Dear Dean Brodhead:
So I hear you’re putting together a committee on undergraduate education. I would apply to serve, but as is the case for so many things at Yale, solicitations from graduating seniors seem unwelcome if not irrelevant. But if my undergraduate education has taught me anything, it is that as a Yale student the world revolves around me and my opinion is not only infallible but interesting as well. I assume that with recent mail delays your request for my personal advice is merely in transit, but I am willing to pre-emptively offer my thoughts on some of the less positive aspects of a Yale education.
At first glance, everyone likes seminars. They sound important, their material is focused and interesting, the workload helium-light, and the contact hours minimal. Once a millennia, when the planets align with Harkness tower and the sparrows of Capistrano roost in the New Haven elms, one experiences an admissions viewbook-worthy seminar meeting. As autumnal leaves sway in the breeze, earnest students argue intelligently about the week’s reading while a tweed-wrapped professor mediates and enlightens.
The rest of the time, seminars become a two-hour challenge to avoid capture by the course-reading police. Flip purposefully through your packet “looking for a quote,” or focus debate on the shades of meaning of a single sentence, and you too can appear prepared for class.
Lack of preparation by students forces professors to fill the silence with lectures, and wimpy expectations provide nothing but a lesson in the Ten Hour Term Paper. The truth is, despite anyone’s best intentions, seminars are academic chicanery.
If the intention of the Credit/D/Fail system is to encourage students to enroll in courses in which they have little background or find intimidating, then why is the option so narrowly available? If Yale is not a safe realm within which one can take academic risks, than what is? How can one find time to pursue a liberal education between programming a TI-82 to calculate GPAs and engaging in the traditional post-midterm course-drop debate?
Force all professors to offer their courses with the Credit/D/Fail option, regardless of level or department. Sure, they will be reluctant, but a charming speech or two by you, Dean Brodhead, would surely win them over.
Expand Science Course Offerings for Non-Majors
As a science major I have spent approximately two-thirds of my Yale career looking down upon humanities majors from our perch on Science Hill, so my thoughts on the dearth of courses for non-majors are strictly secondhand. But it seems that the options for those seeking a group IV credit who haven’t already taken organic chemistry, physics with calculus, and a few solid chemistry labs are limited to courses where you draw a picture of your favorite animal or write about how DNA makes you feel.
Despite what the bluebook would have one believe, non-group IV majors do not experience a decrease in their intelligence north of Trumbull street. They are just afraid (goodness, and rightly so) of becoming a victim of a pre-med driven grading curve. Solution? Ahem. See above, “Universalize Credit/D/Fail.”
Formalize the Advising System
Avowed enthusiasts of my column (of which I am sure, Dean Brodhead, you are one) have previously read my esteemed opinion about Yale’s “advising” system. For everyone else, I will reiterate that it does not exist. Sending students wandering across campus asking random professors to sign their schedules does not constitute a system of academic guidance.
Any school that has the means to purchase a two-story-high inflatable bulldog can certainly afford to pay the salary of someone who can tell me what courses I’m supposed to be enrolled in and how many group III’s I need.
Create Grading Consistency
My GPA is well-acquainted with group IV professors’ love for bell curves. Yale absorbed Sheffield Scientific School long ago, but for all the grading inconsistencies between science and humanities courses, they might as well still be two separate institutions. My first instinct is to demand an end to the grade inflation rampant in the humanities.
When Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, made the same suggestion, undergraduates barely took the time to loosen their bow ties before they burned him in effigy. My dear parents were looking forward to my graduation this May, so I will offer a temporary solution: recurve grading in the science departments to match those of humanities courses. (And to my Group IV professors, I say weed-out, schmeed-out. If you want to give out those C’s and D’s, you will have to convert those folks in LC and WLH to your evil ways.)
P.S. One more thought about my Yale education: can I have a fifth year?
Sarah Merriman is a senior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.