Faculty to discuss minors

After months of consideration, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will formally begin discussing the possibility of implementing some form of academic minors at a May 7 meeting.

At the meeting, the Committee on Majors will give a presentation on minors, covering the arguments supporting and opposing the idea and introducing three possible courses of action, but no formal proposal or recommendation will be made. Yale College Dean Mary Miller said she hopes the faculty will hold off on making a motion to vote until the fall.

“It’s significant that the committee has not come to a secure and fixed opinion about what the outcome should be,” Miller said. “And I think it’s valuable to open the conversation and to encourage faculty to think and talk about it over the course of the summer.”

Committee co-chairman Pericles Lewis said the three possible ways to implement minors include an open system of minors across the University; an opt-in program, in which the decision to offer one is at the discretion of individual departments; or a concentration or certification program that would be restricted to certain departments which offer students a discrete body of knowledge.

Yale College Council President Rich Tao ’10 said he hopes the faculty eventually votes to approve opt-in minors, which the YCC found in an April report to be the most feasible system. Tao said he thinks student input should be solicited to inform the faculty’s decision. As such, he said he hopes a YCC representative will be asked to be present at either the May meeting or one in the fall.

Although an official YCC representative will not be at the May meeting, Miller said, the student representative to the Committee on Majors — who was nominated by the YCC — will be invited to participate at the meeting. That representative is now a senior, so his replacement, to be appointed during the summer, will be invited to the October meeting.

The concentration or certification option would allow minors in foreign languages, as well as professional fields such as engineering, architecture and computer science.

Stanley Eisenstat, director of undergraduate studies of the Computer Science Department, said his department will establish a minor if allowed to do so. And administrators in language departments said in interviews that a minor would be of particular use in encouraging students to take upper-level language courses.

In 2003, the Committee on Yale College Education report called for a new set of distributional requirements, which were applied beginning with the class of 2009. These new requirements made it impossible for incoming students to place out of the foreign language requirement completely.

Lewis said this has prompted students to take languages not offered at their high schools, such as Chinese and Arabic. On the other hand, he said, because new language students must only take courses up to level three, they often do not take advanced courses. Instituting minors might encourage students to do this once again, he said.

“We have a lot of people who take several courses in French but don’t become majors,” said Julie Prest, the French Department DUS. “It would be nice if they could receive some formal recognition for this.”

Smaller departments are generally more interested in the possibility of minors, Lewis said, because minors might help increase enrollment.

Another argument for minors, Lewis said, is that they might offer professional reasons for students to study subjects they might not otherwise, such as economics. But implementing a minors program would be a “blunt instrument” to achieve this end, Lewis said, as it might lead students to take an increasingly career-oriented view of education.

This perspective, he said, is shared by a large number of faculty members, who fear that students will become too focused on gathering credentials, allowing themselves less time for academic exploration. Lewis said offering minors could increase the enrollment pressure and administrative burden on larger departments.

“The top six majors have more than half the students,” Lewis said. “I would hate for that to be exacerbated.”

Allowing departments to opt out of minors might mitigate such pressures, he added.

While the CYCE discussed the possibility of offering interdisciplinary “secondary concentrations,” the Committee on Majors will not present this idea to the faculty in May, Lewis said.

“They reward breadth more than specialization,” he said of these secondary concentrations. “[But] could you have an effective interdisciplinary major? Does it really add up to a special recognition on a transcript?”

The Committee on Majors began formally considering academic minors earlier this year. The YCC independently launched a student survey to gauge interest in minors in November, followed by a report and formal recommendation that Yale College institute minors, which was submitted to the administration in April.


  • James


  • NO

    No, some of us do not. This is Yale, not community college.

  • hmmm

    What's wrong with just taking courses you're interested in outside your major?

    It's not obvious to me what the problem is that creating official "minors" is supposed to solve.

  • 09yalie

    if someone says they're a chemistry major and english minor, for example, they sound like an indecisive dilettante. this is a bad idea.

  • 09

    Minors can either be:

    A) A good excuse to take some classes you wanted to take anyway but couldn't justify when there were so many juicy seminars in your major. (Like distributional requirements. Upper-level language classes fall under this for me…)


    B) A way to force yourself to take classes you don't really want to take in the hopes that it will look good on a resume.

    I think more Yalies are likely to do it for (B) than for (A), so I understand the unwillingness to instate them. I'm glad that I didn't have the option.

    Though, #3, the one other benefit I could see would be that if you were minoring in something you'd likely have preference for admission to selective classes in that department, which could be nice.

