College seminar program suspended pending review

Students hoping to search for Christian theology in the Harry Potter books this spring — just one of the academic opportunities offered by the Residential College Seminar Program — may have to do it on their own time.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller told the News earlier this month that her office plans to evaluate the program this year. A committee of residential college masters, deans, faculty members and students, chaired by English professor and former Berkeley College master John Rogers, will oversee what Miller called a “periodic review” once the committee convenes in September — the first such review of the program since 2001. Until then, proposals for spring 2011 seminars are not being accepted.

“Although the college seminar program is not currently receiving proposals for new seminars from prospective instructors, no final decision has been made about seminars in the spring semester — and that will be one of the first charges of the committee assigned with the review,” Miller said in an e-mail. She added that the University will wait until the review is complete before hiring a replacement for outgoing seminar program coordinator Catherine Suttle, who plans to retire at the end of November.

While Rogers said the review committee has yet to establish an agenda, he denied speculation that budget concerns were responsible.

“As far as I know, that’s absolutely not true,” Rogers said. “We really are taking this opportunity to reevaluate the program and see how it can be made even better and more valuable. The program undergoes periodic reviews for good reason. As the regular Yale College curriculum changes, the college seminar program has to change along with it.”

Suttle and the Yale College Dean’s Office have sent mixed signals about the program’s fate in the 2010-’11 academic year. In an e-mail sent Aug. 3 to student directors of college seminar committees, Suttle said administrators already plan to suspend the program for all of 2011, echoing an identical message to prospective instructors posted on the seminar program’s website in mid-July. Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon, speaking on Miller’s behalf, said in an e-mail to the News on Aug. 3 that seminars may be offered in fall 2011, depending on the findings of the review committee headed by Rogers.

The study comes at the same time the Dean’s Office begins to review the changes made to distributional requirements made in 2005 on the recommendation of the Committee on Yale College Education, Miller said. She added that the review will take into consideration the program’s role within the new College Seminar Office in Yale College, founded in fall 2009 and headed by Dean of Academic Affairs George Levesque. Miller said the committee is interested in “streamlining the approval process” for new seminars, which currently includes review by undergraduate-led college seminar committees and the Committee on Teaching in the Residential Colleges, followed by a final vote by faculty to approve seminars for Yale College credit.

Rogers said he expects the review to last “at least a few months” and that it will involve members from “all levels” of the Yale community, including administrators, professors and students. In an e-mail Thursday, Miller said Sophomore Class Council chair Omar Njie ’13 and two students nominated by the Yale College Council will serve on the committee. Njie confirmed that he was invited to serve on the committee and declined to comment further until he knows more about the position.

Erin Biel ’13, the director of the Ezra Stiles College seminar committee, said in an e-mail Aug. 6 that she could not tell from Suttle’s message how the review will be conducted and has not been told how she and other college seminar committee leaders can participate. She added that she was “dismayed” by the news in Suttle’s e-mail.

“Oftentimes, these seminars fill voids in the regular Yale College curriculum or highlight unique academic niches that may be of interest to students, yet are not touched upon due to the regular curriculum’s tendency to have classes that cover multiple topics [or] themes in a semester,” Biel said.

Originally intended to allow students to take courses with non-faculty members and to afford tenured faculty the opportunity to test out new courses, the 41-year-old Residential College Seminar Program has turned its focus to more cutting-edge or non-traditional academic subjects in recent years. Popular seminars have focused on subjects as varied as beer brewing, human rights and information technology.

Richard Rose, who taught a seminar on letterpress printing called “Art of the Printed Word” for the past two spring semesters, said he is required to take a one-year break from teaching the seminar under the program’s current policy but is now unsure whether the review could affect his ability to offer the course again in the spring of 2012.

Neither Rose nor Danielle Tumminio ’03 DIV ’06 ’08, who teaches the seminar “Christian Theology and Harry Potter,” were aware of the review before the News contacted them for interviews earlier this month.

Tumminio, whose seminar made national news when it was first offered in spring 2008, declined to comment on the specifics of the review because she said she does not know what it will entail, but she said she hopes the seminars retain their basic character.

“Both as an instructor in the College Seminar Program and a former undergraduate who enrolled in two courses through the program, I hope that the review process maintains the spirit of the program,” Tumminio said in an e-mail. “Nowhere else in the University can you find courses like those offered in college seminars. I believe these courses add creativity and depth to the undergraduate curriculum.”

The program’s last review in 2001 came when then-Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead convened a committee of students and faculty, including Rogers, to examine the program.

Comments

  • SM74

    The seminar offerings serve three valuable purposes:
    1) An opportunity for undergrads to take courses from people who are there teaching from real experience in the real world, not a fuzzy-headed career academics.
    2) Experimental lab for specific disciplines. It provides food for thought to any relevant department within Yale; if the seminar is so good/important and comes off well, perhaps we should offer something similar in our department curriculum?
    3) It offers the stress-out overworked typical undergrad a chance to see learning as something of interest to be pursued through life for its own sake, rather than just trying to get into the best med/law/business school.

    Finally, the entire current body of underclasspeople entered Yale with the expectation that these seminars would be offered. If the university now yanks that away, that amounts to bait and switch fraud. I don’t think anyone chose Yale solely because it offers college seminars, but it surely has been a selling point.

  • Anonymous

    If we can raise yet another $500 million for the YaleNext program in the coming year but can’t continue the college seminars, then someone’s priorities are way out of whack.