Cue the New Normal

The Second Commission on Undergraduate Education aims to reshape the Hopkins undergraduate experience.  

Biophysicist  Bertrand  Garcia-Moreno  had never  taught a first-year student until  his  12-person  class  last fall:  The Nature of Nature, a science-meets-philosophy seminar raising questions about natural phenomena while discovering links between scientific and humanistic thinking.  The course was just for first-year students, and part of a pilot project of 13 such first-year seminars in  fall 2020.   

“It was the most fun I’ve had teaching in a long time,” says Garcia-Moreno, who also serves as vice dean for the natural sciences. “These students are open-minded, they are eager to engage. They did the work that was asked of them and came prepared.”  

Among those who took the seminar was  Suma Kotha, who plans to major in neuroscience. “It turned out to be my favorite class,” she says. “It was a different way of thinking about science than just memorizing material, which is typically what we do. And coming into freshman year, I didn’t think I would get a chance to be close with a faculty member.”  

The class is an early example of a forthcoming sea change in undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins. As universities across the nation grapple with their role in an evolving society,  and as  Hopkins welcomes  an increasingly diverse student body,  the university’s  Second Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE2) released an 88-page report  last fall,  outlining  several  multifaceted  recommendations for improving undergraduate education .  It was the  culmination  of  more than  three  years of information gathering as the commission’s  30  members—faculty,  staff, students,  and alumni—pored through research, held roundtables and town hall meetings, and conducted  campuswide  surveys.  

The  CUE2  effort  predates the pandemic—and  the  release  of the report  was overshadowed  by it—but COVID-19  only  added  urgency to  the  mission to  bolster  the  intrinsic  value of  a  Hopkins  education.  As  the  foreword  to  the  commission’s report states:  

The national and global conversation that was taking place even before COVID-19, questioning the value proposition of a four-year, high cost, residential undergraduate experience, has only been brought into sharper focus and made more immediate …  The CUE2 report and its aspirational recommendations are even more important for a post-COVID-19 world and for a country intensely engaged in social discord than it was before.”  

—Excerpt from the Fall 2020 CUE2 Report

Among  significant  changes  that  CUE2 recommends:  Giving  students greater  flexibility in their  pursuit of their major as well as  in  their  broader  intellectual exploration  of  six, newly defined “foundational abilities”;  providing  greater undergraduate access to and engagement with  faculty and  the  greater Hopkins  community, including the professional schools; and  creating  more robust and  multilayered  academic advising and mentoring.   

“Increasing the closeness of faculty interactions with students and  fostering a more flexible environment that encourages disciplinary exploration outside of the major—these are just some of the things that COVID really brought to the forefront as hugely important,” says Garcia-Moreno,  who  also served  as a commission member  and  is responsible for  CUE2 implementation in  the Krieger School. “If we  thought of the  CUE2  reforms  as a long-term implementation process, now we really need to  approach  them  with urgency  because we’ve discovered  just  how much we have to do  to meet the moment.”  

The ocean liner of academia doesn’t always  steer  swiftly,  but  change is coming.  Indeed,  first-year students  from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences,  the Whiting School of Engineering, and Peabody  turning up to campus in  2022  will  get  a  first taste of the “new normal” at Hopkins.  

class in masks with Professor Bertrand Garcia-Moreno
The Nature of Nature seminar, which brought together first-year students from varied disciplines last fall, “was the most fun I’ve had teaching in a long time,” says biophysics professor Bertrand Garcia-Moreno. Beginning fall 2022, all first-year students will be required to take a First-Year Seminar.

Undergraduate Commission:  The Sequel   

The first  commission  on  undergrad education  (CUE1)  was  formed in  2002  with  this mandate: Identify the core values that should characterize a Hopkins  undergraduate experience and develop recommendations for specific actions that would improve the quality of undergraduate education, both inside and outside the classroom.

The 2003 CUE1 report included 34 recommendations, which focused on the academic experience, advising and career support, diversity, and student life. Some of the results of the CUE1 included expansion of the Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center and the creation of the Brody Learning Commons, which has become a hub for collaborative learning and group study.

overhead view of students studying in Brody Learning Commons
The Brody Learning Commons, created as a result of the CUE1 report, has become a central hub for students to gather, study, and collaborate.

