Weiner: Seminars this spring

The second meeting of “Foreign Correspondence,” a residential college seminar I took in during the spring of 2009, was canceled unexpectedly. War had broken out in Gaza that winter and as the war correspondent for the Washington Post, our teacher, Jon Finer LAW ’09, was called to leave his studies at Yale Law School and his teaching gig and head to the Middle East to cover the story. When he returned a week later, we spent the class talking through an in-depth play-by-play of his week: what he packed, how he found a “fixer” on the ground, how he reported stories in combat zones, how he decided when a story was too dangerous to pursue, how he filed stories using the power from a car battery and a satellite phone. If I am to pursue foreign correspondence after graduation — something not out of the question for me or many of my peers in the class — that course will be among the most valuable of my Yale career.

As the News reported Aug. 27, the residential college seminar program was founded more than four decades ago to allow students to take courses with non-faculty members and to afford faculty the opportunity to test out new courses. Today, it has evolved to focus on atypical subjects taught by experts in their field. I’ve been lucky enough to take three residential college seminars during my time at Yale — in addition to “Foreign Correspondence,” I also took award-winning social entrepreneur Scott Sherman’s “Social Entrepreneurship” and “Understanding Politics and Politicians,” co-taught by Governor Howard Dean ’71 and David Berg ’71 GRD ’72, Dean’s Yale College roommate and an organizational psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine.

I’m disturbed that classes like these won’t be here in the spring. Both the content and the professors of these classes make them too valuable to remove from Yale College course offering even for one semester, as Dean Miller announced will happen this spring. College seminars fulfill the mission of their program — to “expose undergraduates to topics and modes of inquiry not available within Yale’s departmental framework.” In fact, these alternative learning environments are vital to the mission of Yale College — to cultivate “citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity” — because they fill the spaces between the silos of academic departments.

Often, these classes offer rare bridges between students’ academic work and their life outside the University. I speak from experience; I was so excited by the model for social change that I learned in “Social Entrepreneurship” that I spent the summer after taking the course interning at Ashoka, the first organization to support global social entrepreneurs. I am not alone; a close friend who took “Foreign Correspondence” with me recently graduated from Yale and moved to Bogotá to practice journalism.

For those of us who don’t see our futures in academia, the opportunity to study with real-world practitioners — of journalism, business, politics and even beer-brewing — can be life-changing in a way that a typical Yale College course simply can’t. These practitioners are every bit as expert in their crafts as Yale professors are in their fields: Finer is a Rhodes and Luce scholar, who split his time between studying at Yale Law School and writing for the Washington Post and then became a White House Fellow. And who better to teach “Understanding Politics and Politicians” than Howard Dean, who rose from lieutenant governor and then governor of Vermont, to run for president in 2004 and then chair the Democratic National Committee? The opportunity to get to know a serious contender for president is not one that Yale College should revoke from future students without serious thought.

I do not object to the scheduled review of the program that will be taking place this year, but these courses are an integral part of what makes a Yale undergraduate degree unique. Rather than suspend the program during its review, the administration should hire a replacement coordinator for the residential college seminar program; someone who can work with outgoing coordinator Catherine Suttle to begin accepting applications immediately for Spring 2011. There may indeed be merits to overhauling the administrative process of approving new college seminars, as administrators have suggested, but until those are in place, the University should continue using the existing procedure, rather than canceling the spring program altogether. At the very least, excellent professors like Dean and Berg, who have received approval in the past to teach a seminar and have expressed an interest in teaching again, should be encouraged to do so this spring.

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