Humanities seminars face overcrowding

Eighteen course cancellations in the humanities this semester have some students worried about overcrowding in competitive seminars.

Several professors in the history and literature departments have gone on leave for the spring semester and canceled or moved their courses to the fall semester. While these cancellations could present administrators with convenient ways to balance the budget as Yale tries to narrow the $100 million budget gap, they also have department heads debating ways to fill gaps in the curriculum and assuage anxious students.

The decision to hire new faculty or wait for professors to return from their absences is a difficult one for administrators, Provost Peter Salovey said last week. Leaving the position unfilled can create a one-year gap in the curriculum that can increase demand for otherwise under-subscribed annual courses, Salovey said, but he added that sometimes courses can benefit from a few more students.

“Sometimes offering a course every other year can be better,” Salovey said.

Though Salovey emphasized that the Provost’s Office does not cancel courses for budgetary reasons directly, he said leaving vacancies unfilled is financially appealing because it can help to close budget deficits.

Though some canceled courses may not return any time soon, departments are restructuring offerings to ensure that students still have adequate options this spring.

Since the illness of several professors forced the cancellation of six literature courses this semester, Barry McCrea, the director of undergraduate studies for literature, has fielded “a few” panicked e-mails from students about the resultant shortage of core seminars required for the major. But McCrea said this anxiety is misplaced and reveals more about students’ academic habits than the shortcomings of individual departments.

“I deny there is a shortage of classes in the major,” McCrea said. “It is a myth that leads to an anxiety spiral.”

McCrea did change course designations to ensure adequate opportunities for majors to fulfill the core seminar requirement. Over the winter break, McCrea sent an e-mail to students in the major explaining that the department would increase the number of core seminars from four to nine. McCrea noted that any complaints about course selection could be solved if students were willing to take new and often undersubscribed courses taught by lesser-known professors instead of those taught by professors with more established reputations.

“If students weren’t all trying to take the same two courses, we would be fine,” McCrea said. “People should be curious and courageous and try new things.”

Literature major Panagiotis Progios ’12 said he chose to enroll in one of the supplementary core seminars, a class on Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. Though Progios described the subject matter of the course as “terribly specific,” student interest in the course has been strong but not overwhelming. Currently 14 students are enrolled.

Amid the frenzy of shopping period, student perceptions of overcrowding do not always match up with actual enrollment pressures. When her father fell ill, history professor Beverly Gage decided to change her “Terrorism in America, 1865-2001” from a lecture that meets twice a week to a once-a-week junior seminar to minimize disruptions to the course, creating another open junior seminar that could fill a requirement for history majors. As of Tuesday evening, 11 of the 15 permitted students were currently enrolled in the course, according to Online Course Selection course demand statistics, meaning spots are still available.

Then again, Gage’s other seminar, “Liberalism and Conservatism in U.S. Politics, 1932-1988,” is over-subscribed, with 22 shoppers for 15 seats.

Chris Moon ’11, a history major who has yet to find a junior seminar, said his shopping woes stemmed from an inability to find a course that matches his interests. Despite the high demand for junior seminars, Moon said he is confident he will be able to gain admission to his dream course when he finds it.

“Spaces are limited,” Moon wrote in an e-mail. “But I’ve found that generally professors are very accommodating and want to take on students who express interest in their seminars.”


  • annoyed

    I’m so TIRED of Barry McCrea’s BS. Just because he can “absolutely deny” things doesn’t mean it’s not true. Let’s just do a simple comparison.

    In the 2006-2007 academic year, there were 16 core seminars in the Lit Major:

    The City in Literature and Film
    Rousseau, Freud, Proust
    The Novella
    Systems and Their Theory
    French-American Film Relations
    Dictator Novels Across Americas
    Plato’s Legacy
    Critical Practices in Comparative Literature
    Romance and Realism: 19th Century Novel
    The Jungle Books
    Kant and Sade
    First Novels
    The Modern European Novel
    Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain
    Writing and Power Across the Americas
    Interpretation and Authority

    In 2009-2010, there are only 10 originally designated as “core seminars” (i.e., advanced classes designed for advanced students):

    The Avant-Garde
    The Modernist Lyric
    Marc Chagall
    Class, Desire and the Novel
    Heroic Narratives
    Greek Tragedy and Genre Film
    The City in Literature & Film
    Arabic Novel in Translation
    Reconsidering Categories of East and West
    Psychoanalysis in Literature and Film

    As you will have noticed, a number of the courses in the latter list I have just excerpted will be of NO INTEREST to Literature students because they’re NOT LITERARY. It’s not a question of “adventure” and “courage,” it’s a question of getting what we bargained for as Literature majors.

    FInally, simply because Barry McCrea magically expanded the list by designated a bunch of new courses that were never designed for advanced students as “core seminars,” that doesn’t mean they’re of the same quality or should be expected to be popular: they’re often not very advanced, of limited scope, or are just LAME to begin with.

    This man needs to grow up and recognize that the Literature major is dying.

  • Pericles Lewis, DGS

    I understand that it can be frustrating to have variation in the number of courses from one year to the next, but this is not Professor McCrea’s fault or a sign of the “death” of the literature major. It’s the simple result of leaves and illnesses that have led to some cancellations. 2006-2007 was an unusually bountiful year but we will return to the norm of around 12-14 core seminars. Most of the courses listed under 2009-10 are very literary indeed.

  • another prof

    “Annoyed” is the one who needs to grow up. Most students at Yale are in a major far less favored than literature or other humanities subjects. Polisci and economics, to take two examples, have huge numbers of students for the size of their faculties.

  • Barry McCrea, DUS

    First, the courses I redesignated as core seminars are mostly designed for juniors and seniors. The numbering system in the LITR major refers to centuries and geographical regions, not to difficulty. There is still room in some of the original core seminars, in any case.

    Second, as my colleague notes above, the seminars the correspondent lists are all centered on literary texts.

    A number of our faculty faced sudden health problems this semester, but there is no structural change to the size or shape of the Major. Our numbers of faculty and students are the same as they ever were.

  • Kate Maltby (Lit Major)

    Although the Lit department is under a little more stress this semester than usual, anonymous complainants should remember that the classes in question have been cancelled because two lynchpins of the faculty suddenly have been stuck ill – in one case, very gravely indeed.

    My own experience, and that of people I’ve spoken to, is that Professor McCrea’s been as flexible and helpful as possible in helping people deal with the unusual situtation – but more importantly, as frustrated as I’ve been by cancelled classes, I’m far more concerned about the health and family of Richard Maxwell, one of our best-loved Lit professors, than I am about perfecting my course schedule. Maybe we all need to reassess our priorities?

    And on a side note, to say the major is “dying” isn’t just hyperbole, it’s absurdity. The Lit department is one of the most vibrant faculties here – and it’s the chief reason I chose to come to Yale.

  • !!

    1. Disgruntled
    2. Faculty
    3. Faculty
    4. Faculty
    5. Satisfied

  • admissions office

    …that’s why she chose yale!