Successfully fulfilling  many of the  CUE1  recommendations  was  often  a  matter of making  financial commitments—expanding faculty and staff,  or  launching  brick-and-mortar projects.  In  contrast,  the  report accompanying  CUE2  describes  its  six recommendations as “aspirational, interconnected and open-ended.” And to the extent that they have philosophical underpinnings, it is in this articulation of the university’s ultimate endgame for its graduates: “Not to issue credentials, but to cultivate the capabilities needed to be successful citizens of the world.”

The  core  vision is to focus on six  foundational  abilities that will be woven into every undergrad’s academic journey:   

  • Students should recognize the importance of language and have a command of it as readers, writers,  and speakers.  
  • Students should develop facility with scientific, numerical,  and algorithmic reasoning and be able to use computational and analytical methods.  
  •  Students should recognize the importance of complex creative expressions and cultivate their intellectual and emotional responses to aesthetic and cultural experiences.  
  •  Students should engage effectively as citizens of a diverse world informed by an understanding of historical inequities, bigotry, prejudice,  and racism in our society.  
  • Students should be reflective, effective ethical agents.  
  • Students should be able to independently conceptualize and complete large-scale, consequential projects.  

While many universities and colleges have a core curriculum, Hopkins does not. Instead, students will retain the depth and rigor of their chosen major, while also cultivating the foundational abilities throughout their undergraduate experience. For Hopkins leaders and faculty, it’s a new way of looking at the collegiate experience that stops short of being entirely revolutionary. 

Professor Aliza Watters writing on chalkboard
Students in Aliza Watters’ first-year seminar, What is the Common Good?, examined sources ranging from the Bible to Korean cinema. Watters, a lecturer in the Expository Writing program, is helping to guide implementation of the CUE2 recommendations at the Krieger School.

“There is widespread buy-in to these being effective articulations of what all undergraduates should be able to claim as foundational abilities,” says Aliza Watters, faculty in the Expository Writing Program and director of First-Year Seminars, who’s working on CUE2 implementation in Krieger with Garcia-Moreno. “The goal is not to tick off Foundational Abilities, box by box—one class for this one, another for that one—but, rather, for these Foundational Abilities to imbue the curriculum over the course of the four years such that students encounter them in multiple contexts.”  

All majors and departmental programs in the Krieger School are currently undergoing a self-study to consider how they might adapt to the CUE2 recommendations. Meanwhile, both the Krieger School and Whiting School of Engineering will soon complete a comprehensive initiative begun in 2019 to evaluate and improve their academic advising processes.  

And while COVID-19 has disrupted the time frame for the implementation of some of the CUE2 recommendations, the pandemic has only underscored the need to reassert and re-imagine the value of the campus-based undergraduate experience. This begins by re-imagining the first-year experience.  

Beginning in fall 2022, all first-year students will be required to take a First-Year Seminar, wherein no more than 15 students embark on a collaborative exploration of a topic through analysis and discussion. While Hopkins already has many course offerings aimed at first-years (in years past, nearly a third of first-year students took a seminar taught by a faculty member or graduate student), the commission’s recommendation seeks to amplify, formalize, and require the experience through a consistent but flexible structure. Some 100 seminars will be needed to accommodate an incoming class of approximately 1,400–1,500 students from Krieger, Whiting, and Peabody, and 32 pilots are running this academic year to help determine the best pedagogical model.  

There’s a good reason for the First-Year Seminar to be a CUE2 starting point—and not just because it’s number one on the recommendations list and the only recommendation explicitly required. Such seminars can set the foundation for how a student imagines and then approaches their own education. And, depending on the topic chosen by faculty, they can effectively begin a student’s cultivation of various foundational abilities—from command of language, to fostering an understanding of racism and inequity, to facility with scientific reasoning, or a more reflective, efficacious ethical agency. 

First-Year Seminars can also involve faculty outside of the Homewood campus. Eliot A. Cohen, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies, is teaching one this semester—Rough Magic: Shakespeare on Power. And the close contact with professors at the core of these seminars can create mentorships to last through a student’s time at Hopkins.  

Think of them as benevolent Trojan horses for introducing CUE2 concepts on campus. 

Also beginning in academic year 2022–2023, all first-year students will be required to take an expository writing class. These small, seminar-style classes are already popular at Homewood and required of pre-meds (approximately two-thirds of first-year students already take one). Writing and other communication skills will be emphasized in all four years, moving from foundational writing in the first year to more explicit instruction in writing across the curriculum and in the disciplines, especially STEM.   

