Undergraduate teaching requirement a myth

No caption.
No caption. Photo by YDN.

One of the Yale Admissions Office’s favorite selling points to prospective students — that, unlike at many other large research universities, all of Yale’s tenured professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences teach undergraduate courses — is widely believed by students and faculty.

But it’s not that simple. In fact, there is no policy requiring professors to teach undergraduates, and in any given semester, a handful of them, for a variety of reasons, do not.

According to this year’s Yale College admissions viewbook, “100 percent of tenured professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences teach undergraduate courses.” Interviews with professors in several departments reveal that faculty members believe this to be a rule. However, Deputy Provost J. Lloyd Suttle confirmed Thursday that no such policy exists.

Indeed, a search on the Online Course Information Web site reveals at least a dozen Yale faculty members who are not teaching undergraduate courses this year. In many cases, Yale College students still have the opportunity to be taught by these faculty members if they enroll in graduate-level courses, and administrators said that (while they do not have formal records) they have not identified any professors who routinely do not teach undergraduates.

Still, admissions representatives often use the idea that professors must teach undergraduates to emphasize Yale’s focus on undergraduate teaching.

“Most of the tour guides when discussing the introductory biology courses will mention that, even at the introductory level, there are Yale’s most renowned professors in the classroom, for example [Nobel laureate] Sidney Altman in MCDB 200: Molecular Biology,” tour guide Matthew Sheehan ’11 said.

While Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said he understands that scheduling conflicts can preclude professors from teaching undergraduates in a given academic year, he said he still believes Yale expects all tenured faculty to teach undergraduate courses.

“Our viewbook states that 100 percent of tenured faculty in the Arts and Sciences teach undergraduates, and we convey that to [prospective students], because that is Yale’s expectation,” Brenzel wrote in an e-mail.

As Suttle explained, ladder faculty are required to teach, but not necessarily to teach undergraduate courses. Teaching requirements are determined within the academic departments, and they vary accordingly, Suttle said.

But members of four departments interviewed said they are also under the impression that faculty members should teach a balance of graduate and undergraduate courses.

“Of course I teach undergraduate courses,” said Altman, a Sterling professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. “It is part of Yale policy.”

Michael Koelle, the director of undergraduate studies for the department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, said Wednesday that almost all graduate courses in his department are cross-listed as undergraduate courses and enroll undergraduates every year. Koelle added that given this fact, his department is “in line with Yale’s policies.”

Still, the departmental policies, scheduling requirements and the demands of graduate students can all stand in the way of faculty participation in undergraduate courses.

For example, Computer Science professor Julie Dorsey said her department first determines what courses need to be taught each semester before assigning professors. While the department prefers each professor to have a mix of undergraduate and graduate classes, courses will ultimately be assigned to the professors best suited to teach the material, she added.

In some cases, especially in the sciences, a professor’s expertise may be such that his or her teaching is focused more toward graduate students — though undergraduates may still enroll in these courses, as is the case with Yale’s newest Nobel laureate, Sterling professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Thomas Steitz.

Steitz, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry last Wednesday, has co-taught a small number of undergraduate courses in past years. But he said his focus lies elsewhere.

“I primarily teach graduate students,” Steitz said.

Of 12 students interviewed, 10 said they think admissions representatives should be clearer when touting Yale’s undergraduate focus.

“It’s a little discomforting that their statements are not always true,” Zachary Weil ’12 said. “It definitely is cool to be taught by Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, and so it’s a little sad that we don’t necessarily have access to these people.”

Other students appeared to be more sympathetic.

Taneja Young ’12 said she thinks the most important point is that the majority of professors teach undergraduates, which is not true at many other large research universities. Weil agreed that this was a selling point for Yale.

“ I heard a lot from some of my friends that Harvard cares less about its undergraduates and more about its graduate students,” he said. “I wanted to come to Yale because I knew that Yale put more emphasis on its undergrads.”

Suttle said it shows Yale’s commitment to teaching that faculty teach undergraduates even in the absence of a formal requirement.

