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Open forum examines role and future of IAP

By Prabhat Mehta

While the Institute celebrates the 20th birthday of the Independent Activities Period, a two-year experimental phase mandated by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program is also winding down, prompting IAP administrators to review the effectiveness of the program and plan for the future.

At a forum yesterday sponsored by the IAP Policy Committee, about 35-40 concerned members of the community discussed what they considered to be strengths and weaknesses and debated possible changes for the interim period.

The CUP last year called for a two-year experiment to increase both the active participation of freshmen in IAP and the number of credit bearing activities. During the experiment, the IAPPC has been trying to get more student input "about what they would like to see in IAP -- what would make them come and participate," said IAPPC student representative Meryl T. Alford '90.

"We're assuming that IAP is a good thing," Alford said. "We added more credit courses because that's what students wanted."

Now that the experiment is almost over, uncertainty exists about the future of the program. "We don't know what's going to happen," Alford said. She believed that a study may be commissioned soon to look into future prospects.

In response to the uncertainty, the Undergraduate Association has formed an IAP Task Force headed by Luisa R. Contreiras '90. The task force will be meeting regularly this month to discuss such issues as how students currently spend

time during IAP, the appropriateness of credit courses, and how to inspire more faculty and student participation.

Alford, who is also a member of the UA task force, said that regardless of what lies in store for IAP, "We want student opinion to be heard."

Increasing participation

Both Alford and IAPPC Chair James W. Mar '41, a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said that yesterday's forum was intended only to solicit input and generate debate. But of the five panelists, four serve on the IAPPC, which may have significant impact on any future planning. Those four were Mar, Alford, Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Jeremy M. Wolfe, and Undergraduate Academic Support Office head Travis R. Merritt. Contreiras was the fifth member.

Much of the forum focused upon the need for increased participation -- by both students and faculty members. Contreiras noted that only 30 percent of MIT's undergraduates return for all of IAP and that only somewhere between 75 and 80 percent return for at least five percent of the period.

Faculty participation has been worse, even though MIT's Policies and Procedures stipulates that "contributions of the faculty and departments are as critical to the well-being of IAP as to the regular semesters." Alford noted that only 26 percent of the faculty appears in the IAP Bulletin and that actual participation is about 10 percent.

Furthermore, Alford stated that since faculty are paid to participate in IAP and since part of tuition is allocated to the period, students should ask themselves, "Are we getting ripped off?"

Many agreed that one way to increase student participation would be to increase the level of faculty involvement so that more activities can be offered. "Students and faculty should interact just as intensively as during the spring and fall terms," Mar said.

Associate Dean for Student Affairs Jeffrey A. Meldman '65, recalling some of the initial reasoning behind starting IAP, noted, "The faculty was going to do such a good job of offering good [activities] that students would want to come back." That has hardly been the case over the last 20 years, he felt, because departmental heads do not expect the same of their faculty over IAP as they do over the two regular terms.

He felt that increased participation could only be fostered through solid commitment from departmental and school administrators. Robert B. Calhoun '90 believed that the administration should force the faculty to come back. "It's not fair that not all faculty are expected to come, but all students are," he said.

Responding to this criticism, Wolfe noted, "This was not [designed] to be a democracy." Wolfe acknowledged the need for increased faculty involvement, and added that students and faculty should consider IAP as important as other academic commitments. "No one talks about coercing people to come back for the spring or fall terms," he said.

Controversy over

credit courses

Although Wolfe advocates a term-like experience, he felt that events should be "innovative." He said that offering courses which satisfy part of the General Institute Requirements was a bad idea. "My concern about crash courses at MIT is that they will be used to get things out of the way." This, he argued, would take the emphasis off learning.

The audience at the forum appeared to be split on this issue. Some agreed with Wolfe, arguing that only "creative" elective courses or those courses -- like intensive languages -- which offer a better learning experience when "crammed" should be offered. Others, however, felt that no option should be taken away from students or faculty.

Some argued that offering Institute Requirements was a bad idea because IAP should be an unstructured time of exploration. Similarly, others felt that IAP should offer the option of rest and relaxation, instead of making students feel they have to take classes for credit and get ahead. "I am against having and General Institute Requirements because its just another chance to indulge in pain," said David P. Carroll '91.

Those in favor of offering General Institute Requirements felt there was no reason to ban the option if faculty members thought that the material could be covered in three-and-a-half weeks. One student noted that more credit classes may in fact serve as an incentive to bring more students back.

Another student noted that adding classes for credit has already brought more students back. Mar seems to agree with this, noting in an article published in this month's Faculty Newsletter that the two-year experiment's plan to increase the number of credit classes "will show some modicum of success."

Angela M. Polen '90 believed that the intensity of credit classes over IAP was beneficial. She argued that since students focus attention on only one class during IAP, it provides an all-absorbing experience. Along similar lines, Merritt noted that any class offered during IAP would be a unique learning experience regardless of whether or not it is offered as a requirement-satisfying course during the regular terms.

Freedom and creativity

All three faculty members on the IAPPC at the forum seemed to agree that the dedication students had toward their IAP educational experiences was lacking. Merritt argued that the original reasoning behind having an interim period was no longer valid and that the current "vacation" rationale, as he viewed it, would not hold up much longer.

Noting that part of tuition revenue goes to finance IAP, Mar suggested that IAP should be eliminated altogether if students treated it as an extended vacation.

Some questioned the validity of the assumptions many of the IAPPC members made when advocating increased involvement and more credit courses.

One faculty member felt that IAP should foster creativity and freedom for personal educational experiences. "I think you're going down the wrong track," he told the committee members. "People who want to innovate and create" want less structure and fewer restrictions.

Along similar lines, a freshman in the audience said that MIT students are typically endowed with enormous creative potential. "We need to create an environment for students to meet faculty [and] build their imagination," he said.