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How a Course Happens
What can a freshman entering Yale College expect to get for the $30,000 a year that parents are being asked to pay?When sports, extracurriculars, and socializing are stripped from the agenda, the core answer must lie in the intellectual offerings. There are at least 2,000 courses listed in the 532 pages of Yale College Programs of Study: Fall and Spring Terms, 1997-1998, better known as the Blue Book, and they range from accounting to Zulu. In between are some listings that have made juicy targets for defenders of academic tradition, among them Sociology 308a, “Sexual Diversity and Social Change,” and Women’s Studies 303a, “Queer Histories.” But those courses didn’t get there without a struggle. Indeed, they went through precisely the same process that made such courses as Philosophy 150a, “Plato’s Ethics,” and English 170b, “Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales,” classic pillars of the curriculum for much of this century.
“Our courses define us,” says Joseph Gordon, associate dean of the College and a long-time member of the Course of Study Committee (CSC), a group composed of faculty, students, and administrators that is charged with reviewing courses, as well as majors and special programs, to ensure that every offering in the Blue Book “meets certain standards and looks like Yale.” Gordon, whose own “British Fiction, 1890-1914” (English 298b), had to pass CSC muster, explains that the process of making certain each course is sufficiently rigorous actually begins long before the Committee considers the matter.
In the beginning, of course, is the idea. Often, says Gordon, the spark for a course comes from the doctoral research of a freshly-minted instructor. This was certainly true in the case of Debby Applegate, a graduate student in American Studies who expects to receive her PhD next May. But her research, it turns out, doesn’t tell the whole story.
Applegate’s dissertation examined in part the scandalous adultery trial of Henry Ward Beecher in the 19th century, and as she read newspaper accounts, often lurid and provocative, of this “trial of the century,” a modern counterpart was taking shape. Like the Beecher affair, the O.J. Simpson trial attracted widespread interest; the topic, however, was different. “Everybody was talking about how race was the factor that really mattered,” said Applegate. Although she was not an avid “O.J.” watcher, she saw in the spectacle a pedagogical opportunity. “Here was a chance to take advantage of something that was already happening and use the event to explore why crime and the mass media have come together to be the tribunal through which we form some of our values,” she says.
That insight eventually took shape as American Studies 321a, “Criminal Trials and Popular Culture,” but before it could be offered this fall for student consumption, Applegate, like every other instructor at Yale, had some well-defined work to do. The first step was to put her notion on paper and present it to the department’s director of undergraduate studies. There was nothing similar to the course in the curriculum, and because it filled a need, the DUS gave her the go-ahead to proceed.
The same kinds of discussions take place early in every course’s development, says Daniel R. Melamed, associate professor of music history and DUS for the Department of Music. “There’s certainly no dearth of ideas,” he explains. “It’s my job to help shape them into a coherent curriculum.”
In any humanities discipline, this is no easy task. “No one agrees anymore on what courses everyone ought to have,” Melamed says. “There may be a time-honored sequence of requirements in, say, music theory, but beyond that, anything goes.” The situation is somewhat less flexible in the sciences, but even here, there are plenty of options. “We have an elective system that gives students a great deal of choice, and there are many ways of approaching various subjects,” says Melamed.
Such was not always the case, notes educational historian Daniel Catlin Jr. '60, author of Liberal Education at Yale: The Yale College Course of Study, 1945-1978. “Yale introduced its first 'optionals,' or electives” in 1876, he explains. For the previous 175 years, however, the “limited classical curriculum based on the trivium and quadrivium was studied by all as the full resource for human intellectual development.”
While there are those who would argue for the continued supremacy of grammar, rhetoric, and logic—the trivium—and arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy—the quadrivium—Yale long ago abandoned that path. One result is that every fall, as planning begins for the next academic year, Melamed and his fellow DUS’s have to make certain that any required courses will have instructors. Then, the directors scurry around to “fill in the gaps.”
In Melamed’s department, one potential gap lay in the seminars that every senior is required to take to fulfill requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Ramon Satyendra, an assistant professor of music theory, came up with a course called “Recent Jazz.” A visiting professor in music, James Hepokoski, had in mind an exploration of “Issues in Beethoven’s Symphonies.” Other colleagues came forward with seminars for majors in Renaissance and 20th-century music, while Melamed, realizing that the department needed to offer a seminar in Baroque music, put together a course that examined J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, St. John Passion, and other vocal-orchestral works.
In the course of departmental discussion, any courses deemed inappropriate fall, either temporarily or permanently, by the wayside, and Melamed works with the remaining offerings to ensure that each course proposal will fly with the CSC. “Being DUS is a service job,” he says. The major service Melamed and those in similar positions perform is to make sure that the required form which will be reviewed by the CSC is properly filled out. “For a course to materialize, you have to know how to translate an idea into a syllabus,” he explains, and here, Melamed is in a good position to offer advice. Not only has he successfully brought his own courses through the gauntlet, but he currently serves on the CSC, so he knows what works.
The heart of the inquest is the New Course Form, a document that had to be filled out for each of the 370 courses that were evaluated this year. An offering does not have to be new, however, to require CSC review. If a once-approved course hasn’t been taught in seven years, a professor must submit a proposal to the committee before the offering can appear in the Blue Book. And if two of the following three major characteristics change—the title, the instructor, or the description—the course must once again go before the CSC.