As he wrote in an e-mail: “Teaching Yale undergraduates is viewed not so much as a requirement as an opportunity by most Yale faculty.”


  • Resident

    Boy…am I’m glad my kids don’t go here. What a farse…and 47k a year to boot. Now THAT’s “customer service”.

  • Tenured Undergrad Teacher

    It is the very rare exception that a tenured professor NEVER teaches any undergraduates. In any term, because of the academic leave structure, about one-sixth of the faculty is not teaching anyone, undergrads or grads. Likewise, it is shortsighted and narcissistic to think that a sample of the course offerings that you want, when you want it, should be representative of the teaching activities of the faculty as a whole. While there are few “rules” about teaching obligations, the culture at Yale is, indeed, as Jeff B stated… all professors teach undergrads… we do not have, as do some other institutions, a “graduate faculty” whose teaching is reserved for graduate students only. I did not attend Yale College, rather a “cheap” state university…but I wish I had gone to Yale… expensive as it is, on balance, I think it is worth it.. snd I paid for my kid to attend.

  • Really?

    I feel like this article is, by and large, misguided. If the statistic said, “100% of Yale professors teach undergraduate students,” I think most people would probably equate that with “100% of Yale professors teach undergraduate classes.” How many qualifiers should be added to such a simple statement? “Approximately 96% of Yale’s endowed, full, assistant and associate professors teach classes with undergraduate listings in any given semester, though possible exceptions may be seen for adjunct and emeriti faculty, faculty on sabbatical, non-tenure track faculty members, and Tony Blair.”

    Also, in my experience, even the most prestigious of Yale professors are extremely accessible, even if a student is not taking a class with them. Office hours are a wonderful thing.

    Bottom line — regardless of whether the number is 95% or 100%, you still can’t beat the undergraduate opportunities here.

  • The point?

    I’m not quite sure what the point of this article was – the professors who don’t teach undergraduates are few and far between, and the few that don’t, teach graduates. These professors are often at the top of a very quantitative field in which their expertise is so valuable that it would be wrong to have them teaching intro or intermediate courses to undergraduate students. Instead, as the article mentions, undergraduates can take advantage of these opportunities by taking the graduate courses. Yale is extraordinarily flexible with allowing undergrads to take grad courses, so in the end, the teaching requirement truly seems (in spirit) to be completely in effect. And to Commenter #1 above, your comment makes absolutely no sense – what’s wrong with paying 45k (or far less, depending on aid) a year for the best education you can get? Not having a handful of top-in-their field science and econ professors teach intro classes?

  • Poor neglected undergrad

    Another myth exposed.

    The claim that Yale is so much better, and “undergraduate-focussed” than “other large research universities” (hint-hint who we’re talking about!) has always been phony.

    Now that the facts are grudgingly revealed, the rationalizing and obfuscating gets turned up a notch.


    What a pathetic hit-job by the YDN. The fact is that there is a faculty teaching requirement at Yale, but that if there are a surplus of teachers in a department (more professors than courses for instance), then some do not teach undergraduates.

    This is irresponsible journalism.

  • Alum:

    To #6: nonsense. Given Yale’s oft-repeated claim, this is a perfectly legitimate inquiry. The facts revealed aren’t so shocking and indeed the general belief by Yale faculty of an actual requirement is particulary interesting (and positive). Having focused attention on the subject, perhaps the Admissions Office will restate the facts a bit more precisely (e.g. 100% of Yale faculty regularly teach undergraduates) and, more importantly, the faculty will endeavor to make the claim correct.

    And to #1: why are you wasting your time reading this newspaper?

  • Robert Schneider

    Not every faculty member teaches undergraduates every term. That’s not a big problem. A bigger problem in my mind is the increasing reliance on graduate students in the teaching of undergraduates. I don’t care how good the graduate student is, he or she cannot possibly be as good as a full time faculty member who has five or more years of teaching and research experience behind them. In my mind, this is a true source of decline for Yale College over the last 27 years. Graduate students for discussion sections, yes; full responsibility for a course, no.

