Thinking Small

A new set of programs for freshmen and sophomores embraces seminar-style learning. Dubbed Stanford Introductory Studies, the curriculum reforms are based on a simple truth: bigger is not always better.

September/October 1999

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Thinking Small

Photo: Jenny Thomas

Diane Middlebrook strides into a seminar room in a navy pin-striped pantsuit, perches on a chair at the head of the conference table and opens a well-thumbed copy of Metamorphoses. The English professor and bestselling author could probably recite much of Ovid's epic poem from memory -- she's studied it for close to three decades and just signed a deal to write a book on it for Penguin. Even so, she relishes this chance to revisit the words, tease out new insights and see what her seminar students find in the 2,000-year-old text.

The scholars joining her, though, are a somewhat surprising group. The seven students are bright and well-prepared, but baby-faced and clearly testing the waters of academia. One young woman sprinkles her observations on deconstructionism with "likes" and "ums." A male colleague with Jason Priestley sideburns is wearing a Spice Girls T-shirt and a Stanford baseball cap propped backward on his head. And they aren't afraid to laugh. When Middlebrook asks the students to choose a category of criticism to use in a paper, another young man says, "I'll take Marxist for $300." Unsure if the professor understands his allusion, he jumps in again: "I was making a Jeopardy! joke." These are freshmen, chewing on this work for the first time with one of the nation's leading literary thinkers.

It's a scene that would astonish alumni who graduated just 10 years ago. Back then, freshmen might have caught a glimpse of Middlebrook on a faraway podium during a lecture or in the English department hallway chatting with graduate students. But it was nearly unheard of for a renowned professor to spend three hours a week with a small group of 18-year-olds. Students today say they appreciate the interaction. "We studied a text that has been examined and reexamined for thousands of years," says Erica Platt, a junior who took Middlebrook's seminar in her freshman year. "It should seem ancient, and, well, perhaps like Latin itself, dead. But Professor Middlebrook really impresses on her students that Ovid's poem [is] fresh and modern. It left me with the sense that the conversation about Ovid never really ends."

If recent reforms stick, this sort of give-and-take between young students and tenured or tenure-track faculty soon will be a core of Stanford's curriculum. Since 1995, Stanford has been revamping its undergraduate offerings, particularly at the freshman and sophomore levels. This year, freshmen can choose from 119 Freshman Seminars limited to 16 students each; sophomores from 99 Sophomore Seminars (limit: 12) and 26 Sophomore Dialogues (limit: 5). Meanwhile, more than 400 second-year students will enroll in Sophomore College, an intensive two-week residential academic program held just before the start of fall quarter. This September, Sophomore College offers 36 different courses.

The overall goal, administrators say, is to make it possible for every first- and second-year student to take at least one seminar-style course with senior faculty. Progress has been swift. Five years ago, fewer than 20 percent of underclassmen were enrolled in such a course. Last year, approximately three-quarters were, according to an estimate by Ramón Saldívar, an English professor who just completed a five-year stint as Stanford's first-ever vice provost for undergraduate education. "We aren't asking students to sit and listen," says Saldívar. "We want them to engage in the knowledge process."

Undergrad Overhaul

Known as Stanford Introductory Studies, a series of new programs are designed to create intellectual excitement and personalize the first two years of college.

Freshman Seminars, Sophomore Seminars Senior faculty teach underclassmen in small-group setting; 244 courses offered this year

Sophomore College Twelve students and a professor meet daily for two weeks before fall quarter begins

Science, Math and Engineering Core Hands-on science faculty team-teaches techie topics to non-science students

Introduction to Humanities This theme-based sequence satisfies the required year of humanities work

Large Introductory Course Project Teaching assistants in intro econ, math and chem courses get special training

Freshman/Sophomore College A holistic live-and-learn experiment offers dinners with faculty and special speakers in a new type of dorm

Summer Honors College Seniors working on a thesis spend two weeks together before fall quarter (technically not a part of SIS)

The changes to the curriculum are the centerpiece of a new program called Stanford Introductory Studies (SIS). With SIS, the University seeks to create the experience of a small college like Swarthmore or Amherst within a major research university. (See box.) President Gerhard Casper has made these reforms his top academic priority. In an interview with Stanford in early July, Casper cited a Chinese proverb: " 'If you want to plan for a week, grow rice. If you want to plan for a decade, grow trees. If you want to plan for a century, grow men and women.' There is nothing more important for growing men and women than undergraduate education."

