Interdisciplinary majors approved

Yale College faculty members voted unanimously Thursday for the creation of two new undergraduate majors: Modern Middle East Studies and Computing and the Arts.

Both majors received the faculty stamp of approval after lengthy campaigns by professors and administrators to design the interdisciplinary majors and drum up faculty and student support. The formalization of the two majors will not expand course selection beyond what is already available. Students may declare these two majors beginning in the 2008-2009 academic year.

“Both of the new majors that were approved tonight really represent opportunities for Yale,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. “In the Modern Middle East [Studies] there’s just incredible student interest and the faculty resources to address that interest. In Computing and the Arts we have a proposal that reflects an especially creative idea which Yale seems uniquely positioned to carry out.”

Salovey approximated that 65 to 70 faculty members showed up to Thursday’s meeting, which he said was more than usual attendance of approximately 50 faculty and lectors.

Too interdisciplinary?

The addition of these majors was approved despite a 2007 recommendation from the Committee on Majors last year not to create more interdisciplinary majors, because they require a significant investment of resources and can deflect faculty members from their departments.

The two majors approved yesterday were added to the curriculum less than one year after South Asian Studies; all three are interdisciplinary — and all were approved without dissent.

Committee on Majors chair Pericles Lewis, an English professor, said despite the report, the committee was willing to approve new majors in two cases: when a significant geographic area is not covered in the University’s system of area studies majors — as is the case with Modern Middle East Studies — or when a discrete, coherent set of knowledge is not being covered by existing majors, as is the case with Computing and the Arts.

“We are being cautious in general,” Lewis said. “It seems totally appropriate that if you can major in Latin American Studies, why not be able to major in Middle East Studies or South Asian Studies?”

Added Lewis, “It’s certainly true of the 78 majors there are five or six very large ones and a handful of medium-sized ones and a very large number of relatively small majors. That’s part of being a research university that is focused on educating undergraduates.”

During the 2005-2006 school year, 55 percent of Yale undergraduates majored in only seven disciplines, according to statistics from the Office of Institutional Research — the highest percentage of students ever majoring in the largest departments.

Salovey said the recent approval of the three new majors is a result of faculty hiring and interest in specific areas rather than evidence of an ongoing trend within Yale College toward increased specialization.

“The biggest concern is the sustainability of that major over time,” Salovey said. “We do not want to create a new major, only to have to sunset that major within a few years because we don’t have the faculty resources to provide sufficient course offerings and administrative support to generate student interest to continue it. That’s the real issue.”

Lewis added that he thinks it is unlikely many more new majors will be added in the near future. Currently, the only new major proposal he has heard is for a program in health studies, which he said is not near the final stages of approval.

Filling a gap

The Modern Middle East Studies major, spearheaded by members of the Council on Middle East Studies at the MacMillan Center for Area and International Studies and professors in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, has been in the works for four or five years, professors close to the approval process said. In that time, said NELC chair John Darnell, faculty received advice and input from administrators and gradually built University-wide support for the major.

“It fills a big gap,” Darnell said. “I think this was the last ‘area studies’ sort of major that didn’t exist at Yale.”

Council on Middle East Studies Chair Ellen Lust-Okar said the sustained effort over the last several years to create the major was finally successful yesterday because recent growth in Yale faculty specializing in the Middle East indicated to administrators that the major would be able to survive faculty leaves and retirements. Lust-Okar said the major will largely consist of existing courses offered in NELC and other departments relating to the Middle East.

According to the major proposal approved by the Committee on Majors in January, 16 faculty members across seven fields of study currently teach courses that could be applicable to the new major.

Unlike other area studies programs, the major will not be housed under the umbrella of the MacMillan Center, Lust-Okar said. Instead, the Dean’s Office will appoint a governing committee to oversee the major.

Salovey said the governing committee will consist largely of faculty currently serving on the Council on Middle East Studies, and will be appointed by the end of this academic year.

The 12-course major requires students to attain proficiency in one of four Middle Eastern languages and complete three “foundational” courses and six elective courses, all of which are already offered.

Darnell said the major could serve as a bridge between the language-centric NELC department and more social-science-oriented examinations of the Middle East.

Salovey said the Modern Middle East major is unique because it responds to broad existing student interest, which he said he has witnessed through several venues.

“Really it’s just the number of students who have spoken up in various forums, through the [Yale College Council], to me and to the faculty about their interest in a major that would focus on the challenges presented by the contemporary Middle East,” Salovey said.

Jeremy Avins ’10 and Gregor Nazarian ’09, both students currently enrolled in introductory Arabic, said it is “excellent” and “awesome” that the major was approved.

