Perfecting the Freshman Year
The recent plans for an "Educational Design Project," as expressed by Dean for Undergraduate Curriculum Kip V. Hodges PhD '82, suggest that the administration would like to make major changes to the freshman year. The Tech feels that many of Hodges' proposed changes will be detrimental, decreasing the overall quality of an MIT education.
Hodges has asserted that freshmen experience "too much pace and pressure." While the Institute could take measures to decrease the stress of the freshman year, decreasing the amount of class material presented to freshmen will not be an improvement. If freshman class material is dumbed-down, as Hodges seems to advocate, freshmen will have an even more difficult time adjusting to their sophomore and later years than they already do.
To reduce the stress of the freshman year, MIT should take more concrete steps to schedule freshman class exams in different weeks. If the professors responsible are incapable of doing this on their own, the administration should establish an exam schedule for these classes that ensures that most freshmen have their exams spread out over the term, rather than clustered together.
Freshman advising is also currently in a very poor state. Freshman advisers receive only a half a day of training, which is not sufficient. The advisers should go through more extensive preparation, and the Institute should offer more substantive rewards for being a freshman adviser.
Upperclass associate advisers provide a valuable service to their advisees. However, they also present some problems. This year, MIT wanted to require that Orientation group leaders be freshman advisers. Since Orientation group leader positions are traditionally coveted for rush purposes, this may have induced some people to become associate advisers for totally wrong reasons. The position of associate adviser should not be tied to any other conditions to avoid this kind of conflict of interest. The presence of associate advisers also makes it easier for the actual advisers to take a more passive role, creating an undesirable buffer between students and their advisers.
While we recognize that staff members can provide a valuable service by adding to the diversity of freshman seminar topics, we feel that the academic advising should be done entirely by professors. In the past, some advising seminars were structured with a staff member presenting the academic material, and a faculty member interested in that material serving as an adviser to the students. This is precisely the sort of arrangement that maximizes the usefulness of the freshman seminar program.
Giving all freshmen a faculty member as an adviser would help bridge the gap that exists between students and faculty. Many freshmen enter MIT with the impression that professors are inaccessible. Making all freshman advisers faculty would be an important step toward fixing this situation. Moreover, faculty members are more knowledgeable about actual classes than most staff members. This familiarity with academics is central to advising.
In many cases, freshman advisers are not familiar with all the courses that their advisees are taking, since they may lie far from the advisers' fields of study. The Institute needs to establish a policy by which freshmen can get advice from professors in any department. Each department should establish one or more faculty members as resources for freshmen. While many departments have this informally, it needs to be institutionalized and organized all across MIT. When a freshman has questions that his adviser can't answer, the adviser should assist them in contacting the designated professor from the appropriate department. This additional resource would allow many freshmen to make better-informed choices about their classes.
While a re-examination of the freshman year is valuable, we fear that MIT will make the wrong changes, decreasing the rigor of core classes and leaving some serious problems untouched.