  • Yale 08

    I’d say that a mere 12 faculty members without teaching responsibilities for the current academic year out of a 3,000+ university-wide faculty — most of which is part of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences — is a pretty admirable stat.

  • to #8

    I’ve never had nor ever heard of someone else having a grad student as their ‘professor’. This is a serious problem at other universities, yes, but not here.

  • Poor neglected undergraduate

    To #10

    Which well-known universities exactly, do you accuse of having the “serious problem” (which Yale, you are relieved to say, has thus far been spared), of utilizing “graduate students as professors” with “full responsibility for a course”?

  • Y’11

    Another YDN article that pretends to be breaking a big story but is really just bitching about a problem that doesn’t exist.

  • @ #10

    A graduate student taught my Spanish 130 course last fall. She was a native Spanish speaker and did a great job with the course, but the fact remained that she, as a Ph.D student in literature, was not as familiar with Yale’s academic regulations and procedures for undergrads as the rest of my professors were.

    I can see how that might have presented a problem if I or someone in my course had fallen ill or sustained an injury during the semester.

  • Chicago alum

    Really one of the worst “news” articles I’ve read in YDN in years, showing incredible lack of perspective and judgment. See what you find at your Ivy peers.

  • To #12

    The “problem” is the phoniness of the claim, meant to tout Yale’s superiority.

    I don’t think there is a major problem with assistance provided by graduate students – either at Yale or at the unnamed “other major research universities” where the practice is substantially similar – no matter what the tour guides say.

  • Yale ’10

    This article is a kind of insult to Yale, because, save for a very very few cases, Professors DO teach undergraduates in a remarkably involved way.

    Compare, for example, the English department at Yale and Harvard. At Yale, every single member of the Department of English is teaching undergraduates this year, and this includes some of the most renowned faculty in the university: David Bromwich (Advanced Prose Fiction/Lincoln), Harold Bloom (Shakespeare/Art of Reading a Poem), Ruth Yeazell (Henry James/Victorian Novel), David Quint (Intro to Narrative), Paul Fry (Romantic Literature and Painting) Leslie Brisman (Bible, Romantic Poetry, Victorian Poetry), David Kastan (Shakespeare), Michael Warner (American Lit – 1865), Pericles Lewis (Modern British Novel), Katie Trumpener (Picture Book to Graphic Novel), and the list goes on. The Yale English faculty is one of the most coveted in the world – and all of them are teaching undergraduates, some for multiple classes in a given semester? Can you really ask for more than that?

    The only situation in which students in the English Department find themselves interacting with graduate students is in section discussions: this is the case at Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and other major universities.

    If you want to work with any of these professors as an advisor to a senior essay/project, you can. That means you can get David Bromwich to help you on Romanticism, or Leslie Brisman to help you on the Bible, or even Harold Bloom to help you on Poetry or Shakespeare.

    At Harvard, most faculty, even the best (Helen Vendler, etc.) do teach undergraduates. But if you look closely at the English program at Harvard, you can see that you are likely going to interact with graduate students on a much more frequent basis. Graduate students often (even typically) supervise junior and senior thesis projects as well as junior and senior tutorials. This is something that NEVER happens at Yale. Graduate students do not have the authority to supervise student projects. This means, for example, that if you’re at Harvard and you want to write on, say, Wallace Stevens with Helen Vendler, there’s a very good chance you won’t be able to. Poetry supervision duties are often relegated to advanced graduate students – if you look at Professor Susan Chamber’s CV, for example, who got her Ph.D. at Harvard, you will see that she supervised junior and senior tutorials on a variety of contemporary poet. At Yale, you’re certain to get a full-time faculty member who will supervise your project.

    The only major research university whose undergraduate program rivals Yale’s in Princeton, where graduate students interact with undergraduates only in language classes and in section discussions. But even there, not every single Professor teaches undergraduates. Last year, Peter Brooks gave only graduate seminars and Andrew Wile rarely teaches undergraduates.

    I think we should be grateful for this education.


    I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Tom Kaplan.

  • so what?

