UP CLOSE | Officials mull future of section

While some professors believe sections are not necessary for every lecture class, others stress the importance of a more intimate environment.
While some professors believe sections are not necessary for every lecture class, others stress the importance of a more intimate environment. Photo by lauren rosenthal.

At Yale, no undergraduate experience is complete without discussion section: Each introductory lecture in almost every major requires students to attend a mandatory section, which must fit into schedules already crowded with courses and extracurriculars. Section drives class enrollment, since those who are unable to find a section assignment in a given course may be turned away entirely.

But if Yale’s faculty are amenable to changes suggested by administrators, this academic ritual may soon become optional.

In an e-mail memo planned for release in the next few days, Graduate School Jon Butler and Yale College Dean Mary Miller will recommend that faculty teaching lecture courses in the humanities and the social sciences consider allowing students to choose whether to enroll in a section for a given course, though Butler said students who enroll in sections at the beginning of the semester would still be expected to attend every week. Butler and Miller will also recommend that professors wait to convene sections until the third week of the semester — after shopping period ends — to avoid offering too many sections, populating sections with too few students and hiring too many teaching fellows. (Currently, professors can choose when to hold the first section, and many set the first one during the second week of classes.)

“There is some concern that sections could be overused,” Butler said, “that we haven’t thought enough about when they might be really useful and when a course could be offered without sections.”

Butler and Miller’s memo, which is based on the findings of a committee headed by Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for faculty development, comes as the Graduate School cuts its incoming class size by 10 to 15 percent and reconsiders its budget. These cuts, Butler said, are not the reason behind the proposal, but nonetheless provide an opportunity to reconsider the fundamental role of sections.

While professors said sections are designed to give students in lecture courses a chance to interact with the material and ask questions in courses where doing so otherwise would be disruptive, student participation can often make or break a section, and students often skip section when pressed for time. Fluctuation in attendance during shopping period means that more teaching fellows are hired than are eventually needed, leaving some sections underpopulated, with as few as four students in one group.

Despite these problems, administrators said the question now on the table is not whether section is useful but when.

“We want to be sure that section has an integral intellectual function to the course — so we always urge faculty to think about the value to the course,” Miller said in an e-mail.

Still, Butler said it is unlikely Yale will abolish the discussion section altogether. And because optional sections are being proposed to professors on a purely opt-in basis, Butler said, he does not know how many sections will be eliminated. It could be as many as five years before there is any noticeable change in section offerings, he added.

‘A MORE EFFICIENT WAY’?

Though Butler said his suggestions are primarily motivated by “pedagogical” concerns, he said concern for the budget figures into his forthcoming memo, as well. The Graduate School has already seen budget cuts this year, Butler said, and the financial crisis provides an environment for administrators to examine what is essential and what is not.

“Finally,” political science professor Samuel DeCanio said when informed of Butler and Miller’s advised changes to discussion sections. “The financial crisis hits Yale.”

The Graduate School tries to ensure that graduate students who want or need jobs as teaching fellows are able to get them, Butler said. But at the same time, discussion sections are not inexpensive. Graduate students must be issued stipends for their work, and he said small sections do not use teaching fellows’ salaries and time efficiently. Furthermore, because graduate students rely on their teaching stipends for support, professors said they are not eager to cut teaching fellows from a course even when enrollment is lower than anticipated.

Butler said the Graduate School cuts proposed in University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey’s February budget memo were “modest,” especially compared to a series of deep cuts across the school in the 1990s. In the process of making the most recent cuts, Butler said, he and other administrators saw an opportunity.

“We believe that given the relatively small number of cuts we made, we were in the position of trying to manage the teaching fellow program in a more efficient way,” Butler said, “to make better use of teaching fellows and to reduce the number of small, awkward sections for undergraduates and the teaching fellows trying to teach them.”

Most doctoral students are expected to serve as teaching fellows at some point during their time at Yale. But Butler said he does not yet know how having 10 to 15 percent fewer graduate students in the class entering in the fall could affect the number of teaching fellows, if at all. But he said the Graduate School has two to three years — the amount of time that will elapse before the class admitted this year begins teaching undergraduates — to investigate what the consequences might be, and how to respond to them. It is still unclear whether future classes of graduate students will be as small as the one admitted this past winter.

“Because the cuts are very modest, it’s conceivable that they could stay in place,” Butler said, adding that it would depend on the University’s financial situation and individual departments’ needs.

‘A USEFUL TOOL’?

Financial concerns aside, some professors said they have long struggled to convince students of the importance of attending sections at all. Last spring, for example, the Yale College Council surveyed students’ opinions about section, based on what then-YCC President Rich Tao ’10 called a perceived disparity in section quality across departments. Still, the council did not release a report of its findings.

