Current course models to change with growth

If the Yale Corporation agrees to the proposed expansion of Yale College after its scheduled February vote, the “two lectures and a section” model — one of the University’s most common undergraduate course formats — may become a thing of the past.

The Graduate School — which provides most of the teaching assistants for College courses — cannot expand simply to meet undergraduate needs, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said in an interview this week. But the possible 12 percent increase in enrollment, which would equal about 600 students, would require more TAs in some academic departments.

The relative inflexibility of Graduate School enrollment numbers would make it impossible to maintain the current weekly discussion section format popular with undergraduate lecture courses, Butler said. Instead, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the University may revamp “the way we teach” by turning to alternative, currently undetermined teaching formats that would depend less on the Graduate School and more on an enlarged University faculty.

At capacity?

Graduate School administrators said enrollment numbers are based on the perceived demand, the need for experts in each field and available University funding meant to support graduate students ­— not on the number of TAs needed by the College, Butler said.

If current course models — with large- and medium-sized courses breaking up into mandated weekly discussion sections led by graduate students — are maintained, professors said some departments could see a shortage of teaching assistants.

One way undergraduate students can fulfill the writing distributional requirement is through special writing sections in classes dispersed throughout dozens of departments. Yale College Writing Center Director Alfred Guy said the supply of teaching assistants qualified to lead such sections would have to increase, assuming demand for such sections rises along with the number of students.

“If everything expanded at the same rate, we would need more teaching fellows,” Guy said. “Lecture courses that offer the writing designation are at capacity.”

In the Anthropology Department — which already faces limited teaching assistant resources because its graduate students often conduct research abroad during their fourth years — Director of Graduate Studies Joseph Errington said a rise in undergraduate course enrollment without a similar rise in graduate enrollment would likely cause a shortage of teaching assistants. But caps on University funding designated to support graduate students limit enrollment in anthropology, Errington said.

And Vinodkumar Saranathan GRD ’11, a student in ecology and evolutionary biology — another department with TA shortages — who is currently a TA for the popular “Conservation Biology” course, said his course faced problems securing enough teaching assistants at the beginning of the semester.

“Our department has a shortage of students to begin with,” Saranathan said. “We have to hire people from other departments. Unless they increase the enrollment in the Graduate School, it’s going to be tough to deal with the influx of new students.”

Although Butler said the size of the graduate student body would not increase as a direct result of the undergraduate expansion, some graduate programs will inevitably increase their enrollments, particularly if additional faculty members are hired. Economics chairman Christopher Udry said the plum job market for those with doctorates in economics has opened the door for Yale’s program to grow. So far, faculty resources have limited the growth of the graduate economics program. A College expansion — and the new faculty hires it would enable through increased funding — could ease that constraint, Udry said.

The same could be true throughout the Graduate School, Butler said — although on a relatively small scale.

“The task of the next several years, presuming the expansion of the undergraduate colleges and faculty, will be to determine how graduate programs can and should be carefully and modestly enlarged to strengthen the opportunities they provide for graduate students,” Butler said.

Rethinking the model

But even a modest expansion at the graduate level may be impossible for some programs and may still not produce enough teaching assistants to meet undergraduate demand if current class formats are maintained.

Those departments, administrators said, may have to consider a number of new models besides the “two lectures and a section” format if the College grows.

“We might need to rethink the way in which we teach and the role of graduate students in that teaching,” Salovey said. “Is the model of two lectures and a section overly relied upon? Undergraduates tell us they don’t understand the purpose of many of the sections in which they are enrolled.”

Administrators said it is still too soon to speculate on what new teaching patterns may be — and this uncertainty results in as many questions as answers.

“We may, in a variety of fields, want to think about varying some of our teaching patterns,” Butler said. “It’s not clear that all courses need discussion sections. Do we have too many discussion sections? Should we concentrate sections in some courses and not in others?”

Some of those new patterns may, for example, include having three lectures a week for some courses, with professors holding question and answer sessions as part of each lecture, political science professor Steven Smith said.

But Smith, who teaches “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” said though these different options exist, discussion sections are ideal for courses like his. Smith said his class enrolls about 170 students who divide into seven sections.

“I think it’s very valuable for students to have a small group experience,” Smith said.

Smith said he had difficulty finding enough teaching assistants for his course this year, because while political science is becoming increasingly popular with undergraduates, the pool of teaching assistants has remained constant. Smith said he expects the problem would get worse if the College were to expand.

A solution down the road

Nicholaus Noles GRD ’08, a psychology student and TA who did his undergraduate work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he does not think sections are a crucial feature of undergraduate courses.

“I had never heard of a section before coming here,” Noles said. “I think certainly you don’t have to have them. There are lots of universities that do just fine [without sections]. It’s just a different way of doing things.”

But most undergraduates interviewed said they are fond of the discussion section format.

History major Alex Afsahi ’09 said sections provide an intimacy absent during large lecture classes.

“[With discussion sections] you have a working relationship with the person who’s directly responsible for your grade,” Afsahi said. “It’s nice to have an approachable figure who you can talk to about how you’re doing. You have to make a pretty extreme effort to go to a professor’s office hours. A teaching assistant is an intermediary figure between you and the professor.”

Jeremy Hopkins ’10 said he thinks sections provide students with an in-depth knowledge of class material.

A section is only valuable when it functions as more than “a reading check,” Amy Lee ’10 said. Such sections, she said, are a waste of students’ time.

Lee said she thinks the optional section format discussed by some administrators would not draw many students.

“I find that optional sections only end up getting utilized for math or econ,” she said. “For English, a lot of people would choose not to do it. I think that for the most part, people are so busy that if they’re not getting something kind of concrete out of it, a lot of people will choose to forego it.”

Though there have already been meetings within departments about ways to adapt to the possible growth, Salovey said when the Corporation makes its final decision in February it is unlikely all the details and logistics of expansion will have been determined.

“If we decide to build the colleges, there will be time for future discussion,” Salovey said.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said the committee charged with weighing in on the effect the College’s growth would have on academics — of which he is chair — has not yet formulated a concrete plan to accommodate additional students. But he said the committee will ultimately address the challenges of the increased need for resources such as instructors, fellowship opportunities and facilities.

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