  • '08

    I majored in the hard sciences, but really enjoy the humanities and social sciences as well. For a while I was pretty annoyed that I wouldn't be allowed to do a minor in one of these fields, but I think the fact that minors weren't allowed encouraged me to take a lot of classes in disciplines I wouldn't have considered if I'd been focusing on one department so I could satisfy requirements for a minor. I kind of understand the perspective of the faculty who don't want minors implemented.

  • Yale '00

    I still don't get it.

    I took a lot of courses outside my major, in two or three different departments, and loved them. If I had had a "minor," I guess I would have focused more on one department rather than two or three, but I don't think that would have been as good. Moreover, if other people had had "minors," even if I didn't, if the other people got some kind of preferential admission to seminars, I probably wouldn't have been able to take the diversity of seminars outside my major that I did. So for a student like me, anyway, minors make things worse, not better.

    I see that minors could look nice on people's resumes, and that some departments could gain students relative to other departments, so they're hoping for the change. But neither of those effects seem particularly good, and if people start feeling like they have to chase a "minor" for instrumental reasons, that would make Yale College worse, not better.

  • Anonymous

    @ #2 - #7:

    check out the ycc report @ http://ycc.yalestation.org/files/YCC%20Report%20re%20Secondary%20Concentrations%20(3%20February%202009)_0.pdf. you all make valid points, but the discussion will be much more helpful if it takes into consideration the specific argumentation of the student advocates pushing for the issue.

  • Spherical Cow

    @ #8:

    I also believe that minors are a needless, and ultimately, harmful addition to the Yale academic environment. Per your request, I will respond to the report.

    1. Increased depth of academic pursuits

    Even majors at Yale do not necessarily prepare students for graduate study. Minors, even more so, would likely be merely collections of classes within a department, which, in the absence of the methodological rigor that a major can try to instill, will not be any more valuable to the students career prospects, in or out of academia. This is reinforced by the suggestion in the report that minors specifically avoid being "mini" majors. Given this lack of coherence, a minor on a transcipt becomes a mark of illusory competence and excellence.

    2. Increased breadth of academic pursuits

    While certainly some current double majors will choose instead to major/minor, many other students will feel the pressure to take that 5th or 6th course in a field they would have otherwise a few classes in, in order that their time not be "wasted" by the lack of official recognition.

    Moreover, this will also make it increasingly difficult for non-major/minors to get into seminars. As a science major who enjoys and benefits from humanities seminars, I can only imagine the increased bureacratization of seminar enrollment. I do like Science Hill — but I'd like to be able to come down every once in a while.

    3. Mitigated influence of career goals on academic pursuits

    Again, I think it is actually more, rather than less, likely that individuals will feel the necessity to enroll in at least one "career-oriented" major/minor. If this is Yale's goal, it should do a betetr job of showing people the value of other majors, rather than making it easier for them to do otherwise. If this goes into effect, future employers will look at resumes and say — "You don't have even a minor in a 'useful' field."

    4. Increased enrollment in humanities department courses

    This overgeneralizes the humanities. For example, history apaprently has no trouble attracting majors. Some languages, however, do — and I certainly understand the wish of various languages to attract more students to upper level classes. In fact, I think the languages present the best argument in favor of the proposal, and replicating the "foreign language certificate" might actually be a good idea.

    5. Increased enrollment in foreign language department courses

    See above. I think languages actually have different needs than the rest of the humanities and social sciences.

    6. Increased enrollment in science department courses

    Actually, we're doing just fine. With Levin and the University taking seriously the need to improve sciences, both research and facilities, at Yale, many majors are seeing a huge rise in majors. Especially in sciences, it is important that the illusion of competence not be granted in the form of a minor, which would be difficult for an emplyer to judge. Many science departments require long sequences, simply because the "base" of material is so large. Increased science enrollment through Sc classes has obviously not been entirely successful, but working within that framework is more sensible than pretending that taking 5 or 6 semesters of coursework somehow prepares you at a substantially different level than 3 or 4.

    7. Decreased strain on overburdened departments

    Here, this seems directed primarily at Economics and Political Science. Increase enrollment in certain departments should be accompanied by increased resources and faculty to those departments, so I don't think using minors as a way to lower enrollment is fair to those departments. However, if enrollment is enlarged because of differentials in major requirements (Beyond introductory courses, Poli Sci requires 6, Econ 9, History 10, French 12, Chemistry 13, English 13), then this is an entirely separate issue, one that needs to be addressed, but ultimately entirely unrelated to minors.

    8. Increased interdisciplinary studies

    This is actually perhaps the most misleading. Interdisciplinary studies are perhaps some of the most exciting places of research at present. But interdisciplinary studies and research does not occur because everyone gets together, Amelia Bedelia style, for a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Rather what makes interdisciplinary research so successful is that students first learn a coherent methodolgy (to take what I know best, say, Chemistry) and then apply those problems to ones traditionally thought of Biology, or Physics, or Forestry and Environmental Sciecne. Likewise, historians can apply their methodologies to anthropolgy, and vice versa. But the notion that minors somehow could adequately prepare students for interdisciplnary research is at best misguided, and at worse, deceptive.