Sara Elenowitz ’13 said section in her social sciences courses has varied greatly, with her economics section serving as a helpful source for answers to specific theoretical questions. But she said the quality political science section depends all too much on how prepared her fellow students are.

“For the most part, I feel like I get nothing out of discussion section,” added one junior political science major who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak openly. “I feel like there’s no need to come prepared.”

Medieval history professor and incoming interim History Department chair Paul Freedman said he has long had trouble convincing students that section is important and can be a useful tool. Though he said there were some logistical advantages to Butler and Miller’s suggestion that section not meet until the third week of the semester, he said he did not see how Butler’s advice would motivate students to take section more seriously.

“Students often aren’t motivated to go to sections unless they are fired-up, and I don’t just want to reach them,” Freedman said. “If you make section optional or even if you postpone it, you encourage the notion that it’s not important or that it is only for the students who are motivated.”

For biology professor Stephen Stearns, raising the stakes in section has produced positive results. To encourage students to prepare better for his “Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior” section and take it more seriously, Stearns said, he has increased the value of a student’s performance in section to half of the term grade.

But Melanie Plaza ’12 said using students’ grades to encourage participation can backfire. Though she said she enjoyed participating in discussions in her international studies section because she found the subject interesting, Plaza said she found discussion far less fruitful when grades were on the line.

“It was a contest to see who could say the most intelligent-sounding things in the 40 or 50 minutes when we were there,” she said.

Though Butler is critical of small sections for their inefficient use of resources, Rob Williams ’ 12 said he enjoyed his four-person section for this semester’s “Africa since 1800.” Given the group’s unusually small size, Williams said he and the other students felt more accountable for their reading and got more of out their discussions.

Teddy Collins ’13 agreed, saying he has also found section useful in part because it ensures he does his assigned reading. Even if sections are optional, he added, he would still choose to attend them.

A MORE INTIMATE SETTING

But as long as there are lecture courses at Yale, some professors said, sections provide a necessary venue for more intimate, in-depth discussion.

Yale College, at more than 5,000 students, is larger than the typical small liberal arts college, and is home to many small lecture courses and large introductory courses alike. Indeed, many of Yale College’s most popular classes are lecture courses with as few as 40 students and as many as 300.

In theory, professors said, discussion section is meant to supplement passive forms of education, such as lecture, with active discussion, and to encourage students to engage with course material on a more personal level. Most professors interviewed said they will continue to offer mandatory section, and some are already approaching section in different ways to make it more useful for students and instructors alike.

Stearns, who offers only writing-intensive sections for “Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior,” said finding teaching fellows with relevant scientific knowledge and writing expertise is not always easy, and is expensive for the Graduate School. When he was only able to find nine qualified teaching fellows for a course that needed 10, Stearns said he stepped in to teach a section of the course. Despite the staffing trouble, he said, the writing-intensive section is worthwhile for him and for his students.

But Donald Kagan takes a different approach, giving students in his “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” course the option of enrolling in a section or not at the beginning of the semester. Williams — who, like 80 percent of the students in the course, elected to enroll in a section — said that when Kagan introduced the two course plans, he told the students that those who enrolled in section typically earn higher grades than those who take the class without a section, which Williams said contributed to his decision.

“It’s tempting not to have that hour a week,” Williams said. “It’s an hour I could do other things with, yes. But ultimately, it was going to benefit my participation in the course and help me get more out of it.”

(Kagan did not respond to a request for comment.)

While psychology professor Marvin Chun said he thinks weekly discussion sections are unnecessary for his “Introduction to Psychology” lecture, he said he offers three sections each semester to encourage the students in his class to interact, or to discuss the course material. Each of the three sections he offers introduces a new topic for students to research and about which they can later write papers.

“It’s hard for students to speak up in my large lecture class,” Chun said, adding that it is important to him that his students become acquainted with one another and their teaching fellows.

Computer science professor Daniel Abadi takes a similar approach to Chun: Abadi required students in his fall “Introduction to Programming” course to attend either a review session or a section covering an advanced topic in computer science every two weeks. Regular, weekly discussion sections would not work well with the curriculum, Abadi said, and he does not intend to offer them in to his students in the future.

GAMING THE SYSTEM

Political science professor Samuel DeCanio said he was expecting enrollment of more than 100 students in his “Introduction to American Politics” course this spring. At the beginning of the semester, it seemed his prediction was right, with more than 100 students shopping the course in the first two weeks of the term. But when shopping period ended, DeCanio was left with 27 students — and four teaching fellows.