Weekly during the high season from late fall through mid-spring, the Committee’s members—10 to 12 faculty, four administrators, and three students—get together to deliberate the fate of between two- and four-dozen dossiers that have been assembled by the registrar’s office. Each folder contains, at minimum, a copy of the course form, which asks for standard information such as department, course title, meeting times, and whether the “credit/D/F” grading system” will apply. In addition, the form requires a brief description (about three lines) of the course for the Blue Book, an expanded description for CSC discussion—nature and purpose, main topics, principal readings, and any special aspects—and an outline of the kind of work involved (number of pages of reading each week, midterm feedback, end-of-term work, exams, papers, and any other requirements). The form also includes a section that must be filled out by the DUS. It asks three pointed questions: How does this course correspond to the nature and design of your department’s curriculum? How does this course differ from courses on similar topics in your department or in other departments? Is the offering intended primarily for majors? Finally, acting instructors (chiefly, upper-level graduate students), newly appointed lecturers, and part-time professors are asked to provide a provisional syllabus.
This material provides grist for a CSC discussion that centers primarily on nuts-and-bolts issues. As Mark Landeryou, associate registrar and a committee member for the past five years, describes it, “We make sure that the work is appropriate and that all the details are in place for a course to be successful in its administration and execution. Occasionally, we do ask for changes, such as toning down the scope of a paper or suggesting that there be more feedback at midterm. When we do, however, it’s not by fiat. It’s a dialogue. We don’t propose to be experts in every discipline; rather, we see ourselves as interested amateurs in the truest sense of the word.”
A course may be sent back to the instructor two or three times, notes Associate Dean Gordon, who, adhering to the CSC’s strict code of confidentiality, will not give specific examples. “It can sometimes be a tug of war, but in the end, I can’t think of any we’ve ever completely turned down,” says Gordon.
The thorough vetting at the department or special program level all but guarantees a happy ending in the CSC and later, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting at which the Committee’s chair, currently Jack Sandweiss, the Donner Professor of Physics, presents courses for formal approval. But there is another—no less rigorous—route by which courses can find their way to the CSC. Psychology professor Kelly Brownell, the master of Silliman College, chairs the Committee on Teaching in the Residential Colleges, and in that position he oversees the process that results in the creation of the full-credit seminars that are sponsored by each college. “These courses fill in gaps in the traditional curriculum,” says Brownell, who explains that undergraduates are actively involved as members of a committee that includes faculty and resident fellows, along with the college’s dean and master. The group sifts through a list of courses that various instructors have proposed, interviews the teachers, who may be faculty members or “high- visibility” outsiders with some unique talent they wish to share (writers and artists are common) and then checks the course proposals with an eye toward academic rigor. Finally, the group decides which offerings to sponsor, an act guaranteeing that perhaps as many as one-third of the openings in the course will go to the college’s own residents.
Once the sponsorship issue is worked out, the course, just like every other one at Yale College, goes to the CSC. “We prescreen very carefully so that the committee will approve,” says Brownell, “and we wind up providing a valuable experience for students.”
Brownell was particularly excited about a residential college seminar on American politics that Silliman sponsored last year. It was taught by Lowell Weicker '53, who has been a U.S. senator and the governor of Connecticut. “Imagine,” says Brownell, “learning about Watergate from someone who was actively involved in the hearings!”
The seminar program generates about two dozen new courses a year. Another potential course generator can be the emergence of either a new major or a new special program, such as the recently created programs in biomedical engineering and in ethnicity, race, and migration. But, says Gordon, it generally takes a while for these to have much of an impact on the Blue Book. In the short term, he explains, “A lot of programs draw on already existing courses.”
Ironically, despite the fast pace of scientific discovery, the science curriculum is relatively stable. The reason has to do with a fundamental difference in the way the sciences and the humanities are structured. When a historian, for example, wants to expose students to the latest research on “Violence in the Middle Ages” or “The Art of Biography,” the appropriate venue is the seminar, the creation of which requires a formal course proposal. On the other hand, advanced training in the sciences proceeds more like an apprenticeship, so instead of the collegial seminar, the student, working with an individual professor, takes on a course called, simply, “research.” The actual investigation may revolve around topics as different as computer vision, the fluid mechanics of the Earth’s core, or the fate of black holes, but because the course’s methods and expectations don’t change—research is, after all, research—the CSC doesn’t get involved.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Committee steers clear of another area as well. “Controversy is not an issue with us,” Gordon says. “We don’t ask whether it’s proper to teach a particular course—that’s something for each department to work out—and we don’t serve any ideological agenda. Our job is to make sure that once the decision has been made to offer a course, it has some relationship to other offerings, and it will provide the necessary tools and methods a student can use to build upon.”
While some observers might quibble with the propriety of introducing O.J. into the curriculum, few doubted the rigor of Debby Applegate’s reading list—it includes Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Hamilton, and Edgar Allan Poe. But the course also requires students to view the movie Twelve Angry Men and old episodes of Perry Mason, activities that might strike some critics as less-than-heavyweight intellectual pursuits. Applegate put both in the context of exploring how the media “structures people’s ideas of what the law is all about,” and since developing analytical skills is the heart of any liberal education, the CSC had no trouble giving her course a thumbs-up.
“There are times when, to be perfectly honest, I take a deep breath,” says Melamed. “A lot of studies in the humanities these days explore subjects through the lens of gender and sexuality, and these would not be the first approaches that would come to me. But this is all a matter of scholarly perspective, and if you can make good, hard, skeptical arguments, students will get a lot out of the experience. Indeed, the consensus is that as long as we have excellent professors teaching stimulating courses, the kind of education people have come to expect from Yale will happen.” Such a curriculum doesn’t emerge by serendipity, says David R. Mayhew, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Government and CSC chairman from 1993 to 1995. “We’re the gatekeepers.”
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