New Schedule, New Math

The College adopts a new class schedule, and renews the quantitative requirement with a nod toward data science.

University Hall—the home of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where faculty meetings are heldPhotograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

At its regularly scheduled meeting this afternoon, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS):

  • adopted a new, uniform schedule for classes, beginning in 2018, anticipating the expansion of the campus across the Charles River in 2020;
  • discussed undergraduates’ exposure to a reconceived empirical and mathematical reasoning requirement under the revised Program in General Education, also effective in 2018 (and introduced a new Harvard acronym, TwD, for “Thinking with Data,” reflecting its bent toward data science); and
  • considered a further objection to the policy sanctioning College students’ membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs—the final clubs, fraternities, and sororities), which takes effect for students matriculating this coming August.

Before that business could begin, Dean Michael D. Smith announced results of the faculty’s election of members to its Faculty Council—and the embarrassing outcome that all six newly elected members are male. He pledged to “redouble our efforts” to achieve greater diversity, and asked the standing committee on women to consider improvements in the election process. The election result did produce an odd sensation, given the time FAS has had to devote this year to contending with gender-exclusive undergraduate social clubs.

The New Class Schedule

The motion to standardize instruction “around designated class start times and fixed pass times” was introduced for discussion at the March 7 meeting (see the link for a diagram of the schedule) and therefore presented for a vote now. It envisions 75-minute class blocks; lecturers need not use all the time, and seminars and labs will be accommodated by combining blocks for longer-duration teaching units. The time for passage between classes will be a set 15 minutes. Classes in Cambridge will begin at 9:00 a.m., while those in Allston–where the science and engineering facility, now under construction, will accommodate many classes in those disciplines beginning in 2020—will begin at 9:45 a.m.

The standardized start times, and offset hours on either side of the river, will make it possible to accommodate students’ transit from one part of campus to the other: a 75-minute class ending in Cambridge at 10:15 a.m. then gives way to a 15-minute standard pass time, and an 11:15 a.m. starting time for the next block in Allston: an hour to walk the footbridge and grab a coffee en route, or hop on a shuttle and wrestle one’s way through traffic.

The schedule will also “decompress” classes, which now cluster between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.—making it more likely that students can actually choose courses they wish to take, rather than finding themselves blocked out by conflicting class hours.

One amendment from the floor—that faculty members offering two-hour seminars be authorized to begin them at 9:45 a.m., rather than with the commencement of the 9:00 a.m. block in Cambridge—was adopted. (Its practical effect is nil: the seminar block extends from 9:00 a.m. until 11:45 a.m., easily accommodating a teacher who wants to conduct a two-hour seminar, who could simply advise students to gather at 9:45 a.m.)

Following that, the motion on the new schedule carried by a nearly unanimous voice vote.

The New Math

As the faculty undertook its review of general education in 2015 and 2016, it embraced a recommendation that undergraduates take four, rather than eight, gen-ed courses—but that they also be required to enroll in a newly created “College course” in empirical and mathematical reasoning. The content and shape of that course were referred to a subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy, which brought forth its “Report on a Requirement in Thinking with Data” for initial airing today.

The report, presented by Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education and subcommittee chair, was the result of an assignment to devise instruction ensuring that “students reach a level of quantitative facility involving mathematical, statistical, and computational methods that will enable them to think critically about data as it is employed in fields of inquiry across the FAS and SEAS [School of Engineering and Applied Sciences].” The resulting 18-member subcommittee of faculty members, administrators, and students took as its foundational principle that all Harvard undergraduates “should be able to understand, interpret, and manipulate the data they will encounter in their lives beyond the University, as well as comprehend the basic quantitative concepts that are essential to many academic disciplines, across all the divisions.”

The subcommittee has decided students will not be allowed to place out of the empirical and mathematical reasoning course. Thus, like Expository Writing, it will need to be designed to accommodate students who enroll with varying levels of quantitative skills (see “Here Come the Quants!”)—so “it is incumbent on the Faculty to provide a range of courses from many disciplines….” Moreover, because this is a general-education expectation, more than just facility is in play:

[T]he subcommittee members felt that while many students may have had some exposure to one or another set of skills outlined in the requirement, few, if any, incoming students will come to us with familiarity with all of the analytical and computational skills the requirement will address, not to mention engagement with the ethical and security implications of how they may work with data.

Thus, multiple courses will be required, with at least these common characteristics:

The Thinking with Data (TwD) requirement will be built around a common framework which will constitute the “arc” of the courses. The “arc” will be anchored by five verbs designed to highlight the skills that all students will develop in working with data: “Ask, Get, Analyze, Iterate, and Communicate” with consideration of ethical issues embedded in each step.

Students will interpret and interrogate data and have hands-on practice using data. The TwD requirement will teach students to understand how to pose a clearly articulated question and then think about the possibilities and limitations inherent in the data. Students will explore various methods of obtaining data…. They will collect, manipulate, and store data, learning how to select the appropriate approach for a given situation. Next, students will analyze the data using a variety of different methods…An appreciation of basic summary statistics will apply across all courses as will an ability to use and develop computational tools and data pipelines to perform such analysis. Furthermore, modern data science tools will keep the focus on the important questions to be answered rather than laborious programming tasks.…Following their analysis, students will iterate through the initial steps changing data collection methodology, statistical approach, or computational methodology until they achieve a reliable result. Finally, students will need to be able to understand their results to make decisions and communicate their findings in a responsible way.…Throughout…, students will be taught to reflect on the ethical issues surrounding collecting and using data.