  • Rich T.

    @ Spherical Cow:

    Thanks for the engaging the poster above with your thoughtful replies. If you’re interested, I’d love to engage you in more a substantive discussion on the issue, perhaps via a different forum (e.g. e-mail)? I might drop by and post something more meaningful – e.g. on a line-by-line basis -- in a week or two, but exams and essays are killing me right now (as they are you, I’m assuming). For now, though, I’ll throw out one important point:

    There’s a critical disconnection between the hypotheticals being thrown around on both sides of the debate – some of which, I admit, are evinced in the report – and the realities of the situation at hand. While hypotheticals are important, they are – at least from my perspective – trumped by relevant, concrete (read: empirical) evidence. At the moment, the only such evidence available stems from several e-mails sent to the YCC from various Harvard administrators on the status of the program in Cambridge. Admittedly, their undergraduate culture and the specific logistics of their departments (e.g. the relative difficulty in obtaining double majors at Harvard) are different from that of Yale. Yet, there nonetheless exist several significant-enough similarities to warrant our serious consideration of the data thus far ascertained.

    What, then, did we hear from Harvard?

    In regards to the implications of minors on the larger departments (e.g. Economics), Harvard’s Emily Neill – their undergraduate program administrator – wrote:

    “Secondary fields have been a godsend to us … Having the secondary field … has enabled countless students to have Econ on their transcripts while freeing them up to pursue other pursuits.”

    In the rest of the e-mail, she goes on to provide more conclusive numbers on the subject, but – just from the above – her thesis is fairly clear. That is, as a results of minors, students have switched from majoring in Economics for pre-professional reasons to minoring in other subjects, thereby: (i) freeing up resources in the department (see “godsend” quotation); and (ii) allowing students to “pursue other pursuits,” likely pursuits more in line with the liberal arts (e.g. pursuits that are pursued for the sake of, simply put, education’s sake).

    Another Harvard administrator, Stephanie Kenen, noted the following:

    “We are encouraged that sophomores are not declaring secondary fields at their earliest opportunity. This means that they are not feeling the pressure to do this immediately, and are taking their time to make their choices and decide if it is the right choice for them.”

    Here, we notice more promising data. That is, while many of us – initially, a group that included myself – feared the negative repercussions of minors in the context of motivating kids to “rack up” minors as resume items, that practice – and our general cynicism – does not seem strongly evinced in practice. Looking at Kenen’s testimonial, it seems that, at Harvard, students are waiting a while before their declaration of secondary fields, implying that students are taking their decision to minor relatively seriously, likely engaging in a substantive amount of exploration prior to partaking in any secondary field programs. As Kenen observes, “… [students] are not feeling the pressure to [minor] immediately.”

    There’s plenty of similar anecdotes available from other administrators Harvard, and while – of course – there may be some response bias insofar as a Harvard admin may be unlikely to downplay minors, there’s nonetheless a good amount of other evidence (in, for example, other e-mails and unshared parts of the abovementioned e-mails), and – at the same time – the Harvard testimonials do seem conclusive enough that even if the admins are influenced by some sort of bias, hence providing – at the very least – some helpful contextual evidence to the debate.

    Anyways, I apologize in advance for any incoherence in my response. It’s been a hectic week, and – like I said – I’d love to engage you more substantively on the issue. Discussions like this one are helpful for everybody, since – at the end of the day – we’re all aimed at the same goal: the improvement of undergraduate education at Yale. At this point, I’ll admit that the debate has been somewhat characterized by ideological and – among the faculty – large doses of departmental bias (justifiably so, I assume), so it will be good for some more respectful discussion, especially with the CYCE up for review so soon in the near future.

    If you have any questions, please e-mail me – perhaps, again, that might be a better forum/channel for continuing this discussion?


  • Yale '00

    After taking a quick look at the YCC report I just want to respond to two points.

    (1) There is something odd about suggesting that minors will lead to more enrollment in humanities, in foreign languages, in sciences, and in interdisciplinary studies. As far as I can make out that is everything at the university except the social sciences. So, assuming that the total number of courses Yale College students take remains constant, basically, this proposal aims to reduce enrollment in social science courses in favor of everything else, in the view of the YCC. Why exactly would that be good?