    Despite the title, the article can only show very few tenured professors cannot teach in a given year/semester because of conflicts/sabbaticals. That’s it. All tenured professors do teach and are very accessible to undergrads.

    to #1: I’m glad your kids don’t attend Yale.

  • y09

    in general, grad students teaching classes shouldn’t be allowed, but I took a college seminar with a Yale div school student as the teacher, and it was one of the best classes i’ve ever taken.

    shoddy journalism, YDN – but also people need to stop blowing this out of proportion. fact of the matter is: professors teach undergrads, yale admissions office makes yale sound better with misleading stats. what else is new?

  • Spray

    19–grad student teaching shouldn’t be allowed? How are they supposed to get training to become professors?
    Since Yale faculty are not hired for their teaching ability anyway, there is no reason a graduate student might not be just as good an instructor. Similarly, many of the most popular teachers are not tenured faculty, but mere low-paid “lecturers.”

  • mc 00

    This article seems like a throwback to my undergrad days when the YDN was full of hacks and a regular object of ridicule. I feel compelled to respond to this only because faculty contact was one of my favorite things about Yale, and I owe them that acknowledgment. In my experience, if you were willing and able, any faculty member would let you work with them at the highest level. as for grad students “teaching” courses, this occurred twice, in my most rudimentary courses (intro to music theory, first-year French). I didn’t exactly feel robbed. That said, I thought it was remarkable that the most prestigious faculty often taught basic intro surveys, I felt to share their excitement and draw people into their field (e.g., Peter Moore for intro chem, Joan Steitz for a basic MB&B, and Jonathan Spence for his Chinese History survey that has changed the course of many lives, including mine). I’ll leave the comparisons with Harvard on this issue to the binary minds of 17 year-olds. Having been educated at both places (hms ’06) I can reassure you that they’re both great. best wishes.

  • Confused

    Wait, where in the article do they talk about having graduate students?

  • br10

    Dear YDN, I love my professors very much. And I’m pretty sure that while saying 100% of professors teach undergrads may not be the “literal” truth, it’s pretty darn close and not dishonest personally when considering the amazing relationships I have been able to develop with truly renowned faculty. I’m generally slow to criticize, but this article made me a little sad and it struck me as somewhat disingenuous… I just ask that the editors choose stories more carefully next time.

  • dk

    #19, some of the junior faculty here are hired with no teaching experience or teaching ability. Maybe you have been lucky enough to miss their classes. I have not. Sometimes it is better to have a graduate student with five years of teaching than to have a junior professor with none.

  • ha

    to #17:

    you’ve got to be kidding. h works in exactly the same way as y. top profs teaching undergrads, supervising papers etc. Folks CAN ask grad students to supervise a paper if they WANT to (typically this makes sense in very specialized fields where the grad student will know far more than the prof) but even then its more common that the student have two supervisors, the grad student and professor.

    This Y is better than H for ugrad education has long been a myth. the two places are pretty much a wash-both great.

  • culture watcher

    One of the wonderful things about Yale that is different from many other research institutions is that there is an actual culture of teaching here. In general,faculty really care and they are invested. Look at someone like the chemist Kurt Zilm who has put years into figuring out how best to teach introductory chemists. That is the big reason why the article is misleading: it isn’t whether every ladder faculty member is teaching undergrads every single term. It is whether people care about undergraduate teaching and care about taking a part in doing it and seeing that it is done right. It is difficult to convey this to outsiders which is probably why Admissions leans on statistics.

    I was truly amazed when I came to Yale as a faculty member from another institution where teaching was always thought of only as a “chore” – or just ignored, never mentioned at all – to find the degree to which people were invested in their teaching, valued their students, and felt it was an actual privilege to teach undergraduates. This is true across the board, from Science Hill to Linsly Chit. I’ll bet you that Tom Steitz would agree with this as did Professor Altman. This is not something that can be enforced by any “rule.” It is a part of the ethos of the place. Sure, people here complain about how busy they are and how overloaded and they want less of what it is they do. But in some institutions a culture of teaching is absent. Here luckily it is a part of the fabric of the place. It would be nice if the YDN supported this by some profiles of great faculty Yale teachers – senior faculty, junior faculty AND lecturers and lectors – instead of working against what is, in fact, the fact!