The notion of seminars for undergraduate students is nothing new. At Stanford, there have been on-again off-again campaigns to increase the number and quality of small courses for underclassmen. What makes this effort different, says Casper, is that the goal is to change not just the number of entries in the course catalog but the core philosophy behind undergraduate education. "This is a pretty radical way of rethinking the role of undergraduates in the University," he says. "What we are saying is we would like to treat even freshmen, even sophomores, not as pupils but as apprentices, as people who already have something to contribute to the enterprise."

Hand-wringing over the dearth of student-faculty interaction is a perennial on campus, as hardy as discussions about tenure and parking. In the early 1950s, Stanford asked two young professors to explore the issue with an eye toward improving undergraduate teaching and increasing student motivation. After their two-year study, Robert Hoopes (English) and Hubert Marshall (political science) concluded that smaller classes and more student-faculty interaction were key to building a better undergraduate experience. Marshall, now professor emeritus, recalls that the report led to the creation of special colloquia for seniors. But the offerings gradually disappeared, probably -- Marshall speculates -- as time-pressured faculty struggled to balance teaching and research demands.

About a decade later, in 1968, came the 10-volume Study of Education at Stanford. It called for putting many more senior faculty into direct contact with freshmen. In particular, the authors suggested supplementing the new freshman seminar program with small tutorials taught by top faculty. By 1972, more than half of the freshman class was enrolled in one or more seminars.

But again, within a decade, those small classes were mostly gone. Al Hastorf, a psychology professor and administrator from 1961-90, recalls the pattern: the University adds more undergraduate seminars to the curriculum only to see them fall by the wayside as professors refocus on research. "I don't think there is a specific explanation for why these reforms fade out," says Hastorf, now professor emeritus, who last winter taught a Sophomore Dialogue. One reason, he says, may be that teaching small classes to undergraduates is "not built into the psyche of senior faculty. It has historically not been their role." When he stepped down as provost in 1984 after a four-year term, Hastorf told Campus Report that the University needed more small seminars -- though he warned of the costs: "Stanford has many ambitions, but the biggest is for a renaissance of undergraduate education. That will mean considerable new resources. It will be expensive."

So when Casper became president in 1992, he inherited a University that had repeatedly tried to foster interaction between undergraduates and senior faculty, but had failed to make the programs last. In October 1993, Casper appointed the Commission on Undergraduate Education to conduct a comprehensive review of how Stanford's youngest students learn. His goal: make the four undergraduate years more coherent and rigorous. In the fall of 1994, commission chair James Sheehan, '58, the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, presented the group's findings, noting areas of success but also some "worrisome patterns." The report said that students who found mentors, designed their own research projects and worked closely with faculty enjoyed a highly rewarding Stanford experience. But, Sheehan wrote, "a minority of students seem to remain largely untouched by the University's academic enterprise. While they may be satisfied with their time at Stanford, their academic experiences are not a major ingredient in this satisfaction."

Casper embraced the report. "What the commission has done is very innovative, is very rigorous and is a sharp departure from our present approach," he said in October 1994. He made the 64-page report a blueprint for change. Since then the University has beefed up the foreign language requirement, tightened grading policies, and re-engineered and renamed the freshman humanities sequence. Administrators also initiated the Science, Math and Engineering Core (see "A New Spin on Science," March/April 1999) to help get nontechnical undergrads excited about techie topics.

But the biggest lesson Stanford has drawn from the 1994 report is that professors -- not just teaching assistants and lecturers -- should teach small groups of undergraduates. Among the seminar options for freshmen and sophomores last year: The Economics of the Federal Budget, From Chips to Genes: Engineering the Microworld; and Modern Stars and Medieval Saints. Many, like Oldies but Goodies in Pop Self-Help Psychology, focus on fun and fascinating topics that would never get attention in a traditional lecture course. Some -- including history professor Clay Carson's seminar on the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project -- allow students to learn from scholars whose research is featured in the national news.