Fleshing out these ambitions may require multiple new courses or shorter modules. That might present a challenge, given past experience: the 2015-2016 review of general education found that courses and course development authorized in 2007 subsequently fell victim to the financial crisis and FAS’s budget constraints, some signs of which are re-emerging now (the faculty forecasts a deficit in the coming fiscal year). Another alternative is reworking introductory departmental courses—in statistics, for instance: a burgeoning department that appears eager to reformulate its gateway classes. Finally, some advanced courses may be required for students who are already proficient in working with data, “but still could benefit from the theoretical and ethical elements” prescribed for the TwD offerings.

The report concluded with a call to establish an implementation committee, charged with mustering the resources and administrative framework to develop the required courses during the coming academic year.

Members of the faculty who rose to address the report addressed several concerns. Those from mathematics and engineering and applied sciences (which includes applied mathematics) were concerned that the proposal is too narrowly focused on data science (see this report on the University initiative in this field)—at the expense of mathematics, logic, and related disciplines per se. Among those expressing concern was Higgins professor of mathematics Joseph D. Harris, a subcommittee member, whom dean Jay Harris noted disassociated himself from its report. Some speakers also worried that finding nearly 1,700 seats annually might prove infeasible, particularly because nearly half of entering students each year require extra, attentive help in addressing even entry-level calculus. Among the issues are whether regular faculty members will teach (or adjuncts or preceptors, as in Expos), and whether sufficiently skilled teachers could be hired at a time of fiscal constraint.

Dean Harris acknowledged the concerns; he said that quantitatively oriented departmental courses might suffice for this new need, if the affected departments agreed. (This would reduce the number of new seats and teachers required—but also runs the risk of trying to repurpose exisiting courses for general education, sometimes a fraught undertaking, as prior gen-ed reviews have found.) The purpose of the implementation committee, he said, would be to determine whether it is feasible to fulfill the new requirement pedagogically. A negative answer, he conceded, would be disappointing—but is possible.

The motion on accepting the report and chartering the implementation committee to explore these issues returns to the faculty for a vote at its May meeting.

Oath Objections

Finally, Putnam professor of organismic and evolutionary biology David Haig, objecting to the College’s adoption of an oath-like affirmation to implement its sanctions policy for student members of USGSOs, proceeded with his planned motion, previously reported, “that this Faculty does not approve of Harvard College requiring a student to make an oath, pledge, or affirmation about whether the student belongs to a particular organization or category of organizations.”

Since the College announced in May 2016 that students who join USGSOs may not hold leadership positions in recognized student organizations, or on athletic teams, or receive endorsement for prestigious fellowships and scholarships, debate in favor or against the policy has dominated much of FAS’s work. With the release of detailed plans on how the policy will be implemented this fall, and their acceptance by College dean Rakesh Khurana on March 6 (even as a separate committee, co-chaired by Khurana, reexamines the underlying policy itself), Haig has focused his attention on the statement of affirmation that students would be required to make. Thus the motion he proposed for initial discussion today.

In making his motion, Haig said:

Let us face the issue directly, including what is to me the obvious comparison. Many members of our community detest the final clubs and believe they are inimical to the values of the Harvard community just as many conservatives detested the communist party and believed membership in the party was inimical to American values.

How should we think about this comparison? A consistent position would be to hold that Senator [Joseph] McCarthy had the power to compel oaths and was justified in acting according to his values. Similarly, Harvard College has the power to require affirmations of students and is justified in acting according to its values.

A second approach would be to argue that the situations and principles are different…or that the penalties are different. I am sure you can identify other differences. But this is the path to endless argument because of the diversity of opinions held on these questions.

A third option would be to hold that the requirement for an affirmation or oath is not justified in either case. This is my position. I respect the autonomy of students to join outside organizations, and I believe that if we disagree with their choices then we should attempt to change their minds by reasoned argument.

It has been said that my motion is premature and should wait on the report of Committee on Unrecognized Single Gender Social Organizations….I believe instead that that committee would benefit from knowing the faculty’s opinion on the specific issue of affirmations, before September.…

The Faculty Council’s Docket Committee then moved that Haig’s motion be referred to the USGSO policy committee for “nuanced, indepth discussion” there. Agassiz professor of the humanities Jennifer L. Roberts, speaking for the Docket Committee, said that FAS deliberations on the College USGSO policy had been shaped by the constraints of debate on motions introduced and discussed at the meetings last November and December, and thus had been “disconnected orations,” but that directing the policy committee to address Haig’s motion and to report on it fully would be more substantive. (Faculty opponents of the USGSO policy have objected to the fact that it and the subsequent implementation measures were devised and announced without broad faculty airing in public forums, so they may find this reasoning frustrating.) Haig is himself a member of the policy committee, Roberts noted, and his motion would have the effect of circumventing that committee’s full deliberations this spring.

After brief debate, a divided faculty voted to adopt the Faculty Council motion; the Haig motion is referred to the USGSO policy committee for consideration and reporting to the public and the faculty next fall.

With that, the meeting adjourned.





Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

The Power of Patience

Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

Who Built the Pyramids?

Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets