Upgrade for Undergrad Instruction

In a break from most elite research institutions, Stanford invests heavily in effort to encourage faculty to develop new undergraduate courses.
July 1, 2011

Top-flight research universities are not typically thought of as the most likely providers of intimate, student-centered undergraduate education. At these institutions, which rely on graduate students to conduct much of the interaction with undergraduates, introductory courses aren't known for innovative teaching of freshly mined content.

Stanford University is trying to change that paradigm with the creation of a new Faculty College, which brought together some two dozen faculty members last month to think about how they might design new courses and programs.

The idea of the college, says Harry J. Elam, Jr., Stanford’s vice provost for undergraduate education and the administrator who is leading the effort, is to give faculty members from different disciplines a deliberate and fully supported venue to design new courses for undergraduates. Over the next several months, six teams of faculty members will develop different projects ranging from a single interdisciplinary class or series of courses to new programs within a department or across different majors.

The larger objective, said Elam, is to place increased emphasis on the teaching and learning of undergraduates, and for faculty members to bring the subjects of their research and their latest thinking about their fields into undergraduate classrooms. “What Stanford is trying to do with undergraduate education is have the best of both worlds: to have the space where we can have undergraduates working on research, but also have a small classroom experience with the kind of liberal education experience you would get from a small college,” said Elam.

At the same time, Stanford’s labor-intensive and expensive effort to upgrade its undergraduate curriculum (Elam declined to say exactly how much the project would cost, but didn’t dispute the contention that it would be pricey) is far from new. Portland State University redesigned its general education curriculum so that material can be conveyed through a series of interdisciplinary courses. Indiana University at Bloomington has for several years run a Freshman Learning Project, which shepherds faculty members through a program designed to help them better understand and address the barriers preventing their students from succeeding in introductory classes.

Although Stanford’s Faculty College is not novel, observers said it is unusual for an elite research university to invest in improving undergraduate learning to this extent. “This is interesting and encouraging,” Terrel Rhodes, vice president for the Office of Quality, Curriculum and Assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said in an e-mail. “Examples are probably fewer at R-1s than elsewhere… [it] points to the innovative work now happening everywhere.”

The learning experience of undergraduates is not a new interest at Stanford, where the Introductory Seminars are renowned for giving freshmen and sophomores the opportunity to take small classes with some of the university’s top professors. Still, the Faculty College struck John N. Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, as a new and notable development for two reasons: the courses being created span a wide range of disciplines, and -- because the effort will draw upon a large number of faculty members -- it marks a clear commitment by the university to undergraduate teaching. “Team-taught courses are exceptionally labor-intensive when properly executed,” said Gardner. “This just goes to show what a really wealthy university can do when it decides to use its wealth in this manner.”

Stanford’s administration is offering faculty members incentives to participate in the Faculty College. Beyond the release time that colleges typically provide, Stanford also is giving participating faculty an $8,500 honorarium per year, money for books and supplies, increased access to experts at the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning and a student research assistant to help pull together material.

“We want our tenured faculty teaching undergrads,” said Elam. “We want them to see that undergraduate teaching is not antithetical but central to the mission of the university.”

Administrators also sat in on the morning portion of the Faculty College's first meeting, which underscored the value that the institution was placing on the idea, said Debra Satz, Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, professor of philosophy and senior associate dean for the humanities and arts. "The school is behind us," she said. "It’s just a feeling that there’s a lot of people really pushing for this to work."

Several of those in attendance at the meeting said that faculty members were particularly energized by sharing ideas across disciplines and talking about teaching. They will be developing six different projects -- many of which were already percolating among professors, but which administrators chose to be incubated by the college.

The ideas are: an interdisciplinary team-taught course, Ethics of War, which combines political science, law, philosophy, child health and medicine and international relations; a new, three-quarter sequence of core courses combining cultures and languages, which will be called the division of literatures, cultures and languages; an electrical and environmental engineering track of courses; an interdisciplinary course called “Social Animals, Social Revolutions and Social Networks,” combining the work of faculty in French, Italian, biology and computer science; an effort to integrate the teaching of design into multiple classes offered by the department of bioengineering; and an arts-based program with both residential and classroom components that will help meet freshman year requirements.

The Faculty College is valuable in that it will give faculty members the opportunity to dramatically rethink their approach to courses, said Hans Ulrich "Sepp" Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature in the departments of comparative Literature, of French and Italian and of Spanish and Portuguese; he is one of the faculty members working on the new division of literatures, cultures and languages.

Gumbrecht, who has taught at Stanford for 22 years, said he was intrigued to have the chance to explore some of his current research on 13th-century Toledo, Spain in the context of an undergraduate course -- and to teach this more specialized and focused area of study to freshmen instead of a general survey course. “It is not this kind of setting out and making it easy and palatable for the incoming freshmen,” he said. “Give them something challenging and difficult.”

When asked whether it was ultimately good for undergraduates, particularly freshmen and sophomores, to focus on a narrow topic rather than get a broad-based view of a subject, Gumbrecht described the differing results that are likely to emerge from, for example, teaching the Renaissance versus delving more deeply into Shakespearean sonnets. "If I can look back and say there were 30 kids who, for the first time realized how fabulous it can be to read a literary text -- and they’ll go back from time to time to read it, that’s a good year for me," he said. "That’s better than me saying, 'Now all my kids know who Elizabeth I was.' "

Proof of whether the Faculty College is successful will be measured in several ways, said Elam. Stanford will take stock of the courses and programs the college produces, monitor the interest among other faculty in taking part in the college in future years, and solicit feedback from students.


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