DeCanio dismissed two of his teaching fellows and asked the remaining two to lead two sections each. Though DeCanio said he aims for a section enrollment of between 10 and 15 students, he acknowledged that this was not possible when distributing his 27 students among four sections.

Butler and Miller’s suggestion of first convening sections during the third week of classes might solve a problem like this — but would likely create a whole host of other problems.

In 2002, the Registrar’s Office switched class enrollment to the Online Course Selection system, allowing students to map their section assignments as well as their course schedules online. University Registrar Jill Carlton said that because sections appear on students’ schedules, which must be submitted to residential college deans at the end of shopping period, students are usually not officially enrolled in sections until the third week of classes.

But the Registrar’s Office is already struggling to keep up with the section placement that occurs outside the computerized system. Students and professors often negotiate section time slots in person, she said, and this information must eventually find its way back to the Registrar’s Office so the system can be updated to reflect the changes. If not, the system displays inaccurate information about section times and availability that may discourage students from enrolling in a course.

Carlton said she was unsure whether Butler’s proposed waiting period would necessitate a redesign of the section selection component of the Online Course Selection system.

TFs NEED SECTION, TOO

In addition to this potential logistical problem, graduate students said Butler’s suggestions could affect them on a more personal level: Doctoral students not receiving a tuition fellowship must serve as teaching fellows for financial reasons, and most choose to for professional experience.

Graduate students receive five-year funding packages when they are accepted to the Graduate School, said Sarah Egan, president of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. Included in this package is a two-year teaching fellowship, which typically begins in the student’s second year at the school.

“Part of our funding package is the expectation that we teach section,” Egan said, adding that GESO was not consulted on the proposed changes to section.

Connie Chan LAW ’10 said there are few teaching opportunities to teach within the Law School itself, so law students typically work as teaching fellows in Yale College. Chan found a position teaching a political science section, for example.

“It was an important source of income,” Chan said. “It pays better than most of the positions you can get in the Law School, which pay at an hourly rate. The teaching stipend is $4,500 per section, and if you are teaching two at a time that’s $9,000.”

Though her teaching pay exceeds what she could earn at the Law School, Chan said she thinks this compensation should be based on the number of students in a teaching fellow’s section. The workload of a teaching fellow varies greatly depending on the number of papers and exams he or she must grade, Chan said, and this disparity is the subject of many students’ complaints

Furthermore, for professors, grading students based on their section participation can be a difficult proposition. Katarina Kuai GRD ’10, a master’s student in international relations, said teaching fellows have a great deal of input in determining students’ final grades, adding that teaching fellows would have a hard time grading students who opted out of sections without knowing them as opposed to those who were in their sections.

“It will create a different grade curve for sure,” Kuai said. “The person I don’t know and haven’t seen grow? I read their work completely differently. If there has been a class of 150, the professor won’t know you that well, and it will depend on your relationship with your teaching fellow to demonstrate that you’re learning and you’re earnest.”

DeCanio also said he was unsure how he would grade section participants and non-participants equally, given that they would be performing different tasks.

CLASS DISMISSED?

Though the effects of neither Butler and Miller’s suggestions on section nor admissions cuts to the Graduate School will be felt for several years, the combined effect of these changes will be even harder to predict, Butler said. In the meantime, Yale has ample time to deal with the consequences of admissions cuts, and the new suggestions for discussion sections are simply suggestions, he said, adding that he knows they are not likely to be popular among faculty.

“Making sections optional is, frankly, unlikely to be adopted with any rush at all, if only because it counters the strong tradition of requiring discussion sections in many humanities and social science courses,” Butler said.

Indeed, professors interviewed said the active participation required by discussion sections is central to their teaching. But for many years, large lectures without sections were a traditional way of teaching, Butler said.

Thought Butler taught his “Rise of Religion in Modern America” lecture with section for 20 years, he said he would be willing to forgo section if he were to teach the course again “just to see how it went” — because it was how he was taught as a college student.

“Upper division courses for juniors and seniors at big state universities don’t have sections,” Butler said, “A lecturerr often had a question period at the end of each lecture for 15 minutes, some lecturers would grade themselves and some would have graders, usually graduate students in their field, who read all the material. I might do that as a faculty member.”

Both Butler and Stearns agree that Yale College has positioned itself as a liberal arts college within a large research university. But for Stearns, some aspects of the undergraduate education are non-negotiable.

“If Yale is going to try to claim that it can deliver outstanding undergraduate education in huge research university, it has to figure out ways to get students into small groups where they can actively learn,” Stearns said. “The section small group was an attempt to do just that.”

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