When the father of Holly Thomas ’05 found out that his daughter, an aspiring doctor, would be majoring in Renaissance studies, he was caught by surprise but had faith in his daughter’s decision.
“She’s a smart girl; I’m sure she’s going to figure out what to do with such a weird major,” Dan Thomas said.
Holly Thomas decided she was going to be pre-med between her freshman and sophomore years. But she also did not want to major exclusively in a science because she wanted to take advantage of the “grand” liberal arts classes at Yale.
“I had so many diverse interests that I didn’t want to narrow myself to one subject,” said Thomas, adding that the major allows her to combine her twin passions of art history and Italian. “That’s the cool thing about Renaissance studies. It’s so broad.”
Blair Hoxby, the director of undergraduate studies for Renaissance studies, said the major — a branch of the humanities program — permits students to engage in interdisciplinary study.
“A student could, for instance, study the culture of the court at Urbino by reading the ‘Book of the Courtier’ — studying the sort of music that was played there, considering the role of clothing in self-fashioning, thinking about the role of patrons in the Renaissance, and so forth,” Hoxby said.
While the major allows students to pick a variety of courses, Lucy Kaufman ’04 — the only senior in the major — said there still is a common thematic thread, which she considers an “incredible advantage.”
Students who want to major in Renaissance studies must complete 12 term courses, taking at least one course in each of the following subjects: English literature, history, history of art, and foreign literature. Students must also fulfill a language prerequisite. Meredith Kaffel ’05, the third and final Renaissance studies major, said the requirements are meant to enhance the major’s interdisciplinary nature.
Although professors within the department come from different fields, students said they do not feel the department is scattered.
“Just the fact that we have professors from different departments — often really strong professors — makes it really exciting,” Kaffel said.
The number of people in the Renaissance studies major is a running joke in the social circles of the three adventurous Yalies who are pursuing it. The truth is that few people even know the major exists.
“It’s structured to be a small major,” Hoxby said. “We would have a few more majors [if we advertised more] but something like Renaissance studies doesn’t have a certain methodology and for most undergrads it makes sense to have training in a particular discipline.”
While Kaufman understands the major’s limited appeal, she said she enjoys it for its intellectual rewards.
“I don’t see [the major] as a step on a career path,” Kaufman said. “I see it as sharpening my analytical skills in something that I’m really passionate about.”
Hoxby said he thinks the major can be “particularly rewarding” for someone who loves the Renaissance but may want to do something else with his or her life, like attending medical school or law school. Hoxby said he would advise students who expect to study the Renaissance in graduate school to consider majoring in a field such as classics.
Uncertainty seems to remain the common denominator in Kaufman’s and Kaffel’s career plans. While their interdisciplinary major allows for flexibility, they say they are unsure of where to proceed from here. Kaffel said it has been a “fun ride.”
Thomas, on the other hand, said she wants to be a doctor. But she said she still enjoys the freedom her major allows in course election.
“I don’t feel this education is being wasted on me,” Thomas said. “[There's] a really nice balance between the pre-med courses I’m taking and the courses I’m taking for my major.”