Yale’s roster of undergraduate majors changes little from year to year. But the requirements and structure of each existing discipline are under constant review, as students learned last week when the Comparative Literature Department announced an overhaul of its undergraduate major.
If student or faculty interests shift, a major can be reviewed and altered by the professors heading the major, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. Changes are sometimes based on the advice of the Committee on Majors, he said, and any significant adjustments to a major’s requirements must be approved by a vote of the Yale faculty.
“You would never want a system that etches the requirements of a major in stone,” Salovey said.
When the Literature Department reviewed its requirements this year, Director of Undergraduate Studies Pericles Lewis said, the faculty decided to increase the major’s focus on poetry and drama, replacing its former emphasis on narrative prose and film. The department also decided to increase the foreign literature requirement, he said.
The Committee on Majors reviews approximately 10 majors per year, and departments are free to conduct their own reviews at any time, administrators said. The faculty typically votes on changes to two or three majors each year, said Lewis, a member of the Committee on Majors.
Sometimes the changes come about after a review by the Committee on Majors sparks discussion within the department, Salovey said. Current committee chair David Mayhew, a political science professor, said the group looks at the department’s curriculum and staff availability, as well as the overall coherence of the major.
“Is a major sensibly something more than a random selection of courses? Everything I’ve seen has a sensible coherence to it,” Mayhew said.
In previous years, the committee has recommended that the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major focus more on modern Middle East studies, Salovey said, and that other language and literature departments place greater emphasis on cultural studies.
But Mayhew said departments are also responsible for constantly reviewing their own requirements.
Internal review committees consider many of the same issues as the Committee on Majors, including the flexibility of the major, the number of prerequisites and enrollment patterns in different courses, Salovey said. A major should provide a thorough introduction to a discipline, Lewis said, without imposing too many restrictive requirements.
“Rather than take whatever courses catch their fancy, students should be developing an in-depth knowledge of the methods, techniques and content of a field of study,” Lewis said.
But Salovey said student demand should also be considered in departmental reviews, especially when there has been a significant increase or decrease in enrollment in the major or in certain classes of the major.
“They can look at patterns of student behavior and ask whether the major is able to respond to student interest,” Salovey said.
In a 2003 review of the Physics Department, the faculty redesigned the major to make it possible for students to major in physics even if they do not begin the coursework in the first semester of their freshman year. In the same year, the French major changed its requirements to allow students to count up to four courses from outside the department towards the major.
Faculty interests also dictate to some extent which courses can be offered, especially where the field is broad. In psychology, Salovey said the major does not emphasize industrial and organizational psychology because the department does not have faculty expertise in the area. But certain majors cannot change too much based on faculty specialties, he said, since some disciplines — such as English — have certain critical areas of study.
“It’s hard to imagine you could drop entire centuries because no one is focused on them,” he said.