  • Tenured full prof

    As a tenured full prof at Yale, I’m always taken aback every semester by the comment of ‘not available or accessible outside of classroom’ in course evaluations. I guess arriving early to lecture, hanging around after lecture, answering emails in the dead of night and weekends, posted office hours, arranged meetings, and invitations to seminars and lectures is truly a sign of a lack of commitment and distance between undergraduates and tenured faculty. If a student has the desire to meet and interact with faculty, they can do so with all but the most minimal of effort.

  • Yale 08

    Tenured full prof — I appreciate your candor on this topic and commend you for the efforts to which it sounds like you are committed in order to be accessible to undergraduates. Hopefully you can encourage some of your colleagues to follow suit since the following are the norm for Yalies when it comes to interacting with faculty:
    E-Mail: referred to TA’s
    Meeting Requests: referred to TA office hours
    Lecture Pattern: Professors are among the last to arrive, seem in a hurry to leave
    Professor Office Hours: often arranged on a case-by-case basis if you’re lucky
    Seminars: generally led by TA’s; after-class sessions with professors are rare
    Distance Between Undergrads and Tenured Faculty: a given, unless you are an undergraduate who has shown a fairly solid commitment to pursue a PhD in an area related to a faculty member’s field, in which case there is the potential for an advising opportunity

    Although these tendencies are certainly not seen across the board, they are definitely very common and absolutely seen in some of Yale’s larger departments (the same can be said for Yale’s peer schools). Although in some cases this is because professors – understandably – have challenging and demanding research commitments, it is also largely true that Yale’s resources are being stretched thin. For this reason, the university should carefully verify what additional strains will be placed on the undergraduate teaching load through the addition of two new residential colleges so that increases to Yale’s faculty resources can be made accordingly.

  • dk

    How about a follow-up article on myths about student life, grades and admission criteria?

  • Yale ’12

    Sid Altman is the worst professor at Yale. Renowned is in no way synonymous with good when it comes to professors. The students here would be better off if professors who don’t want to teach didn’t… let the good ones teach, and keep the bad ones as far away from the students as possible. Overall, the professors here are really good, and the one’s who aren’t are forced to teach in order to keep up an apparently false statistic.

  • Alum

    Ordinarily this bragging about “all the professors teach”, and “no grad students teach”, and “Professors rather than TA’s interact with undergrads” is the sort of thing you hear from admissions officials at the smaller liberal arts colleges.

    They are trying to make a virtue out of necessity: obviously, if you have no graduate programs, you won’t have any grad students or TA’s to deal with, for good or ill. The flip side of the coin is that the best professors – and those doing the most significant work on the frontiers of knowledge – are far more likely to be found in those “large research universities”.

    Personally, I’d rather sit in a 400-student lecture hall listening to a great man who obviously can’t make time for coffee and cookies with all of us on a regular basis than deal with his less busy counterpart at a small school, who’s less widely published (and who’d love to be at that “large research university”, but he didn’t get tenure.

  • YaleProf

    Also tenured Yale professor.

    I find that many students who complain about their professors not being available simply won’t make an effort. I am not even sure what being “available” would mean.

    Students should be aware that all the administrators hired in the past 10 years really resent the faculty (that’s what they wanted to be, but failed) and encourage you to believe a lot of bad things that simply are not true.

  • Another Tenured Prof

    Re: #32 on the Administration.. right on!

  • The Contrarian

    I’m reminded of The Brustein Affair in the early days of the Giamatti reign. Bart wanted to have a Theatre Dept. staffed by grad students at the Drama School and Brustein thought this was a terrible idea… and defected to Harvard.

    One of the 10 Worst Things About Yale: awful sections with clueless, talentless, tasteless, incompetent-but-high-scoring grad students.

