This is my last semester at Yale, and I wanted to try something new, so I applied to English 120. I have never taken an English class here. They are scary. But this class, while supposedly challenging and time-consuming, came highly recommended. In my last semester here, I didn’t want to cower into the same old classes that had previously served my GPA and social life well.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get in. And while I found another excellent class (albeit on more familiar terrain), I thought it seemed odd to prioritize the admission of students who still have multiple opportunities to take a class over the admission of students for whom this was the last hurrah. To help improve the process for future students, I wrote a series of emails to Professor John Rogers, the director of undergraduate studies of the English department. In his responses, however, I detected an administrative approach that was more disturbing.
In a 2009 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, University President Richard Levin claimed that in his freshman welcome address, each year he uses some new device to insist that to make the most of our experience at Yale, we must “sample — try things, take risks, try subjects you’re not comfortable with, and somewhere in that process you will find something you love.”
To some extent, the reality reflected Levin’s rhetoric. Even after Yale’s endowment plunged to a mere $19 billion, our resources are still immense. There are loads of courses to choose from, and the credit/D/fail option encourages us to try uncomfortable things.
That said, the breadth of opportunity at Yale is driven more by the initiative of enterprising students than the initiative of the enterprising bureaucracy. Actively encouraging course sampling doesn’t seem to be a central administrative principle but a peripheral one. This was never clearer to me than during my exchanges with Rogers. His arguments betrayed a thinking that seemed to undervalue the exploratory mission Levin articulated.
After our third round of emails, Rogers courteously invited me to discuss my issues in his office. There, he told me that lower-numbered courses were intended for underclassmen. While he accepted that the department had failed to sufficiently transmit this intention to interested upperclassmen, my frustrations crept towards a more serious question: What did it mean to intend these introductory English courses for underclassmen? Some part of the answer was surely that if one were an English major, then one ought to track a path from introductory classes to more advanced classes. Deferring to a strict conception of class year made administrative sense.
But it is predominantly nonmajors who take introductory English courses. Rogers — as a representative of the College and its mission — ought to be more thoughtful about relating the intent of these courses to Levin’s spirit of exploration. Our administrators should think beyond myopic notions that exploratory courses are intended for underclassmen. Courses that allow exploration ought to be available to all.
I remember hearing a stream of seniors complain about being cut from “Great Big Ideas.” In the first session, the instructors announced that they wanted to give preference to underclassmen. This way, if the class turned its students on to something, they would still have two years left to explore — because the academic clock is ticking and intellectual exploration dies at graduation.
My problem with such instructors and administrators is not that they stopped my friends and me from getting what we wanted. Rather, I am disappointed because of what their arguments say about the way they think about intellectual exploration. It says that we must complete our education in some structured and orderly way. But the kind of exploration that yields real value forces us through messiness and misery. It’s a high-risk and seldom painless game. Exploration implies chaos, not order.
If the goal is to encourage exploration, why ought class year figure in at all? Especially if the expectation is that our time here is only the beginning, and not the end of our education, what is the point of these distinctions? If the administrative goal is to evaluate the progress of major or graduation requirements, allocate housing or schedule reunions and organize giving campaigns, then deferring to the order of class years is an essential feature of a well-run bureaucracy.
But if within this leviathan there still exists an earnest mission to promote authentic discovery, then these distinctions could betray what ought to be the central aspiration of Yale College’s undergraduate mission: to let its students bumper-car their way to a diploma.
If we are to accept Levin’s insistence that we explore the resources of the University — and take risks toward this end — this insistence also necessitates that University departments think about their responsibilities to empower, rather than impede, that exploration.
Jasjit Singh is a senior in Berkeley College and an Eli Whitney Student. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.