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Senate not interested in more culture wars

STANFORD -- Round One of the Faculty Senate's discussion on whether to change Stanford's culture core requirement produced a consensus that Stanford does not want to engage in more “culture wars.”

Little else was agreed upon, however, and the matter was referred back to the senate Steering Committee, which will meet Wednesday, Feb. 15, to determine whether a specific proposal can be developed. The issue will return for further senate consideration, perhaps as early as the next meeting on Feb. 23.

During an hour-long discussion Thursday, Feb. 9, senators expressed little enthusiasm for reopening debates that led to creation of the Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program in 1988 and two complementary distribution requirements - world cultures and American cultures - in 1990.

The meeting marked the senate's first consideration of a proposal from the Commission on Undergraduate Education to revamp CIV and to fold world cultures and American cultures into it.

Based on the senate discussion and behind-the-scenes efforts at compromise by various humanities faculty members, a possible outcome may be to repair recognized problems with CIV and to certify that it could be used to fulfill a second distribution requirement.

Presentations by four speakers, arranged for by the Steering Committee, took up about three-quarters of the hour allotted for the discussion.

History Professor James Sheehan, who chaired the year- long study of undergraduate education, opened the discussion, saying that no issue had been more difficult for the commission than coming to terms with CIV and the distribution requirements.

Sheehan said he hoped that the debate over CIV's content, direction and possible failings would not distract from the "very central importance of this course."

On the other hand, the commission believed strongly that the number of distribution requirements should be reduced, he said. The first place to look for such a reduction was in the culture core, where the goals of CIV overlap with the goals of American cultures and world cultures, he said.

Sheehan expressed concern that too little is known about the effectiveness of Stanford's curriculum or about how students view the requirements placed on them.

He reiterated points made in the commission's October report: After six months of discussion with students, the commission identified significant difficulties with CIV. Some of these relate to the diversity of the tracks, "which seemed to the students to be so different that it was difficult for them to see how they could all be fulfilling the same requirement." Students also criticized uneven work load and grading.

He said he worried that the diversity in the program "really does open up a big legitimacy gap. And I find that very worrisome."

The commission tried to suggest what a new CIV program might look like, Sheehan said, but he admitted he might be the only person at Stanford who thought its proposal was a good idea.

Defending the program, history Professor Paul Seaver, director of CIV, discussed the criticism that CIV needs to establish more of a "common intellectual experience."

One problem CIV faces is that there is no substantial agreement on how to teach or define culture, Seaver said. The only way to achieve commonality is to have a course taught by a single discipline, as with the History Department's Western Civilization course from 1935 to 1969, he said.

As long as the course is to be taught by a number of disciplines, ranging from anthropology to history to English literature, plus interdisciplinary tracks, "we're going to have a problem trying to arrive at any notion of a common take on culture and on how it's going to be introduced to freshmen," he said.

The university perhaps should be more "up-front" with freshmen about the fact that the nine CIV tracks are "quite different courses, despite some common reading,” he said.

On the issue of distribution requirements, Seaver said it probably would be possible to fold one additional distribution requirement - but not two - into CIV.

Seaver said he supported a recommendation by the commission that transfer students should not be forced to take CIV; an earlier proposal to this effect was rejected by the Faculty Senate in May 1992. Seaver said "this is primarily a freshman course and transfers do not fit into it well."

In the third presentation, economics Professor Roger Noll said it probably is not useful to spend much time second-guessing details such as work load in CIV tracks because of an inherent conflict between "a communal view of what ought to be going on and the academic freedom of the individual instructor."

He said Stanford should have a more fluid and open definition of what satisfies its distribution requirements. Noll said he had studied course catalogs from other schools and discovered that while it is extremely common to have distribution requirements, "it is extremely uncommon to have highly detailed specifications of which courses satisfy them."

Instead of forcing students into many introductory courses, the university should allow students to pick subjects and learn about them in depth, he said.

In the final presentation, Mary Pratt, professor of Spanish and comparative literature and director of the CIV track "Europe and the Americas," said she has not heard any significant support for the recommendation to "download world cultures and American cultures onto CIV."

Along with the gender requirement, world cultures and American cultures were carefully thought out over a two-year period, she said. "There was a sense that those requirements did crucial things that CIV was never intended to do," she said.

For many faculty, there is a contradiction in the commission's "demand for more cohesion and consistency on the one hand and the idea of downloading two more requirements onto that course."

Pratt said that the idea of having CIV satisfy a second distribution requirement is appealing because it could reduce redundancy.

On the subject of "common intellectual experience," Pratt said part of the character and originality of CIV has been the diversity of materials and methodologies among the tracks.

She said the university has been committed to courses that are not anchored and monopolized by European high culture. As new tracks emerge that are more unlike the traditional curriculum, "people start to panic and there's a sense of something out of control."

During the discussion that followed, faculty asked for more information on student complaints about CIV.

In response to a question from Brad Efron, statistics, about what students say about CIV in the annual senior survey, Sheehan said he had pored over many senior surveys and found them not very useful.

He also said that eight focus groups had been convened by the commission and members had attended 20 dorm meetings to talk with students. Nevertheless, "I don't pretend that I have the kind of data that will resolve this [issue about student attitudes].”

Regarding diversity of experience, Denis Phillips, education, said that "we have to remember that any two faculty members teaching an identical topic at Stanford will end up doing it differently."

He was less concerned than some others about student opinion regarding CIV. He estimated that approximately 20 percent of students would not like CIV just because the requirement keeps them from taking other courses they might prefer.

The CIV tracks utilize "incredibly sophisticated essay and exam questions" that are difficult for freshmen, Phillips said. Rather than put too much emphasis on what students say about the program in focus groups, it might be better to track how students' analytical and writing skills develop from fall quarter to spring.

Phillips, who teaches in the “Philosophy and Human Existence” track, said he has observed that the personal growth "is quite impressive," even among students who do not particularly like CIV.

Speaking against CIV, John Brauman, chemistry, said students ought to take humanities courses - "that's what education is all about" - but he said he would favor a simpler system that just prescribed a particular number of courses. "Let's forget about tracks and forget about themes and things like that," he said.

Regenia Gagnier, English and modern thought and literature, asked that the senate listen to proposals being developed by humanities faculty "before we start having to make the kinds of broad justifications to Brauman that we did make in 1987 and 1990."

The senate can then decide, she said, whether to "open up a new culture war" or whether to settle the issue through ordinary channels.

She was alluding to a resolution adopted by the Humanities and Sciences Council on Feb. 2 that would charge the Area 1 Committee to resolve issues of "grading, work load and a common intellectual experience across the CIV tracks." The council also suggested that each CIV track be certified as fulfilling one of five other requirements: world cultures, American cultures, gender studies, humanities or social sciences.

The specifics of those recommendations were not discussed.

Responding to Gagnier, Amos Tversky, psychology, said the senate should not be bound by decisions it made in 1988 and 1990. Many objections have been raised to the addition of two distribution requirements in 1990, although "I'm not suggesting that we reopen the discussion," he said.

Rob Polhemus, English, suggested that the senate develop a compromise that will preserve CIV but shrink the number of distribution requirements.

As for the earlier culture wars, the solution "was not a victory, it was an armistice," Polhemus said.

"It's all compromise here. It you're going to have a war, you have to find a way to end that war," he said. "And that's what CIV is."

Calling that a suitable closing, senate chair Robert Simoni sought and received a motion to adjourn at 4:30 p.m.

Senators then accompanied President Gerhard Casper to a Law School lounge for a closed session.



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