    (2) I don't think the YCC report, or any other statement by proponents I've heard, adequately acknowledges the problem that once minors are created, some students will feel pressure to have them. If everybody else has a minor, people may fear looking "unserious" as just, say, a History major at Yale, without any minor (heaven forbid). I think that would be a bad outcome. Many of us got a lot out of Yale College in part by putting together our own unique lists of courses from many departments that had certain common themes and reflected our interests; doing this actually can give you quite a bit of "depth" outside your major in a given area, as well as breadth. If there had been minors, probably some would have felt that it looked more "serious" to stick with one department instead and earn a minor instead of choosing the courses that most interested them.

    In general, it seems to me that minors would take away from one of the great aspects of liberal education at Yale, which is the vast range of choices of different combinations of building blocks from which you can build your education. This effect could be particularly strong if having a "minor" became the norm.

    As things stand now, nothing is stopping you from taking a bunch of courses in a given department, if that's what interests you! It makes me sad that so many students apparently now want "credit" for their choices to appear on their transcript as a "minor," rather than just leaving the transcript as a record of what interesting, unique combination of courses that student chose as the building blocks of their liberal education.

  • SM 2010

    What thoughtful comments have been posted here! I am used to reading comments on the YDN website for a good laugh, but as this is a topic I feel strongly about, I'm glad serious discussion is taking place.

    I take classes because I love them, not because I will get some sort of 'credit' for them. However, I know that many of my friends will feel pressure to declare a minor if such an option is available. Exploration is a good thing, and depth of knowledge in a secondary field can be achieved without minors.

    I wish the YCC would drop this issue. It is almost as silly as last year's effort to move the Credit/D/Fail deadline to after students received their grades…

  • @9

    I cannot give your post the proper time it deserves but I will say that the faculty exist to teach the students (arguably addendum: among other things).

    Many of your arguments have to do with the fear that too few resources exist to cater to students with big eyes and eager minds. IIRC, resource concerns were rendered to be moot points in consideration of the two new Res. Colleges, I'd imagine, that point remains.

    Ultimately, if I need to summarize all my thought on this point, I'd say: a university—never mind Yale—should be the last of places to deny a student's curiosity in a subject. Given students' heavy fixation on pre-professional preparation and classes to complement their careers and not their minds, I think a minor option (or something in a similar spirit) is healthy because it allows for additional routes for inquiry that are not as time-consuming. While some resources concerns will remain, I don't think it will exacerbate already present problems at Yale too badly.

    Granted, I'm not a student at your college. =) But I'm still shocked Yale doesn't offer Minors. My own institution—an AAU school for perspective—offers Minors. While classes may fill a little more quickly, the departments relish in it more than anything.

  • yale grad

    One of the arguments that some people seem to be making for minors is that they would help non-majors get into courses outside their major. But this seems to me completely backward. When I was at Yale, I got into (and took!) a lot of wonderful seminars outside my major. Sure, I had to compete with the English majors for slots in English seminars, and with the History majors for slots in History seminars, and I was more likely to get into the ones that weren't the most popular. But that was fine. These courses outside my major in several different fields were just a fantastic part of my Yale experience.

    If minors had existed, I would have had to compete for seats not only with all the majors, but also with all the minors! Then I would never have been able to get a seat in some of the interesting seminars that so enriched my Yale experience.

    Has anyone considered this problem? With a constant number of spaces in courses, if minors get special access, that just means the rest of us are more likely to be shut out.

  • SY '92

    Now that I'm on the hiring end of the equation, I can tell you that we do not, do NOT care about minors. Students believing that minors are a good idea should for the sake of resumes should relax and take interesting classes. What we do care about, and where I have found Yale students to be woefully behind, is quant skills. If you want a good job in business (obviously not everyones' cup of tea, but if you do), learn to operate a computer beyond facebook (e.g., excel, monte carlos, databases, rudimentary programming) and have some mathematical/statistical skills. If you want to get really fancy, take micro/macro econ. Beyond that, take whatever you like.

  • minor wisdom

    How about this instead:

    Put a blank on all transcripts on which any student or graduate who wants a so-called minor can just make one up and write it in. Leave it to students to decide what looks so implausible as to raise eyebrows (i.e. you've never taken a course in the subject on your whole transcript).

    This approach would allow the credential-obsessed to get their desired credential, while doing as little as possible to interfere with everyone else. No preferential admissions to classes in your minor. No special stuff exclusively for majors and minors in a given department. Yale doesn't even need to keep a record. It's just a blank space for people who desperately need more "structure" than Yale now provides.

    It's a self-commitment device for those who mysteriously can't get themselves to take more foreign language classes without it; it's a signal to employers; it's anything and everything you want it to be.

    How about it, ycc?

  • follow up?

    I'm sure everyone is a little busy right now, but at some point it would be nice for the YDN to follow up with an online item about whether the faculty decided to adopt minors at their meeting, or not.

    (I personally hope not! I think they sound like a complete waste and might really limit the courses people take. But that's just me.)

    Any updates?