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When members of the class of 2008 graduated last May, they took their distributional requirements with them.The change in requirements — from four group areas to six subject and skills areas — was only one of many recommendations made by the Committee on Yale College Education, whose findings are being reviewed for the first time this year. Administrators will look at the effectiveness of changes made because of the CYCE and also at additional changes that can be made based on the six-year-old report. But there is no question that the CYCE had a major impact on teaching and learning at Yale.
“The report represented the best that 41 people could imagine at a moment in time,” said Penelope Laurans, an associate dean of Yale College who served on the committee. “But whereas 41 people can imagine the outcome of what they have put in place, they never can know that outcome with certainty.”
To hear Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon tell it, though, “the CYCE is Yale College.”
A ‘SPECTACULARLY VAGUE’ SYSTEM
The Committee on Yale College Education was convened in the fall of 2001, with former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 as its chair. The committee, made up of students and faculty, ultimately spent 16 months reviewing academic life in Yale College and making recommendations for improvement.
Those recommendations were outlined in an 86-page report, first released in the spring of 2003 and finalized that summer. The committee called for a new set of distributional requirements, a larger faculty, improved advising, seminars for underclassmen and expanded offerings in the arts and sciences.
And, so far, much of that has been accomplished.
By the fall of 2005 the distributional requirements that the CYCE called for — arguably its most dramatic recommendation — were in place.
The new distributional requirements require all Yale students to take two courses each in three subject areas: humanities, social sciences and sciences. In addition, students must take at least one course in a foreign language and two courses each in quantitative reasoning and writing.
Prior to 2005, courses were divided into four groups: language and literature, humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Students had to take 12 course credits from the three distributional groups outside their major, including at least three course credits from each of those groups. (This meant a history major could not take 12 social science credits to avoid the natural sciences.)
Foreign language classes could also be escaped entirely if a student did well enough on the placement exam.
“The current system,” the committee wrote, “remains almost spectacularly vague about the skills it expects students to build strength in, freeing them to avoid their weaknesses in ways that can prove seriously self-impoverishing.”
The CYCE also recommended an increase in the number of small classes for underclassmen. In response, freshman seminars were introduced in 2004 with 11 seminar offerings; there are now 35 annually.
From the beginning, it was decided that the CYCE recommendations would be reviewed five years after the committee finished its work.
The timing was especially right this year, though, because Yale is also currently undergoing reaccreditation. The CYCE review is being included in that process, and administrators said they are taking a close look at the changes made so far because of the report and other policy changes that may still be needed.
“It’s really valuable to see,” Associate Dean for Assessment Judith Hackman said, “if what we set out to do is being done.”
Some of the re-evaluation work is statistical. Rebecca Friedkin, a senior researcher at the Office of Institutional Research, said she is working closely with administrators to process data relevant to the CYCE recommendations. She said she is examining course-taking patterns in order to determine the effects of the changes.
Historically, Friedkin said, about 15 percent of Yale undergraduates did not take a single writing class in their four years here. But now, all students must take two writing courses.
Gordon said the data compiled so far are only part of the picture. Because the class of 2009 is only the first class to have gone through four complete years at Yale with the new distributional requirements in place, Gordon said, final conclusions about the CYCE will not be made until more data are collected.
Friedkin said a survey of seniors is currently being conducted to evaluate quantitative reasoning courses. Seniors are asked to rate their course experiences on usefulness and complete a few reasoning problems to determine their competency.
THE CYCE TODAY
The re-evaluation of the CYCE will continue until the fall of 2010. Along the way, other CYCE changes may be put in place.
Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the expansion of the arts at Yale — as recommended by the CYCE — is a priority.
“It’s fortunate for me that my own vision and interests coincide with the area of greatest need,” said Miller, the Sterling professor of the history of art.
Yale is looking to hire a dean of arts who will coordinate all undergraduate arts activities at Yale. When that person takes office, her or she will also look to improve arts facilities and increase the number of instructors for arts courses, which are often oversubscribed.
The CYCE devoted significant attention to expanding educational opportunities for Yale students in other countries — and for Yale students from other countries. One important change instituted since 2003 was the extension of financial aid to students taking terms abroad. Still, it remains difficult for students to obtain credit for courses taken outside of Yale, and administrators say they are considering changes to those policies.
Probably the most contentious curricular issue at Yale right now is the question of whether Yale College students should be able to declare a minor. In this instance, the CYCE offers little guidance.
“We distinguish a secondary concentration from a minor,” the report states, “a concept we are not endorsing.”
While the issue warranted only a few sentences of discussion, the report noted that minors are undesirable because they “[compound] the forces of specialization.” In contrast, the committee said, a secondary concentration in science and quantitative reasoning, for instance, would include courses from multiple subject areas and allow for further exploration across disciplines.
Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, who served on the committee, said the group’s conclusion about minors was made quickly and without extensive discussion.
“No one on the committee saw it as vital to what we were doing,” Butler said.
RESISTING THE ‘ROAD MAP’
While administrators say the CYCE itself has proven vital for Yale since its completion, the committee was almost never convened.
In a recent interview, University President Richard Levin recounted a series of conversations he had nearly a decade ago with fellows of the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, about a potential study of learning in Yale College. Levin said he and other top administrators were averse to the idea at first, thinking that undergraduate life at Yale was about as good as it gets.
“We, the internal leadership, resisted doing a full-scale review of the Yale College curriculum,” Levin acknowledged. “The Corporation persuaded myself and Dick Brodhead that this would be a good idea. We had a couple of discussions, and it was only the third time around that we realized the people calling for this were right.”
As the re-evaluation unfolds, administrators will determine once and for all the value of the CYCE changes. But, Miller said, the committee’s work has already proven important.
“The CYCE was the road map into the 21st century for Yale,” she said. “It’s not something we’re looking at anymore; it’s something we’re living and embodying.”