Avins said although he does not plan to pursue the major himself, he does think its approval is a positive step for the University because it fills a gap in Yale’s academic offerings.

“It’s ridiculous that the University still doesn’t have a Modern Middle East major when they have all these other area studies,” he said. “So even if it’s not perfect, I’m glad that it exists in some form now.”

Avins criticized what he sees as the major’s stringent language requirement. Students enrolled in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian or Turkish can only apply the third year of language study for credit in the major.

But Nazarian said he thinks the language requirement is appropriate because most students interested in the Middle East will want to gain language fluency anyway. Nazarian, currently a history major, said he plans to pursue the Modern Middle East major if his past study of the region is approved for credit.

“It’s what I’m actually interested in, so I’d rather be in a major that reflects my actual interests, as opposed to majoring in history and pretending that I have a Middle East major by taking classes in religious studies and political science that are relevant,” Nazarian said.

Combining interests

Efforts to establish the Computing and the Arts major were driven by computer science professors Paul Hudak, Holly Rushmeier and Julie Dorsey. Students in that major will be required to take 14 term courses, seven of which must be in computer science, with the other half focusing on one of the arts disciplines: art, architecture, art history, music or theater studies.

Hudak said over the last ten years, computer science faculty had noticed student interest in combining computer science with arts disciplines. Through discussions with music professors, Hudak said, he heard there was also interest from students in exploring music technology.

Although the Computing and the Arts major will, like Modern Middle East Studies, largely draw on existing resources, Committee on Majors chair and English professor Pericles Lewis said its formalization will make it more feasible for students to gain expertise in both the arts and computer science.

“This way you get a coherent set of courses,” Lewis said. “You get the benefits of both departments in a coherent structured format.”

The formal major will make cross-department study easier for students interested in both computing and the arts — whose only previous option was to double major, which did not leave them flexibility in their course schedule to explore other disciplines.

After the major was approved last night, professors established a temporary Web page for the major detailing course requirements and allowing students to join a e-mail list to get more information about the program.

Hudak said the major’s executive committee, which will consist of Hudak, Dorsey and Rushmeier, as well as a professor from each of the five arts disciplines, will oversee the growth and expansion of the major.

“We still have some work to do,” Hudak said. “We have to iron out the details on the architecture track but also possibly include areas such as film studies.”

Computer science major Justin Kosslyn ’09 said as long as professors adequately address both the theoretical aspects and practical applications of computer science, the new major could be successfully applied in many ways.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Kosslyn said. “It can be very handy to be able to program a computer application to enable you to do something in the arts. It’s the question of ‘Will people be interested [in the major]?’ I hope people will be interested.”

Computer science and art double major Yagmur Ilyen ’09 said that although she is managing to complete both her majors, both her majors required courses that she found unnecessary to her future goal of working in three-dimensional animation. Computing and the Arts, she said, could cut out those unnecessary requirements, such as advanced programming courses.

“It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of projects come out of it,” Ilyen said. “I wish I could stay for a few courses.”

Ilyen said she expects the major will attract freshmen and sophomores currently taking introductory computer science courses and interested in computer graphics.

Both Computing and the Arts and Modern Middle East Studies will be re-evaluated in five years, Salovey said, to examine enrollments and student understanding of the two majors.

The last major approved by Yale College faculty before South Asian Studies was Cognitive Science in 1999.

Comments

  • Reality Check

    Is it just me or does anyone else see the irony of using the archaic Euro-centric definition of the geographic area in combination with the word "Modern"? "Modern Middle East Studies"? It is so oxymoronic I'm ready to fall out of my chair laughing if I weren't too busy gnashing my teeth in disgust. When is Yale going to pull itself through the 20th and then into the 21st century and rename all the programs that currently define themselves from the Victorian British vantage point? It is truly ludicrous and culturally insensitive to maintain the Euro-centric perspective; "Near East, Middle East"--near and middle to what? Do the text books for these departments still use the term "colored natives" as well? Sheesh, all I can say is I have a hard time thinking this is a "global" university when we still view the world from such an archaic paradigm.

  • @ #1:

    What term do you prefer? I'm not a fan of "Middle East" in its own right either, but I'm afraid there's just not really any good indigenous alternative.

  • Reality Check

    "Southwest Asia" is the current standard for those with a bit more cultural sensitivity. It doesn't take too long to get used to it and since it uses the continent as the frame of reference it is less offensive than the alternatives.

    If Southeast Asia as popular currency, I think we can adopt Southwest Asia without too much suffering.