Residential college seminars in flux

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Photo by Earl Lee.

Though residential college seminar offerings will increase next semester, administrators say the program is still constrained by a staffing shortage and tight budget.

Yale used to offer more than 20 residential college seminars each semester, but it scaled back the number to 12 when the program went under review in January. Even though the review concluded this summer, the University only offered 13 college seminars this semester — most of which had been taught previously. Faculty and administrators approved 20 spring semester seminar offerings at a Dec. 1 faculty meeting, and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs George Levesque said 14 of those courses are new. But despite the short-term increase, Levesque said he expects the typical number of seminars offered per semester to settle around 15 in the future, since budget cuts have limited the number of courses the college can support.

“It is my hope that we’ll soon be able to restore the number of seminars to previous levels, but that depends upon an improved economy and budget climate,” Levesque said in a Monday email.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the review was motivated by “financial exigencies” and looked at whether the program could be sustained, especially after the program’s longtime director, Catherine Suttle, retired in December 2010. She said the value of the seminar program — which brings “exceptional practitioners” to campus to teach nontraditional courses — was never in question.

Levesque said that “strictly speaking” Yale only has funding for 12 seminars, one in each residential college, but that administrators are exploring additional funding sources as well.

For example, three seminars next semester — “Neurobiology of Obesity and Addiction,” “Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology” and “Cancer Biology and Treatment” — will be funded by a grant that supports college science education from the nonprofit Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said Jennifer Frederick, associate director of the Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale.

Another way for the program to expand is to have full-time Yale professors or administrators teach college seminars, Levesque said. While the University compensates external instructors who teach these classes, current faculty members are not paid extra if they elect to teach a college seminar, freeing up funding for additional classes in the program.

“To the degree that we have both funding and capability for the program, we will continue to grow it as best we can,” Miller said.

Levesque said he hopes to have five or six “Yale College” seminars per year that make use of funding sources external to the program, in addition to the courses sponsored by individual colleges. Because of the program review there was not time to approve new Yale College seminars for fall 2011 other than “Great Big Ideas,” a course taught in part by Provost Peter Salovey, and thus the abnormally high number of eight will be offered this spring. Seminars designated as “Yale College seminars” will not favor students from one residential college over another.

The residential college seminar program started accepting proposals for new courses this fall — the first time since the review began. The spring 2012 roster includes courses on religion in the American Constitution, entrepreneurship and technology in society.

Yale College seminar “Great Big Ideas,” an interdisciplinary course that incorporates video lectures from experts in 12 different disciplines, will also be taught for a second time after proving popular this fall, said Adam Glick ’82, who co-taught the course with Salovey. After hundreds of students attended an informational meeting for the class at the start of the semester, it was limited to freshmen and sophomores this fall, but Glick said it will likely be open to all students this spring.

The residential college seminar program also still lacks a full-time director. Though Levesque has been the program’s primary overseer since Suttle retired a year ago, he said he can only devote about 25 percent of his time to the program. Until a decision is made about how to staff the program in the long term, Levesque added, its capacity for expansion and particularly the “recruitment and cultivation of new courses” will remain limited.

An average of 56 students applied to each of the residential-college sponsored seminars this fall, and 300 applied to “Great Big Ideas.” Last spring, more than 100 people applied to each seminar offered.

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