For seminar selection, Potter will have to wait

Despite the Hogwartian allure of Yale’s Gothic-style colleges, Muggle undergraduates may have to look elsewhere to catch a true glimpse of the magical world of Harry Potter.

Although series author J.K. Rowling’s books have appeared on the syllabi of classes at other institutions — including Stanford University and the University of Washington — students on the Saybrook College Seminar Committee said a proposal that the committee reviewed for a class on the fictional boy wizard will not meet Yale College’s academic standards.

Professor Andrew Horowitz leads discussion in his spring 2007 college seminar “Oral History/New Haven History.” Seminars are chosen after a selection process of several months.
Amy Ly
Professor Andrew Horowitz leads discussion in his spring 2007 college seminar “Oral History/New Haven History.” Seminars are chosen after a selection process of several months.

Peter Luehring-Jones ’09, co-chair of the Saybrook committee, said Saybrook begins each semester with about 40 proposals, which are winnowed down to 15 before the interview stage. He said he doubts dragons and Hogwarts will enter Yale’s hallowed halls any time soon.

“The committee had a good laugh over the Harry Potter proposal,” Luehring-Jones said. “It had a really well-written introduction that made it sound very interesting, but not something that you could talk about for 13 weeks.”

But the fact that such an unorthodox seminar could even be considered for inclusion among the University’s course offerings speaks to the idiosyncratic nature of seminar selection.

When considering unusual courses — such as the Harry Potter seminar — the Committee on Teaching in the Residential Colleges aims to expand students’ perspectives through often-overlooked fields of study, former CTRC chair and Saybrook master Mary Miller said.

“[It’s] a different way of focusing the material for students,” she said. “I think the committee does look with enthusiasm on these exciting and sometimes counterintuitive [pursuits] of some piece of knowledge of the world.”

The several-month-long process for selecting residential college seminars is designed to ensure that classes are academically rigorous while exploring areas beyond the reaches of a traditional Yale education.

University policy is not to seek out seminar proposals, so ideas for new college seminars come from a variety of sources, from Yale faculty members and graduate students to faculty of other institutions and people outside the University who are distinguished in their academic or professional fields.

The vetting process they must undergo mimics that of a college applicant: detailed written statements, letters of recommendation, interviews and student and faculty committees are all considered by each college’s seminar committee before class proposals are approved.

Luehring-Jones ’09 said interviews with potential instructors are critical because they give committee members the opportunity to weed out great ideas matched with “dud” professors, which result in unappealing classes as often as do boring seminar topics with engaging professors.

After colleges decide on which seminars to sponsor, the fate of the proposed seminars falls to the CTRC, the Course of Study Committee and Yale College faculty, all of which must provide their stamps of approval.

Hundreds of hours sometimes go into creating a successful college seminar proposal, said Scott Bessent, manager of a hedge fund with more than $1 billion in assets and professor for a Branford College seminar called “Hedge Funds: History, Theory and Practice.”

Jack Ford, who teaches another Branford seminar entitled “Trials of the Century,” said he was initially shocked at the prolonged application process. But after undergoing the process, he said, he realized that its intensity ensures that only professors with a passion for teaching and enthusiasm about their subjects are approved.

“My guess is that we may well have lost some folks that thought their own experience didn’t warrant such an application process and might have been insulted by it,” Ford said. “But I think it’s important to protect the integrity of Yale College … [and ensure] that someone isn’t going to walk into a seminar and wing it, no matter how talented that person might be.”

Although drafting a detailed, 13-week syllabus from scratch might seem daunting, Dennis Quinn — who teaches the Timothy Dwight College seminar “Radio Drama and the American Identity” — said the real challenge is the required one-page course description.

Quinn said he has found it difficult to condense a “grand” course idea into a few paragraphs while making the description appealing to students.

“That’s the most difficult task for most of us — to have to come up with a proper academic component to please Yale, and rightly so,” he said. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s put on a radio show.’”

Then again, Harry Potter fans might still have some cause for hope: Yale, like Hogwarts, is not an everyday Durmstrang or Beauxbatons — at least so says Quinn.

“This is just the most unique educational environment where some of the most incredible people are,” he said. “It’s different than most educational institutions.”

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