Key Recommendations of the CUE2 Report 

  • Redesign the undergraduate curriculum to provide foundational abilities for lifelong flourishing and learning 
  • Require participation in a First-Year Seminar 
  • Increase the flexibility of the major requirements to enable intellectual exploration 
  • Enable professional school faculty to teach undergraduates more easily and often 
  • Provide students with integrated faculty mentors, staff advisors, and life design counselors 
  • Encourage grading policies that assess student performance relative to well-articulated academic standards 
  • Establish a new system for the assessment of teaching and student mentoring by faculty 

A More Personal Relationship 

To say seminar-format classes are not a new thing at Hopkins is an understatement: German-educated Herbert Baxter Adams is credited with pioneering them in the United States as a young Hopkins professor in the 1870s. But having first-year students experience them, proponents say, can have multiple benefits, such as helping them facilitate the transition from high school to university life while engendering a sense that they are now members of an intellectual community. 

“First-Year Seminars are not just about developing foundational analytical and critical thinking skills, but also about meeting students wherever they are, building their confidence in the classroom, and creating the space for them to practice respectful dialogue and exchange,” Watters says. “After rigorous and close reading of various kinds of sources, students have to engage with the ideas of their peers and defend their own. This may sound grand, but these seminars can develop in students the good habits of civil and civic discourse. All while getting faculty mentorship from the get-go.”

First-Year Seminars are not just about developing foundational analytical and critical thinking skills, but also about meeting students wherever they are, building their confidence in the classroom, and creating the space for them to practice respectful dialogue and exchange.”

—Aliza Watters

The latter point has particular resonance with the commission. “Every study of undergraduate satisfaction we’ve seen, from Gallup and others, says that early faculty interaction and mentorship is the single most important driver of student success and satisfaction in college and beyond,” says Garcia-Moreno. “This is especially important for our STEM students who traditionally spend much of their first two years in very large gateway science courses—courses that that can top 300 in enrollment and lead to an experience that can feel anonymous.” 

Professor Stuart W. “Bill” Leslie in the Department of the History of Science and Technology says he’s been giving first-year seminars of a sort for nearly 30 years. “They’re not unusual for the humanities, but they are for the sciences and engineering,” he says. “And so getting these departments on board will be a challenge.”  

Based on surveys conducted by the Center for Educational Resources at Hopkins and responses to the new seminars introduced to date, Watters feels both faculty and students are excited about the concept. Indeed, upward of 50 faculty have already volunteered to offer a CUE2 First-Year Seminar in fall 2022.

Chemistry department lecturer Jamie Young signed on to be part of the seminar pilot process last fall, converting his Science of Color class from a traditional lecture format into a First-Year Seminar. Students discuss the physical and chemical origins of color and how it manifests, from the natural world and biology to the artist’s easel. “I absolutely loved it,” he says.

“Traditionally, I teach introductory chemistry labs. So my class sizes are large and I generally get to know only a handful of names. And it was really nice to kind of have a more personal relationship with these first-years.” Young will reprise his First-Year Seminar in fall 2021 in a cohort of pilots composed of 30% STEM faculty.   

Daniel Foster, associate professor and liberal arts chair at the Peabody Conservatory, is leading his second What Can Music Do For Us? seminar this semester, offering a broad interdisciplinary look at music. About half of his students are from Peabody, with the rest from Homewood, including from the sciences and engineering. “And the thing is, they get along really well and work together,” he says. “These seminars are supposed to move us toward forming an intellectual community. Getting students collaborating across disciplines and thinking about big problems and big projects—I really like that a lot.” 

Foster’s seminar harkened back to the model Professor Adams brought to these shores in the 19th century, wherein students, in large part, were asked to research a topic and then teach each other, leaving the professor as more of a moderator. For Foster’s class, this meant a student with an interest in neuroscience led a discussion on using music with Alzheimer’s patients, while another explored ethical issues using 20th-century popular music and race as a starting point.

This semester, Watters is leading the second incarnation of her seminar What Is the Common Good?, which seeks answers to the titular question through examining sources ranging from the Bible to contemporary Korean cinema, and introduces perspectives from the likes of Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Spike Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Michael Sandel.  

Potential neuroscience major Zandy Wong says the class—her favorite of her first semester—opened her eyes to the diversity of academic pursuit available at Hopkins. “I came in just thinking about STEM as a total STEM nerd,” Wong says. “It really introduced me to how the humanities can factor in as well. It was a great interdisciplinary experience. I literally cried on the last day of class.”