Sophs bemoan scant seminars

Wedged between the wide variety of freshman seminars and the countless advanced junior seminars, sophomore year is something of a no man’s land for those looking for the seminar experience.

Although the report released by the Committee on Yale College Education in 2003 called for the creation of a “modest but critical number” of both freshman and sophomore seminars throughout the University’s academic departments, this year’s course offerings include only two courses exclusively for sophomores, compared with 30 for freshmen. Administrators and former CYCE members said that because of limited resources, the freshman seminar program was consciously prioritized over the equivalent program for sophomores. But sophomores said they wish more seminars existed for them, especially as they struggle to gain acceptance to small courses meant for juniors and seniors.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said offering additional seminars in general is difficult because creating new courses involves pulling faculty members away from their other teaching commitments. He said the CYCE’s original plan was for the University to build an extensive freshman seminar program — which he called an “outstanding success” so far — and then direct its energy and remaining resources toward planning for sophomore seminars. The Dean’s Office has already begun discussions on the issue, Salovey said.

“It’s something I would love to do, and it’s only an issue of managing the teaching resources that are available to us that keeps us from implementing such a program,” he said.

The two sophomore seminars currently offered are “Classics of World Politics” during the fall semester and “Perspectives on the City” in the spring. The Blue Book also includes seven courses — not including introductory English classes — in which enrollment is limited to freshmen and sophomores.

Physics and astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who is currently teaching “Quantitative Methods across the Disciplines” for freshmen and sophomores, said many sophomores have pushed for their own seminars because by the time they become juniors, they usually have to take seminars within their majors. While a few rogue professors have decided to focus on sophomores, there has yet to be a concerted College-wide effort to add seminars for second-year students. Bailyn said part of the problem is that administrators and faculty, including directors of undergraduate study, have not been able to determine exactly what sophomores need in terms of course offerings.

“Seminar-wise, it’s a bit of a desert,” he said. “There is now a little bit of an effort to get rolling in that regard, [but] it’s difficult to figure out what exactly constitutes an appropriate thing for a sophomore seminar.”

Bailyn said his course — which is designed as a quantitative reasoning class for non-science, non-quantitative majors — was originally designed just for sophomores. But because of its location in the Blue Book and early-morning scheduling, he opened enrollment to freshmen so that enough students would take the class.

English professor Amy Hungerford, who served on the CYCE, developed a seminar entitled “New Literature” that she offered to Berkeley and Saybrook sophomores during the 2004-’05 academic year. Hungerford said that while one of the principal purposes of her seminar was for students to get extensive research experience, she also included an informal academic advising component in which she had discussions about everything from choosing a major to studying abroad to what it means to get a liberal arts education. The students in her class benefitted from interacting with other Yalies who were in their class as well as in their colleges, which she said undoubtedly played a role in the group dynamic.

Hungerford said sophomores have unique needs because of where they are in their academic careers — still exploring, but at the same time beginning to focus on one area of study. The University does not have enough courses tailored to the specific needs of the sophomore class, she said.

“I think sophomores are really a neglected piece of the puzzle at Yale,” Hungerford said.

She has not offered the course again because teaching it was time-consuming. But Hungerford plans to hold it again soon because she thinks “creative teaching” can play an important role in meeting the needs of sophomores, especially given the limited number of new courses that can be offered. She also urges professors to develop additional offerings for sophomores.

“I don’t know if it’s feasible, but I think if there were a critical mass of people, maybe even not in every department, then at least everyone would have some place where they could have a small class in the sophomore year,” Hungerford said.

To overcome the faculty resources limitation, the CYCE report suggested that sophomore seminars be incorporated into the existing college seminar program. That recommendation was never adopted, as it would have limited college seminars for the other classes.

Sophomores said that since many of the best courses are offered as junior or senior seminars, they often have trouble getting into them, which restricts the freedom that sophomores have with their schedules and often forces them to take large lectures.

“I had a really good time in my freshman seminar, and it would be nice to have another,” Mariel Aquino ’10 said. “I feel like not as many people are taking seminars this year.”

Samantha Terkeltaub ’09, who took “Perspectives on the City” last year, said that while the course was one of the best she has taken at Yale, she does not think the fact that enrollment was limited to sophomores either added to or detracted from its quality. Still, she said, if sophomores feel that it is difficult to get into seminars, there is no reason for the University not to offer them more small class options.

But history professor Daniel Kevles, who also served on the CYCE, said that while sophomore seminars were regarded as valuable by the Committee, the freshman program should rightly take precedent because its seminars are designed to teach freshmen how to conduct research, write papers and generally start off on the right foot. While there are many popular seminars in which it is difficult for sophomores to win a spot, there are also many undersubscribed ones which they should consider taking instead, he said.

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