University News

‘Modes’ courses re-thought how we learn, but didn’t last

The New Curriculum at Forty: Part two of four in a series

By
Features Editor
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

With little ceremony, the faculty last month took the final step in laying to rest what was once a major component of the New Curriculum.

In an uncontroversial resolution, Modes of Thought courses, which have been virtually absent from Brown’s curriculum for two decades, were formally removed from the faculty’s rules. The decision to delete the section was a “bookkeeping issue,” Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said.

Though few students today are familiar with Modes of Thought courses — deleted by the same governing body that originally enacted the New Curriculum — the story of their creation sheds light on the spirit of experimentation that gave rise to the New Curriculum’s adoption.

Modes of Thought courses were created as introductory seminars designed to underscore ways of thinking about a certain topic, instead of about a topic’s foundational body of knowledge. They were graded exclusively on a Satisfactory/No Credit basis, and the New Curriculum’s creators intended that first-years and sophomores to take five to seven of them ­— a requirement Professor of Computer Science David Laidlaw ’83 said now might seem “antithetical” to the spirit of Brown’s curriculum.

“One of the selling points of the New Curriculum today,” Laidlaw said, “is the lack of formal requirements.”

From the start, the faculty hesitated to endorse Modes of Thought courses in the form the curriculum’s framers envisioned. Though the courses were approved on May 7, 1969, the faculty decided to leave out the clause that required students to enroll in them.

For the next 20 years, the University struggled to find the resources to offer these courses, which were intended to revitalize introductory-level learning.

“There were never enough Modes of Thought courses,” said Sheila Blumstein, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and former dean of the College. Her 1990 review of the New Curriculum declared that the Modes of Thought concept had failed in its “primary mission” to be Brown’s new approach to general education.

Still, the program remained on the books — until March 3 of this year. Bergeron said she noticed its inclusion in the faculty rules and regulations and brought the out-of-date section to the attention of Professor of Philosophy James Dreier, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee.

Dreier and Bergeron moved that the section be deleted. The faculty passed the motionwith little debate — an uneventful end to the most significant component of the New Curriculum that never fully took root.

Rethinking general education

The Modes of Thought courses, like the rest of the New Curriculum, grew out of students’ dissatisfaction with the educational model the University offered them.

“Undergraduate education at Brown, and in general in the country, was not serving students well enough,” said Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, who, along with Elliot Maxwell ’68, led the Group Independent Study Project that would transform Brown’s undergraduate curriculum.

The proposed Modes of Thought courses were intended to address two particular inadequacies in Brown’s curriculum that students perceived: the idea of general education requirements and the poor quality of introductory courses.

At the time, Brown students had to take 14 courses to fulfill their distribution requirements. But Magaziner and Maxwell rejected that traditional model, instead developing an undergraduate experience that reflected individual students’ interests and backgrounds.

They planned to transform the first-year experience by revamping Brown’s existing introductory course offerings, putting Modes of Thought at the forefront of their proposal.

Before 1969, the responsibility of teaching entry-level courses generally fell to junior faculty members, Maxwell said.

The students in such courses were often uninterested in the subject because they were taking them to fulfill distributional requirements, said Edward Ahearn, a professor of comparative literature who has taught at Brown since 1963.

The Modes of Thought courses were the New Curriculum’s answer to the weaknesses of Brown’s introductory classes, Maxwell said.

Unlike a traditional survey course in history, for example, a Modes of Thought course would teach students “how to learn historically, how to analyze problems historically,” Magaziner said.

The small size of the courses, which were limited to 20 students, gave students the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member, according to Maxwell. The courses were to emphasize “ways of looking at the world, ways of organizing knowledge,” he said.

“What was important was that people had an opportunity to understand what it meant to be a sociologist, a biologist, a physicist,” he added.

The program was based on the premise that professors would propose courses on topics and ideas to explore with first-years and sophomores from any discipline, said Professor of Mathematics Thomas Banchoff P’91.

“Teachers teach best when they’re teaching about things they’re interested in,” Maxwell said.

“I think the spirit of the (Modes of Thought) courses reflected an attitude of openness during the 1970s,” said Professor of Art Richard Fishman, who joined Brown’s faculty in 1965, “and all the principles of the New Curriculum — risk-taking, crossing boundaries.”

The ‘principle of student choice’

In April 1969, the Special Committee on Educational Principles synthesized the GISP’s recommendations and developed the Modes of Thought courses as a viable solution to the college’s shortcomings. The committee, chaired by then-Assistant Provost and Professor of Engineering Paul Maeder, proposed the  Modes of Thought courses as a requirement for students.

Under the committee’s recommendations, students would be expected to take five to seven Modes of Thought courses during their first two years. They would then be expected to take at least one course from each of the four areas of study: Humanities, Social Studies, Natural Sciences and Formal Thought.