If history shows how difficult it is to make these programs stick, the question has to be asked: why bother? One reason is that students are clamoring for this sort of seminar experience. When the University's office of market research surveyed 498 juniors and seniors last spring -- students who already were upperclassmen before the course offerings mushroomed -- 30 percent said they were distressed by the paucity of seminars available to them. More than half said no professor knows them very well. That means inadequate faculty guidance when it comes to choosing a major, doing research or preparing for graduate school -- not to mention a dearth of options when searching for academic references. Jamie Whitehurst, '99, says she had "zero" one-on-one contact with faculty and admits she would be hard-pressed to identify professors to write recommendations on her behalf. "Maybe it would be possible to scrounge up one teacher who really knew me, but two seems impossible," says Whitehurst.

Professors believe that students who take these seminars will grow quickly to appreciate rigorous scholarship. "Don't forget that freshmen will be here for four years," says Bing Professor of Human Biology William Durham, '71. "If you do this developmental work, that freshman will be the best senior you've ever had." And professors themselves can benefit from a closer relationship with their students. Certainly, there were times during her seminar on Metamorphoses when Middlebrook assumed the typical professorial role, sticking to a class plan and even, some students complained, dominating the discussions. But there were times, too, when she grew excited as she discovered with her students something new in the text. During those moments, the people in the room seemed to be colleagues, not teacher and pupils.

The seminars also can help Stanford recruit top students. The brightest high school seniors demand meaningful contact with faculty. Their parents want to know -- before they plunk down $30,000 a year -- that the big-name professors actually will be invested in their kid's education. Of course, Stanford has a surfeit of top applicants each year, but admission officers are always concerned about increasing the yield -- the percentage of those admitted who choose to attend. Dean of Undergraduate Admission Robert Kinnally believes recent reforms are part of the reason the yield has jumped -- from 54 percent in 1994 to 65 percent this year. His office emphasizes the University's commitment to undergraduate education in its brochures and public presentations.

Finally, what happens to freshmen and sophomores in the classroom builds the foundation for their attitudes about Stanford in years to come. Nearly every survey done by the University shows that students who had real contact with professors and felt valued by them as individuals are, after graduation, likely to be most satisfied with their Stanford experience. That leads to more engaged, interested -- and, yes, generous -- alumni.

During his freshman year, Forrest Fleischman took a 100-student economics course and a 250-person chemistry class. He balanced the large lectures with a 14-person seminar called The Technical Aspects of Photography, which was taught by Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and amateur photographer) Douglas Osheroff. "I was really inspired by the class," says Fleischman, who spent a chunk of his savings on a pricey camera after the seminar ended. "It's a great experience to get to know a professor in an area that's not his research but just something he likes a lot. . . . It feels like a more permanent connection."

It was such a great experience, in fact, that Fleischman applied for several courses in this year's Sophomore College, the two-week academic program in September. But he and hundreds of his classmates were turned away. This year there were 2,076 applications for 432 spots (students can apply for up to three classes, although they only take one). Those who are accepted cut short their summer vacations and come to campus prior to the start of fall quarter. They live together in the dorms, spend two hours or so each day in an intensive 12-person seminar with a faculty member and do related coursework. Most of the classes count for one or two units, and the University underwrites the entire cost of the program, including dorm accommodations and food service.

For some students, these two weeks are an academic watershed. Rachel Brunette, '99, was inspired to write an honors thesis on Peruvian immigrant workers in Japan, a topic she started thinking about during a Sophomore College orientation session on undergraduate research opportunities. Wendy Wright, '98, got turned on to materials science in a class called Building the Future: Invention and Innovation with Engineering Materials. Now she's enrolled here in the materials science PhD program. Charlene Chen, '01, became a research assistant in the lab of her Sophomore College professor, Pat Jones. "I had never approached a professor before," Chen says. After the seminar, "it was much less intimidating."

This fall, the University begins an experiment to push these undergraduate teaching reforms beyond the classroom. A pilot program -- dubbed the Freshman/Sophomore College and located in two of the four dorms in Sterling Quad -- will house 180 freshmen and sophomores who seek more regular interaction with faculty members. Though there's no formal coursework required, the plan calls for bringing in professors to chat with students over dinner and in after-hours discussions about what sparked their interests in various fields. The notion plays off the long tradition of residential colleges at Eastern universities, but focuses on underclassmen because they are still figuring out what to study. Materials science professor John Bravman, '79, MS '81, PhD '85, who in July was named to succeed Saldívar as vice provost for undergraduate education, will serve as dean of the college and live in a house adjacent to Sterling Quad.