  • YaleProf

    #32 here again. This is a weird way to speak to other faculty, but isn’t there something we can do about this? We all face pressures to do a million things, but most of us still do a very good (at least) job with undergraduate teaching. But we face this weird burden, which is all these “deans” (assistant, associate, deputy, etc etc) who tell the students the faculty are lazy and anti-student and make students think that perfectly ludicrous expectations are reasonable. It completely undermines all we do, not to mention our morale. Why do we put up with it?

    Students should understand this: the lion’s share of increased costs in the past 10-15 years has been all the new administrators. There have been relatively few new faculty. The new administrators make a *negative* contribution to teaching. There are many things I would do for students if I did not have to spend so much of my time on nonsense generated by the new administrators. If we stopped the growth of the administration and instead devoted the money to faculty, there would be a lot more faculty availability.

    The administration is telling us they will not let us hire any new faculty because of the budget problems, but the they just keep on hiring administrators.

  • alum

    how many Nobel Prize winners are on the faculty? I thought there were two-Sidney Altman (1989) and Thomas Seitz (2009).

    so I don’t think it’s realistic for most undergrads to expect they’ll be taught by profs at that level of professional success.

  • y09

    ‘Nobel Prize’-level only makes sense for those fields which *have* Nobel Prizes; History and Political Science, two of the largest majors at Yale, do not. So while your comment is true in a literal sense, it’s also not quite applicable.

    To YaleProf(s): start an anonymous blog, or an anonymous message board, or even just send an anonymous e-mail to the faculty. It wouldn’t be the first time an anonymous scholar sparked a movement for change (PoliSci people might remember ‘Mr. Perestroika’).

    Even if you don’t do any of those things, I’m sure we’d all be interested in hearing more about the faculty perspective on things here at Yale.

  • art12

    I don’t think this article was necessarily pointing out that it was a problem that not all teachers teach grad students, just pointing out that a regularly quoted claim is actually not true.

    I find this to be especially true in the art school, where a number of wonderful professors are very present in grad classes and critiques, but most of them do not teach undergraduate classes. The undergraduate photography department, which has much fewer students than undergraduates in photography classes get taught by undergraduate teachers and graduate teachers that don’t teach undergrads.

    I don’t think this was a failure of the News, rather an inquiry that has troubled me for some time.

  • Anon

    Hey #32, as an M&P of long standing at Yale, with a deep and abiding love for the place, please don’t lump me in with the cowboy corporate wackiness currently driving this bus off the cliff. I, too, reject what is happening here, I just don’t have any power to change it.

    My sweeping generalization is that faculty can be childish and self-centered. Heedless behavior has been a significant precipitating factor in the creation of the C&T union and the federal grant audit fiasco. As a group, it is difficult to persuade them to follow federal rules or even social norms in their interactions with mere mortals.

    That said, faculty are the reason Yale exists at all and yet you need administrators to keep the lights on. Both sides have to work through the tension of the interaction to make this place work. The choice is “Lord of the Flies” or accept that you need non-faculty to pay the bills and fix the roof. The current problem is that this push-pull tension has been destroyed in the name of corporate improvement. University-wide we are contending with power-hungry forces, drunk with self-delusion, running Finance, and thereby the world–Ha Ha! (Cue maniacal laughter). They are ignoring the fundamental mission of the university. The checks-and-balances we used to have are gone. Where is Superman when you need him? We have been forsaken and darkness has descended on our little world.

    It is a travesty. All the right-thinking M&Ps are miserable with the current situation, but we’re too concerned about our jobs to say anything but “Yes, ma’am” to the ill-planned excesses proposed. If one posits concerns, one is told to “embrace change”, as if that is the only point of what we do. (God forbid, of course, that there are any negative consequences to embracing that risk. In that case, you’re stupid as well as risk-averse). There is a dismissal of experience-based knowlege in favor of consultants who know nothing of higher ed. The message is all about the idea that change is the end unto itself and naturally better than anything else.

    The only possible force to counteract this is the faculty. We need you to take action. It has gone too far. Please stop sitting on the sidelines. Letting the Finance dept. become an empire is folly–Yale is being run into the ground. Please make it stop.

  • YaleProf