“We did require them because we felt that was the only way to ensure that they happened,” Magaziner said.

But when the faculty met in the spring of 1969, professors pointed out, according to Magaziner, that implementing a Modes of Thought requirement contradicted the “principle of student choice” that was at the heart of the New Curriculum.

Though the committee’s report had laid out provisions for phasing in the Modes of Thought courses, the faculty still objected to the overhaul of Brown’s course offerings that would have been necessary to implement the courses as requirements.

“If you require five to seven Modes of Thought courses, we’d have to have a couple of hundred Modes of Thought courses,” Banchoff said.

On May 7, 1969, the faculty voted. It adopted the Modes of Thought courses — as optional, both for professors to teach and for students to take.

“Not every faculty member was interested in teaching Modes of Thought courses,” Banchoff said. But “there were some of us who thought it was a great idea,” he added.

A novel idea

The first year Modes of Thought courses were offered, first-years lined up two hours before registration opened and had to wait in line for over three hours to sign up for the courses, The Herald reported in September 1969. At the program’s peak, in 1971-1972, more than 1,000 students were enrolled in a total of 71 Modes of Thought courses.

But over the years, the number of the courses offered dwindled — until there were only four courses offered in 1988-89, according to Blumstein’s 1990 review of the Brown curriculum.

“I remember them being sort of touted, at the beginning especially, as cool, different, ‘Brown’ things to do,” said Laidlaw, who took Banchoff’s course on the fourth dimension his junior year.

Banchoff also collaborated with faculty from other departments to create other interdisciplinary course offerings.

In the second year of the program’s existence, Banchoff taught “Growth and Form in Mathematics, Biology and Art,” with Fishman and Peter Stewart, who taught biology.

“Shapes of snail shells and sheep horns, structure of skulls and cells, will be typical topics in this investigation,” the professors wrote in their course proposal.

The course was proposed as an “experimental” Modes of Thought course that would take advantage of first-year residential units. “We taught in a dormitory in Littlefield Hall. We met in the lounge there,” Banchoff said.

Professors ran the courses on top of their regular teaching duties, Banchoff said. But it was stipulated that a Modes of Thought course be offered “only as long as a professor is willing to teach it,” according to the section recently deleted from the faculty rules and regulations.

Eventually, enthusiasm for the courses waned.

“There was a certain novelty factor,” Banchoff said. “A number of people tried (teaching) them once or twice and found that was enough rather than continuing it.”

Magaziner called the decision not to institute Modes of Thought courses as a requirement “unfortunate.”

“It did not bring the full result that we had hoped for,” he said.

Liberal learning today

As the program declined, the University sought other ways to fulfill its original objectives, even incorporating some Modes of Thought courses into the standard curricular offerings.

Several introductory-level courses in the Department of Comparative Literature originated as Modes of Thought courses, Ahearn said.

In the past 40 years, Banchoff said, he has taught his course on the fourth dimension about 20 times. This semester, he is offering it as a first-year seminar, MATH 0010B: “Exploring the Fourth Dimension.”

The first-year seminar program was founded in 2002 to help first-year students develop close relationships with faculty members.

“What we have in the first-year seminar program is a … curricular offering that carries on the spirit of the Modes of Thought courses,” Bergeron said, adding that first-year seminars, too, emphasize knowledge outside of a “strict disciplinary frame.”

While students are not required to take first-year seminars, enrollment reached an all-time high this year, according to University Registrar Michael Pesta. Over 1,100 students signed up for 74 first-year seminars, nearly mirroring the success of the Modes of Thought program at its peak.

Unlike the Modes of Thought courses, though, first-year seminars are part of a faculty member’s regular teaching load, Bergeron said.

First-year seminars are not the only curricular program the University adopted to fill the gap left by the Modes of Thought program. In the mid-1970s, several programs were created to foster interdisciplinary learning: Special Themes and Topics, Modes of Analysis and Foundations courses, according to Blumstein’s report.

But the boundaries that distinguished these course categories from one another were unclear, according to the report, and by 1993, these special designations had disappeared.

University Courses, originally established as the upper-level counterpart to Modes of Thought courses, still exist in Brown’s curricular offerings, though few courses still bear that label. Liberal Learning courses, an offshoot of the University Courses program, also “focus on thinking” instead of “absorbing content,” Bergeron said, and emphasize an interdisciplinary approach.

The idea of “liberal learning promotes the making of connections across the curriculum,” she said. “Maybe you’ll learn something in a music course and say, ‘That’s completely applicable to this CogSci course.'”

Despite differences in format and program structure, Blumstein said, Brown’s curriculum maintains the interdisciplinary emphasis and problem-based approach to learning that defined the Modes of Thought courses.

“As long as the curriculum is rich and varied — and gives students different ways of learning, different styles of teaching — that’s what I would hope we provide for students,” she said.