S. Rabbani: literary fiction, instructional articles, essays & translations
[home]         [about]         [links]


By Sahand Rabbani

From: Sahand Rabbani
Sent: Sunday, July 16, 2006 1:24 PM
To: Vice Provost John C. Bravman
Subject: On IHUM

Esteemed Vice Provost John C. Bravman,

I write to you regarding the Introduction to the Humanities program, and I thank you in advance for your consideration and time. I have been told by friends and faculty who have conversed with you that you are an approachable and amicable man, and it is for this reason that I am comfortable and confident in expressing my concerns. I understand that you and your colleagues continue to try your best to improve IHUM year after year.

Having finished my freshman year at Stanford one year ago, I have had considerable time to reflect on the three-quarter IHUM sequence. I believe that I am not alone when I say that I have been frustrated with the program. However, I write to you not in frustration, but with a genuine concern for future freshman classes.

One of my primary concerns, which several of my classmates share, is the inconsistency and apparent absence of standards in the IHUM program, not only across IHUM courses, but also across Teaching Fellows within the same course. This concern is not a new one and has been highlighted in the Spring 2001 Freshmen survey that was conducted for IHUM's mandated five-year self-study: "A large majority of the 75 students felt that there were big workload differences across the IHUM program. Though amount of reading was mentioned as a variable, the number, kind and length of writing assignments seems to have been more important" (source). I find that I can best add to this overwhelming response through anecdotes of my own:

I had been told by my Winter/Spring TF, Dr. [X], that it is possible to request a regrade for IHUM papers. In fact, he has told me that there is a sophisticated hierarchical chain on which to fall back: first, the paper is reviewed by other TFs; if there is still an issue, it goes to the professors, and then ultimately to the director of IHUM (again, according to my Winter/Spring TF). My first quarter TF Dr. [Y], on the other hand, was steadfast and unyielding, telling me specifically that he would not change my grade and that there would be no recourse. He told me that if I wanted a second opinion on my paper, I would have to make an appointment at the writing center, but that what is in the books is final. I am inclined to believe that these testimonies, Dr. [Y]'s and Dr. [X]'s, cannot be true simultaneously unless there are vastly different rules for different IHUM courses.

Furthermore, I have experienced first hand the lack of grading standards. At the beginning of Winter quarter, I had signed up for Anatomies of Change under the section of Dr. [Z]. On the first day of class, Dr. [Z] openly admitted that her grades are on the average lower than the grades of other TFs; specifically, she said that she was a "harder grader" despite efforts to standardize. At the end of section, she asked each student to state whether he/she planned to remain in that section or planned to switch out. Many students, myself included, indicated that they would petition out.

The issue of flexibility, moreover, was a prominent concern that arose in the surveys for the IHUM self-study and continues to be a pressing issue today. "Students complained that the scheduling (i.e., inflexibility) of I-Hum courses precluded them from taking courses toward majors and area requirements that they would have found more interesting (11am was mentioned specifically)" (source).

Although petitions allow for limited flexibility within the institution of IHUM, in absolute terms this flexibility simply reduces a violent blow to a harsh one. We are reminded in an email on behalf of the IHUM Program (Subject: "IHUM Spring Enrollment Process," Date: Thursday, February 24, 2005) that we must "plan [our] Spring schedules with [our] IHUM course as the centerpiece." Whether intentional or not, this statement may be interpreted such that IHUM should trump our other course selections and that it is more important than other courses we may choose to take. This sentiment is reinforced by the statement that appears in the email: "Area One, at 15 units, is the single largest component of your undergraduate degree requirements." I am discouraged, furthermore, that this 15-unit sequence is taking the place of other interesting courses that I may not have time to take at Stanford because of my ambitious desire to double-major.

I trust, however, that this statement is not meant to imply that IHUM should trump our majors or minors. Nevertheless, the imperial tone of the email epitomizes the imposing nature of IHUM. In reality, we are afforded little choice when it comes to IHUM. I certainly do understand that if a student is dissatisfied with a particular course or TF, he/she may petition to change. The fact remains, nevertheless, that IHUM not only restricts freshmen to a few courses, but restricts them, further, to which quarters they must take these courses. I understand, moreover, that IHUM is an improvement on the CIV program that it replaced, but on an absolute scale, the lack of flexibility is still a significant problem in the eyes of many Stanford freshmen.

One of the primary shortcomings of IHUM, in my opinion, is the infamous IHUM section. In fact, I have only heard the phrase "IHUM section" brought up in the most undesirable tone, suggesting that my concern is a common one. As they require people to produce comments for a significant (usually 25%) portion of their grade, IHUM sections are often characterized by forced and insincere wisdom. The idea that IHUM allows us to open our minds is lost as we know that our "ideas" feed somehow into a seemingly arbitrary grade.

I have often heard IHUM referred to as "B-HUM" because of the arbitrary distribution of marks, the opacity of IHUM grading, and the apparently inconsistent effort-to-grade transformation. I recall a conversation with my Autumn TF regarding the ambiguity in the IHUM essay grading rubric, to which my TF replied that surely the rubric has merit because it was developed by Stanford faculty. The subjectivity of the rubric seemed always to work against me: what I considered "nuanced" was "too complicated," and when I produced something "concise" it was "not nuanced enough." It seemed, almost, that my TF would generate criticisms and only attempt to justify them when I asked for clarification.

