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Faculty debates change to communication requirement at meeting

Virtually the entire faculty meeting on February 16 was devoted to the final report of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement.

The subcommittee has proposed that starting with the Class of 2005 (which enters in the fall of 2001), students should be required to take communications-intensive courses in each of their undergraduate years. These courses should be taken in the School of Humanities and Social Science during the first two years and in the student's major during the junior and senior years. The courses should include practice in writing and speaking.

The faculty meeting discussion included about an hour of intensive discussion of three amendments offered by Professor Ruth Perry of literature, a subcommittee member.

Professor Gene M. Brown of biology, co-chair of the subcommittee, briefed faculty in attendance on the report. During his presentation, he noted that he opposed the amendments. All three were rejected by a majority vote.

The subcommittee was formed in 1997 to evaluate model programs designed to offer a variety of communications experiences throughout an undergraduate's career. The subcommittee talked with faculty in all departments in an effort to determine whether appropriate communication activities already existed or could be modified to meet the goals of the requirement, Professor Brown said. "We were surprised and pleased that these meetings went so well," he said.

In addition, members of the subcommittee discussed the issues with many students. "I talked with dozens of undergraduates myself," all of whom were "enthusiastic about the notion of getting such training as undergraduates," said Professor Brown.

He cited several successful pilot projects, including tutorials on mechanical engineering, biology and physics. He also mentioned 6.021J (Quantitative Physiology: Cells and Tissues), the Biology Project Laboratory, and student capstone research journals in biology and mathematics. He noted that the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics had already done an excellent job of integrating communication intensive courses into its curriculum. This department "is right up to where it ought to be already," he said.

The first amendment offered by Professor Perry would have required freshmen or sophomores to take at least one communications-intensive class with a maximum enrollment of 18 taught by a faculty member or lecturer. She argued that it was hard to learn to write in a lecture course. Faculty who spoke in favor of the change included Professors Peter S. Donaldson, John Hildebidle and Diana Henderson. Those in opposition included Professors Brown, Steven Pinker, Pauline R. Maier, Dean Rosalind H. Williams (speaking as a the Metcalfe Professor of Writing), Chair of the Faculty Steven R. Lerman, and Dean Philip S. Khoury of the School of Humanities and Social Science (which becomes the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in 2000-01).

Professor Perry's second amendment would have added reading to the requirement for classes that offer instruction in writing and speaking. The change was supported by Professor James Buzard, Senior Lecturer Jeffrey A. Meldman and sophomore Rima Arnaout, an editor for The Tech and the undergraduate representative on the Faculty Policy Committee. Those who spoke in opposition included Professors Lerman, Steven R. Hall, Robert L. Jaffe, Paul T. Matsudaira, Langley C. Keyes (co-chair of the committee) and Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow, who as chair of the faculty in 1997 wrote the motion that created the subcommittee.

Professor Perry's third amendment would have added the head of the literature section or a designated representative to the CUP subcommittee that will oversee the requirement. It was rejected without discussion.

Discussion of two other agenda items, the new Junior Faculty Research Leave Program (see related article) and conflict of interest policies, was postponed until the March 15 faculty meeting, when faculty will vote on whether to accept the recommendations of the final report on the Communication Requirement.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 2000.

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