University administrators are painfully aware of the spotty history of some SIS predecessors. Ask them what will make the reforms work this time and one refrain rings out: money. Seminars, it seems, don't come cheap. Course materials must be purchased. Dorms and food service have to open early for Sophomore College and Summer Honors College. There are management and technology costs associated with computerized sign-ups for 244 seminar offerings this year. Mostly, there's the price of new faculty. To encourage senior professors to teach seminars aimed at underclassmen, the University is making available new faculty positions -- called "billets" in academic argot -- to departments that participate. To offer more than 100 Freshman Seminars, Stanford is adding 20 billets.

Part of the price tag is offset by resources reallocated from less cost-effective programs. (That may spell the end, for example, of a professor's cherished seminar that for years has attracted only three students annually.) Even so, the University is spending nearly $5 million more on freshman and sophomore seminar-style courses this year than it did five years ago -- and another $6 million annually on new or revamped programs like Introduction to Humanities, the Science Core, Freshman/Sophomore College and the Large Introductory Course Project. Committed to insulating SIS from budgetary cycles, administrators hope to use endowed funds to make it a permanent feature of the Stanford experience. With the endowment providing a 5 percent payout rate, that means raising $100 million to provide the $5 million in new seminar spending -- or $220 million to cover the overall $11 million.

Beyond dollars, reformers are battling a historic tension between research and teaching. Faculty at elite universities face a struggle: how to balance educating undergraduates with the imperative for top-notch research. Compounding the problem is the fact that research brings in big federal grants and that the publish-or-perish mentality is far from dead. In his new book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change Without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990, professor of education Larry Cuban, PhD '74, argues that it's hard for teaching reforms to stick at Stanford and elsewhere because, good intentions notwithstanding, research always dominates. "They were hired to do research but paid to teach; then they were retained or fired on the basis of published scholarship," he writes.

At the same time, some have raised questions about the difficulty of maintaining quality in all these seminars. Mark Mancall, a history professor who directs Stanford's interdisciplinary Structured Liberal Education program (SLE) and taught a Sophomore Seminar, worries the reforms may emphasize style over substance. What's needed, Mancall says, is a more consistent and demanding curriculum for all students. He notes that SLE, in which freshmen live together and study common texts, has survived 25 years -- far longer than most education reforms. Some students echo the concern. Though Fleischman, a SLE alum, says he quite enjoyed his Freshman Seminars, he adds: "SLE is teaching you a large comprehensive thing that fits together. The Freshman Seminars are almost gimmicky -- let's go to Death Valley, let's play with cameras."

The real impact of the reforms may not be obvious for another couple of years. By then, nearly all students should have experienced the level of intellectual intimacy that SIS envisions. "We haven't really fully felt the repercussions," Saldívar says, "what things are like when students expect interaction, when they reach their junior year bringing those expectations and norms."

Hastorf, the former provost who has seen a lot of reforms come and go, is optimistic about the latest campaign. Even if the seminars don't endure, he says, they will put a spotlight on undergraduate education. "I think SIS is a little bit like [Thomas] Jefferson on revolution. He said, 'A little bit of revolution now and then is not a bad idea.' Well, the notion of people engaging in this sort of experiment is not a bad thing."

For Casper, an expert on the founding fathers, the reference to Jefferson may be apt. In truth, Casper has been sowing the seeds of this revolution since his first years at Stanford. When it came time in 1997 to tote up the most important initiatives of his first five years, he listed the Commission on Undergraduate Education and SIS first. In his recent summer letter to all alumni, he outlined the reforms and wrote: "I do not know of any other research-intensive university that has, in a similarly short period of time, undertaken as great an allocation and reallocation of resources to enhance undergraduate teaching. I believe these programs help position Stanford to offer the best undergraduate education available anywhere." Now beginning his eighth year as president, Casper knows that these reforms may stand as his most lasting accomplishment at Stanford.

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