The MIT faculty will vote on a proposal to change the General Institute Requirements at the faculty meeting this Wednesday. Professors’ opinions and concerns about the proposed changes vary widely, and many may never be discussed on the meeting room floor before the vote happens. Despite these concerns. most professors will probably vote in favor of the proposal because they support the plan’s general goals.
The changes, the first of which would affect the class of 2014, would allow for the development of new varieties of core science subjects, simplify the structure of the HASS requirement, and introduce pilot versions of new subjects in humanities and engineering design that would be geared toward freshman.
Professors interviewed by the Tech based their opinions mostly on the pieces of the proposal that would affect their departments’ subjects and trusted that their colleagues in other disciplines would evaluate other parts of the proposal appropriately.
Changes to HASS
Proposed changes to the HASS requirement would eliminate the HASS-D subject designation and instead designate all HASS subjects as either humanities, arts, or social sciences. Students would be required to take at least one subject from each category as part of their eight-subject HASS requirement.
The simplification of the HASS requirement is among the most popular elements of the proposal.
Professor Anne E. C. McCants, head of the history faculty, expressed enthusiasm about the simplification of the requirement, a sentiment common among both faculty and students: “I’d be thrilled to have the HASS-D system go away,” she said.
She criticized the current HASS-D system, saying that some of the characteristics currently required for HASS-D subjects, such as a minimum of 20 pages of writing for the semester, were redundant with the requirements of communication intensive or “CI” subjects.
She also favored increased simplicity and said of the current HASS-D requirement, “It’s confusing to the students and, believe it or not, to many of the faculty, too.” She said she thought the new distribution made sense because, “If students are going to be exposed to history, I don’t think it matters which history course they take.”
Not all professors so support the relaxing of the requirement.
History professor Pauline R. Maier, who was chair of the 1980s committee that recommended the current HASS-D requirement, said she fears that the simplified system may not force students to take a variety of subjects: “The question is how to distribute courses [among humanities, arts, and social sciences] so that there are meaningful differences between the categories. I am a bit suspicious of whether [the new system] will accomplish that.”
She expressed particular concern about the quality of the arts category. She said that subjects outside the traditional arts disciplines, such as visual art, music, and dramatic arts, might be included in the arts category for lack of enough traditional arts subjects to fill the category. She expressed concern that students might not be exposed to enough of a variety in HASS subjects if, for example, they were able to take a writing subject in the arts category and a literature class in the humanities category, since writing and literature are related disciplines. She saw a particular dearth in the visual arts offerings that might help fill the arts category.
She explained the original rationale for a more complex HASS requirement: “We often associate simplicity with elegance, but sometimes we move toward complexity because there are compelling reasons for doing it … The old proposal was a means of accommodating the available classes as they were at the time the requirement was adopted.”
McCants and Maier shared mixed reactions to the element of the proposal that would introduce broadly-themed humanities subjects geared towards freshmen, known as “First Year Foundations.”
“I’m a bit leery about splitting freshmen off from the rest of the undergraduates,” said Maier.
McCants focused on the issue of whether adding another requirement would be worthwhile: “If we offer really interesting and well-taught courses that ask important questions that students are asking about anyway, part of me feels like it doesn’t really have to be a requirement. The courses should be so good that students want to take them anyway.”
On the other hand, she said, “students are pragmatic, so why not direct them to a really great class” that they might not take otherwise.
Science, Math, and Engineering
Reactions to the science, math, and engineering portion of the GIR proposal varied as much as reactions to the humanities, arts, and social sciences, with enthusiastic support from some professors and more reluctance from others.
Professor Donald R. Sadoway, who teaches Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry (3.091), one of the subjects that satisfies the introductory chemistry requirement, said he supports the proposal to encourage the development of alternative versions of core science subjects: “I’m in favor of the proposed changes because they will open the door for greater innovation in the curriculum,” he said, “because people with fresh ideas will be able to develop classes that have a greater likelihood of gaining acceptance.”
“I think that there’s tremendous untapped opportunities for innovation in undergraduate education,” he said.
Though McCants said she was less knowledgeable about the details of the science, math, and engineering proposals, she said she liked what she had heard about the opportunity for more variety in course offerings: “I am persuaded that what is important in terms of a student’s education is content coverage rather than a specific course,” she said. “I can believe that multiple classes might be able to teach classical mechanics.”
Other professors, such as physics professor Gabriella Sciolla, who has taught both 8.02 and 8.022, are less enthusiastic about the possible changes. Sciolla said she did not see that additional flavors of fundamental science courses like physics and math were needed or would necessarily be beneficial. She said she thought that current options for satisfying the introductory physics requirement, Physics I (8.01) and Physics II (8.02), in the TEAL format, and their more theoretical counterparts, 8.012 and 8.022, were successful.
She expressed skepticism at the possibility of professors teaching introductory subjects outside their own disciplines: “Everyone should teach their own discipline. I could never teach math the same way someone who is a mathematician could teach math. And I don’t think an engineer could teach physics better than a physicist.”
Other elements of the reforms in the bill weighed less heavily on Sadoway’s and Sciolla’s minds.
Sadoway said the possible narrowing down of the number of electives satisfying the current REST requirement might place more pressure on certain departments to fit more material into their majors. He related his concerns to a fixed-volume reactor: “If you increase the mole number the pressure goes up,” he said.
Interviewed faculty shared a sense that many details of the proposed changes had yet to be worked out. Many of these details would likely get worked out in the months after the faculty vote this week, in part because the plan is multifaceted and would be difficult to discuss at full length before a vote occurs.
Maier said her concerns about the arts category in the HASS distribution would not likely be addressed at the general faculty meeting.
McCants and Sadoway said they thought they would vote for the proposal as a whole because they supported the major changes in their respective disciplines, despite their concerns about other elements of the proposal.
They also agreed that the details of the proposal would require careful working out. “The devil will be in the details,” said McCants.
“There are a lot of questions about the implementation,” said Sadoway.
Still, Sadoway’s overriding feeling was optimism about the potential the curriculum reforms would open up: “The concept that this could open the door to radical innovation in how we present the material excites me. It could mean that MIT could get out front and lead in undergraduate education.”