Seminars, sections can’t replace lectures

Remember the charmingly blue view book that Yale used to seduce you by telling you that 75 percent (75 percent!) of courses enroll fewer than 20 students? Now, my experience shows 55.6 percent of my classes having 20 or fewer students. But many applicants probably assume that approximately three-fourths of their courses will have 20 students or fewer — although it’s pretty obvious that included in that 75 percent are the many introductory Spanish classes that each of us will only have to take once, hopefully — which implies considerable interaction with a real professor.

Is this deceptive advertising? Are Yale students getting a raw deal? I would say, well, they are and they aren’t.

Back then, the view book told you that the best way to get one-on-one interaction with professors was to get into a seminar. Do you love seminars? We beg to get into seminars as freshmen and sophomores, and relish in our seniority when we sail our way into “Mating Habits of Ghanaian Basket-Weavers” in our last semester. But really, the seminar format leaves much to be desired. First of all, many seminars have such narrow topics that none of the students knows enough to contribute anything meaningful to the conversation. Likely, everyone would have learned more if the professor took those two hours to give a coherent lecture. We all realize at some point that a seminar is just a glorified section. True, at least seminars are taught by professors of some sort, who — one assumes — have background in the area. But then instead of getting to revel in the rhetoric of Brilliant Professor So-And-So-Yale-B.A.-Rhodes-Scholar-Harvard-Ph.D., you get to listen to your fellow students try to one-up each other, prove themselves, get a good grade, and hopefully a recommendation to send them off to Oxford, too. And let’s just pretend for a second that your seminar is taught by a graduate student … yes, I have experience here, and you should trust me when I say that it is an atrociously painful one. In my major (political science), a very limited number of lecture courses are offered per semester, making shopping period a colossal mess because all the majors are fighting to get into seminars. The truth is, a well-structured lecture course of even 5,300 students could very well be more thought-provoking and informative than a seminar of two students.

When we think of problems with teaching, however, it is not the revered seminar that we think of, but the dreaded section. Let’s all welcome to the discussion the eminent Graduate Students and Employees Organization, which claims to have solutions. (I won’t stop here to address the fact that the Graduate Students and Employees Organization is clearly a misnomer, given that graduate students aren’t employees — almost good enough for Coffee Talk … GESO, neither employees nor a union. Discuss.) As shown at a Thursday GESO/Undergraduate Organizing Committee panel discussion, most often, GESO members make suggestions for improving TAing that are beyond preposterous — their main points center around creating incentive for graduate students to enjoy teaching, and giving them more choice in what they do teach. They argue that graduate students should not only get paid more for teaching, but that there would be better incentive to care about teaching if teacher training were funded by the University. As it is, the poor graduate students have no incentive to learn to teach well, which apparently is enough to explain why so many of them make section seems like it someone is depriving your brain of oxygen. It is a fair assumption to think that a majority of graduate students at least hope to become professors, and they might as well use undergraduates as guinea pigs (crudely, one of the things they should learn as students is how to teach). GESO also suggests that TAs should have more choice in selecting courses they TA. In most departments, graduate students give a list of their top choices, and the department makes decisions; GESO wants to have more input. But do graduate students really think that the University isn’t trying as hard as possible to match TAs with courses in their general area of expertise?

What GESO and the UOC do argue correctly, is that there is a shortage of what many of them call “teachers” (read: professors) at Yale. The truth is that the number of Yale students has risen in higher percentages than the number of professors, forcing reliance of graduate student “labor.” According to UOC numbers, 37 percent of undergraduate teaching hours were taught by what they call “transient teachers” (a highly derisive and disrespectful term), 33 percent by graduate students and 30 percent by “regular teachers.” I don’t know where the UOC gets these numbers (or these terms), but, regardless of what we may think of the groups, there is a point here. (It’s funny, though, I wonder how annoyed GESO would be if all of a sudden the amount of TA positions was drastically reduced if Yale hired more professors.) The truth is, everyone’s problems might be solved if, instead of offering more seminars, we had more lectures. Undergraduates would get to hear quality information from a professor (“regular teacher”?). Fewer professors would be required because lectures are generally bigger. Yale wouldn’t have to hire hundreds of new faculty to keep up with increasing enrollment. And the graduate students … we’ll need more of them. But I doubt we’ll ever really make GESO happy.



Jessamyn Blau is as junior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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