Beginning next semester, the History Department will set aside space for sophomores in seminars that previously gave priority only to juniors.
Following efforts from the Yale College Council this fall, two spots in each history seminar will be reserved for sophomores, and the courses will be renamed “undergraduate seminars” instead of “junior seminars,” said Steven Pincus, director of undergraduate studies for the History Department. YCC President Brandon Levin ’13 said the YCC has also initiated discussions with other academic departments, including the Political Science Department, to expand small class options for sophomores.
“The seminar style environment has the potential to teach sophomores to research and learn within a specific discipline,” Levin said. “It is a good way of attracting sophomores to certain majors.”
Yale College Dean Mary Miller said “sophomores often find themselves searching for small-size classes” because they no longer have access to freshman seminars but also may find it difficult to gain admission to advanced seminars within a major.
Before the YCC approached him, Pincus said the History Department was already thinking about ways to make “exciting history courses” available to underclassmen as part of a larger effort to review and revamp the history major. Underclassmen tend to take large history lectures, he said, but the department’s seminars are the courses “that undergraduates by and large absolutely adore.”
Miller said administrators have considered opening freshman seminars to sophomores but decided against it since there is already excess demand for the seminars among freshmen. For now, departments must individually take initiative to make seminar opportunities available to sophomores.
In the past, sophomores have been able to pre-register and enroll in junior history seminars if they were declared history majors, but priority was previously always given to juniors, Pincus said.
“While sophomores got into a lot of these seminars [in the past], particularly for the more desirable ones they were last on the pecking order in terms of getting in,” Pincus said. “We hope that by reserving these two slots, that will change.”
He added that many sophomores do not even consider taking the seminars because of the “J,” or “junior,” designation in their names. By renaming the courses “undergraduate seminars,” the department hopes to make them more accessible to a broader group of students, Pincus said.
The Political Science Department has also recently been in touch with the YCC and is considering how it can better serve sophomores, Peter Swenson, director of undergraduate studies for the department, said in an email. One political science course, “Classics of World Politics,” been taught as a sophomore-only seminar since 2007, but Swenson said the department has yet to decide if it will add another seminar in the future or pursue other ways to give sophomores seminar-style opportunities.
For example, Swenson said the department might monitor enrollment levels in its seminars and ask the YCC to alert sophomores during shopping period about which seminars are undersubscribed.
The YCC’s efforts began in September after Kate Liebman ’13, a humanities major who is not a member of YCC, approached the YCC with a proposal to establish sophomore seminars, Levin said. Liebman said her idea was inspired her own academic struggles sophomore year, when she found herself “a little bit at sea” when taking only lecture courses.
“The term sophomore slump is one everyone knows, and the University has many mental health professionals to deal with this,” she said. “One thing that was missing were academic opportunities.”
The YCC then turned its “Sophomore Committee” into a “Sophomore Seminar Committee,” said Joseph Yagoda ’14, the committee’s co-chair. He added that the committee hopes to establish a sophomore seminar program with the American Studies Department in the future.
All four sophomores interviewed who are prospective history majors said they had plans to apply for a spot in one or more history seminars next semester.
Nicole Hobbs ’14, who took a junior history seminar this semester because it was undersubscribed, said she thinks the new policy will give her a better chance at taking one of the more popular history seminars.
“It’s a fight to get into the upper level seminars, especially when you’re trying to figure out what your major is,” she said.
Michael Fraade ’13, a history major who also took an undersubscribed junior history seminar as a sophomore, said taking a seminar during sophomore year prepares students for work required by the major later in their undergraduate careers.
“[The seminar] was helpful for adjusting to a larger reading load and a different type of research,” he said.
Next semester, 41 undergraduate history seminars will be offered.