Lind: Self-defeating academia

The beginning of each year provides plenty of reminders of just how many regulations Yale has: from the “Undergraduate Tenant Manual” that awaited me in my common room upon arrival to the friendly note in my registration packet reminding me that I won’t be able to graduate in May without taking another science class this year. I appreciate that the tutorials and instructional meetings come front-loaded into each year; it makes it easier to make a floor plan or a course schedule according to the rules, rather than crashing into these rules as I go along. Once the year settles into a more regular routine it’s easy to forget the plan was made to satisfy particular rules at all.

On the other hand, the subtlety with which Yale’s regulations fade into the woodwork means that things that occur as unintended consequences of those policies look identical to everything else in the course of undergraduate events. Yale doesn’t run studies assessing the consequences of its policies, making it impossible to know for sure which is which actions correspond. Only at the beginning of the year, when we’re reminded of the rules, is it possible to speculate whether something we take for granted might in fact work out differently, even better, if a policy were to be changed or reversed — with results that come closer to the spirit of the rules, where at the moment they’re undermined by the devil of their details.

Think about Yale’s distributional requirements — the source of that friendly note with my registration. The University intends them to expose a student to various “fields of inquiry and approaches to knowledge” (like any good Yalie, I can quote my Blue Book chapter and verse), and to ensure that students take this seriously, it prohibits such classes from being taken Credit/D/Fail.

Sounds good on paper, especially because most students are at least somewhat competent in each area to begin with: it’s difficult to get in here without having enough aptitude to excel in all subjects in high school. In theory, history majors would dust off their AP Biology textbooks to study up for their genetics labs as engineering students racked their brains for the poetic devices they learned about in 10th grade to write papers for “Major English Poets.” Each would rekindle an academic interest she’d forgotten she had, and maybe even take further classes above and beyond the requirements.

In practice, it’s true that the classes taken to satisfy humanities and social-science requirements are usually chosen according to (at least moderate) interest. After all, grading in these is usually fairly subjective — and very rarely competitive — so it’s pretty easy to scrape a decent grade in an unfamiliar class without being as prepared as one’s classmates who are majoring in the subject. In the sciences, on the other hand, grades are based much more heavily on mastery of the material — which is to say that a student not majoring in physics who “tries his hand” in a class populated largely by physics majors will have to work a disproportionate amount to keep up. Given that, by definition, he doesn’t find physics compelling enough to spend much of his time doing it, he has no reason to take that sort of risk.

As a result, the vast majority of non-science majors find ourselves packed into a handful of designated “gut sciences.” I have never heard of a science class at Yale that non-science majors found to be legitimately easy, but the point of guts is that they’re comfortable: they’re usually on central campus rather than Science Hill, and they’re populated with non-scientists who are only in class because they have to be.

This is the crux of the problem, of course, because “only in class because they have to be” is a recipe for disaster. Professors have no incentive to bring the material to life — their audience wouldn’t appreciate it anyway, and besides, they’re captive. And by segregating science majors from non-scientists de facto, no member of a study group can explain why the material is relevant, or in many cases even explain the material at all. Rather than making the sciences more accessible, this serves to make science classes less appealing and scientists more alien to non-majors.

Clearly this isn’t what Yale intended. Making guts harder doesn’t solve the problem. Maybe reinstating the Credit/D/Fail option would help destigmatize “real science” courses, or maybe students and professors need to take a less defeatist attitude toward making “guts” interesting. After all, it’s by no means inevitable that science should be such a drag. Maybe if we pay more attention to Yale’s self-defeating policy and its unintended consequences, we’ll be able to figure out how to accomplish the intended results.

Dara Lind is a senior in Branford College.


  • Anonymous

    Dara thanks for writing this. The science and math requirements as they stand are a disaster and need to be re-thought. Maybe we should start a petition.

    One more quirk in the Yale system to add. Ever notice those science courses in the blue book that look interesting but have in italics, "Enrollment limited to freshmen and sophomores"? What is the logic behind this? That somehow, people who would be interested in these more basic science classes somehow acquire too much science knowledge as they become juniors and seniors and take only humanities courses? The reality is that freshmen and sophomores are sharper on science and math than a junior or senior humanities major might be, just by the difference in time that each had to take science and math as a serious subject.

    I'm not for doing away with math or science or making it even easier than it is. Yale has failed those of us who are not majoring in science by offering a smattering of "issues-approach" classes that are an insult to the professors and to students. Yale would do better to encourage harder courses, but to go back to accepting Credit/D/Fail again.

  • Anonymous

    "Yale doesn’t run studies assessing the consequences of its policies"

    I believe this is not entirely true… Yale did, in fact, compile an extensive report on education in Yale College a few years ago, a result of which was the change that prevented Cr/D from fulfilling distribution requirements. (For the class of 2008 and earlier, a limited number of distribution requirements were allowed to be CRs.)

    I think there is some truth in what the author is saying overall, though I have to say I was able to fulfill my math and science distribution requirements through courses that I thought were interesting, engaging, and fairly easy (none taken Cr/D).

  • Kai

    Well put, Dara. Very solid argument