College seminars to repeat

The residential college seminars offered this spring may be few in number, but they are not short on big-name instructors.

Since the program is currently under review, only 12 seminars will be offered — down from 21 this fall — and all are repeats of previous seminars that garnered good reviews from students. Instructors include 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean ’71, a former writer for the television show “Malcolm in the Middle” and news host Jack Ford ’72.

“Everyone would have loved to have had a full load of new and repeated courses,” said John Rogers, an English professor and chairman of the committee reviewing the seminar program. “But we are satisfied with the 12 fantastic courses we have, especially during this transitional time.”

Only a limited number of courses are available, in part because Catherine Suttle, director of the college seminar program, is retiring at the end of this month, Rogers said. The search for her replacement is not likely to begin until the review committee releases its report on the program sometime next semester, he said, adding that the search must wait because the role of the coordinator may change as a result of the review.

“It’s a shame,” Laura Tunbridge ’13 said of the reduced number of courses. “It’s hard to get into residential college seminars already.”

This fall, students made a total of 1,189 applications to seminars, Suttle said ­— an average of almost 57 applications per course, though most seminars only accept 18 students.

Rogers said that because each college is sponsoring just one seminar this spring, only four spots will be reserved for the college hosting the seminar — possibly making it easier for students from other colleges to gain admission to seminars. This fall, six slots were held for students from the sponsoring college, along with six for a co-sponsoring college.

Rogers said he cannot predict how many applications there will be next semester, but he expects the strength of the courses to generate many applications.

Because the committee could not process new course proposals while they reviewed the program, Rogers said, the committee selected only courses that received high student evaluations when they were first offered.

Clinical professor of psychiatry David Berg ’71 GRD ’72 said teaching the popular Pierson College seminar “Understanding Politics and Politicians” with Howard Dean again next semester gives the two a chance to improve the course, which analyzes how ambition, fame and influence affect politicians. He said he and Dean will ask students to share more of their personal political experiences so students can engage with each other more often, adding that they will also change the reading list.

Sarah Mahurin GRD ’11, a graduate student in English, said she is also making changes to her seminar, “Imagining the American South.” Mahurin said she will add the novel “The Help” to the reading list to analyze the subversive relationship between white and black southerners before the civil rights movement, which the seminar did not explore in detail when it was first offered in the fall of 2009.

Mahurin, along with three other residential college seminar instructors, said she especially values reading students’ applications and selecting her final roster.

Rogers said allowing instructors to decide who takes their courses is a “courtesy.” Rogers said the review committee is analyzing the process by which instructors fill their seminars.

“I’m not sure how interested I would be in teaching if we had no control of the composition of the class,” Berg said.

Berg said he wishes students had more information about seminars before they write the 500-character statements of interest for their applications, adding that students could better craft statements if they had been to a class first.

In addition to looking at the application process for students, Rogers said, the committee is investigating how Yale attracts talented instructors to teach seminars. He said masters, deans and faculty reach out to fellows or acquaintances who they think can add to the program.

“This informal process has the result of producing so many surprising and wonderful instructors,” he said. “There’s no reason that can’t be accompanied by a more formal process.”

The residential college seminar program was founded in 1969. The program was last reviewed in 2001.

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