Wormley '62, co-chair of the SEWG, said the group's proposal, if passed, would be the first major change to the undergraduate core in 25 years. The proposal calls for the addition of a two-term chemistry-materials-biology sequence to the Institute requirements, and also for an updated syllabus for freshman physics classes.
Dean of Humanities and Social Science Ann F. Friedlaender PhD '64 was concerned that some students would see the expanded chemistry-materials-biology requirement as an additional restriction on their freedom. Recalling the controversy over HASS-D reform in 1987, she advised not to make the system too rigid.
Professor J. Kim Vandiver SM '75 was concerned that the integrated two-semester requirement would cause problems for transfer students. Wormley replied that a faculty group should work on that problem.
Professor Leon Trilling worried that the revamped freshman physics sequence would deal with so many subjects, there would be little time to study any of them in depth.
French, who co-authored the new physics syllabus, agreed that there might be too much in it, but warned that the new course was experimental. He also observed that while introductory biology classes teach the state of the art, Physics I (8.01) teaches 17th century mechanics, and Physics II (8.02) teaches 19th century electromagnetism. The revised sequence would emphasize the process of learning about the physical world, he said; there would be less textbook work and calculation.
To encourage feedback, the CUP will sponsor forums for faculty to discuss the issue in the next two months.
At Wednesday's meeting, the faculty also voted to change the degree designation on some humanities majors' diplomas from simply "Humanities" to the name of the humanities section in which they majored. Friedlaender said that this would be consistent with the designations for HASS minors, and would be "a recognition of the increasing strength and significance of the humanities." The measure passed unanimously.
MacVicar and other speakers at the meeting, stressed that the SEWG proposal, the CFYP proposal, and the reformed humanities curriculum all compliment each other, as parts of a larger plan of educational reform.
Freshman pass/no-credit was instituted, Kerrebrock said, for a number of purposes, including easing the pressure of transition to MIT, developing a more mature motivation for study, giving students a wider sense of freedom, compensating for differences in student background, and changing the image of MIT. Those objectives, according to Kerrebrock, are now realized in the first freshman term, but the CFYP's report cites indications that it is not doing so in the second term. Professor Elias P. Gyftopoulos ScD '58 advocated extending the physics requirements to a third term of quantum mechanics.
Professor David E. Pritchard thought the faculty was asked to choose between making the second term just like the first or just like all the others. Like Katz, he suggested, as an intermediate position, making second-term grades an option. Professor Kenneth R. Manning, who chaired the CFYP, replied that the committee had considered that option and rejected it.
Professor J. Kim Vandiver SM '75 noted that under the CFYP's proposal, every subject could have that reputation.; furthermore, the new chemistry-materials-biology subjects would only be one way of satisfying the proposed requirement.
Professor Boris Magasanik rejoined that the science core could not be made into a "smorgasbord." It has to be structured, he said.