It is peculiar, moreover, that grades tend to rise every quarter, despite many testimonies from the same "improving" students who swear that they are "trying and caring less." I am reminded of the predetermined progression of grades that characterized some of my high school classes: many started out with a B and ended up with an A, almost automatically. I, too, have found my grades increasing, although I spent a significantly larger portion of my efforts on IHUM during the first quarter. I attended office hours twice, requesting guidance on the same paper, only to be dismissed by my TF with the words: "Maybe you shouldn't be spending so much time on your first paper as it's only 15% of your grade." Again, we have evidence that this is a common sentiment from the self-study surveys, which broach this recurring problem: "Students mentioned about receiving a token B on their first paper, B+ on their second, and an A- on their last paper in the Fall no matter how much work they did or did not do" (source).

Most unfortunately, in my experience I find that performance in IHUM section understates the intelligence of Stanford freshmen. I am saddened that my first interaction with many brilliant Stanford students has been in IHUM section: it is reducing us to our most vulnerable academic state, placing us in a room, and forcing us to comment on things about which many of us do not have strong feelings. I take personal offence when the university for which I have so much respect feels that this is an integral part of my education. I am severely disappointed and seek solace in the possibility that the policymakers are simply unaware of this problem and would otherwise take measures to remedy it. If policymakers are indeed aware of this, then I would be greatly disheartened that they allow it to be repeated year after year.

The source of all these problems, I feel, is the obligatory nature of IHUM: worst of all, IHUM restricts our academic choice. The purpose of higher education, as I understand it, is to expand horizons by offering choice to ambitious scholars. If IHUM were optional, then only students truly interested in it would enroll, and sections would be filled with passionate discussions. Furthermore, if IHUM were optional, then students with no interest in it would enroll in classes about which they care, increasing their happiness. This would naturally redistribute the efforts of faculty, fellows, and funding in favor of the more popular courses, increasing both the returns for faculty, fellows, and students. Our reality is far from this: frustrated TFs face glazed faces and the silvery lids of several Dell laptops as students check their email and play Solitaire, waiting for section to end. The consensus is overwhelming. My final IHUM lecture featured a 30% turnout, as my disappointed TF announced in section that day. So pathetic was the turnout, in fact, that our TF brought final course evaluations for the lecture component to our section so that the 70% of students who did not attend lecture could give their input.

The response to such poor attendance should not be stringent policies or threatening emails (this occurred in IHUM 60 Autumn quarter when one of the professors announced by email, twice, that failure to attend lectures will result in lower grades). We must adopt a policy that is friendly to the students, for, after all, is that not our primary concern? It surprises me more and more that students continually disparage IHUM but that IHUM persists in its adverse form. I accredit this, partially, to the lack of any recent democratic measures for assessing the program as a whole (not individual courses as in the Registrar's course evaluations).

One may cite the mandatory IHUM self-study (2001-03) as an attempt at assessing the successes and failures of IHUM since its establishment. Because of its emphasis on upperclassmen, for whom IHUM is a distant memory seen through rose-colored glasses and for whom future changes in the IHUM program are almost entirely irrelevant, it is less likely that they will provide pertinent feedback. The all-frosh focus group, on the other hand, for whom IHUM was a biting reality, was much less appreciative of the program as evidenced in its responses to the survey questions. A true democratic and unbiased method for examining the success or failure of IHUM would entail a combination of a campus-wide referendum with an emphasis on freshmen and the appointment of an independent commission with no vested interests in the persistence or the elimination of the program. Moreover, the conclusions that are drawn in the self-study do not seem to be consistent with much of the unfavorable feedback garnered in the surveys: that "the IHUM Program is working reasonably well" is not clear to me based on the responses in the self-study surveys (source).

Thus, we are caught in an interminable struggle between students and fellows, both trying to endure this unfavorable academic burden. I do not understand why we have chosen a policy that creates a conflict of interest: TFs and professors are interested in the material that they are presenting, but the majority of the students do not seem to be. This is depressing but entirely unnecessary. Academic choice coordinates the interests of students and faculty.

Graduating seniors tell me that the day IHUM ended (for them) was a wonderful day at Stanford. However exaggerated these statements may be, they undeniably reflect a consensus among Stanford students: IHUM is undesirable. To this day I have not been asked by the administration how I feel about IHUM. I do not believe that the IHUM Program is receiving the feedback that is required. That I feel so strongly about this, even after IHUM is over (for me), shows that my concern is genuine and considerable. When prospective freshmen asked me what I most liked about Stanford, I responded passionately that the students and faculty are stimulating and brilliant and that the environment is friendly yet challenging. However, when they asked me what I least liked about Stanford, I answered honestly that I am disappointed by the tenacity with which the stringent requirements such as IHUM are imposed. I hope that the freshmen who will enroll in Stanford next year, and students in freshmen classes for many years to come, will have as wonderful of an experience as I have had, but with the supreme academic freedom that is wanting.

Thank you, again, for your consideration and your undying efforts in improving the IHUM program. I strongly believe that my concerns are widely shared and have been, according to the IHUM self-study surveys and my observations, for at least a few years. I hope, however, that if I am mistaken, these concerns will be ignored, but that if indeed many students agree with me, IHUM will undergo significant change and liberalization. I believe, furthermore, that the only way to know for sure is through a referendum of this past year's freshmen or, preferably, through the guileless mechanism of a free market facilitated by the dissolution of the Area One requirement.

Sahand Rabbani
Department of Electrical Engineering
Department of Economics
Class of 2008

Copyright © 2011 Sahand Rabbani
All rights reserved.