ZELINSKY: ER&M’s got problems

On Point

Last week, Yale got a new major: Ethnicity, Race and Migration. It was already a possible double major, but students now can take ER&M as their sole course of study. This development should raise eyebrows for several reasons, some of which the department may be able to address.

One: ER&M could continue the troubling trend toward political bias in the classroom. If so, the major would find its place alongside WGSS, Judaic studies and other special interest departments that conflate politics and academics. Taught by liberal faculty who do not always separate their views from their teaching, these majors cheapen our community’s commitment to academic neutrality.

Here, my analysis will receive the expected knee-jerk criticism. But we cannot pretend the emperor has no clothes. Students with dissenting viewpoints often find that only approved opinions are tolerated within particular majors’ seminars and sections. Sadly, many of these classes examine important issues from which students of all stripes could benefit. But not all feel (or are) welcome.

Thus, as ER&M expands its course offerings, the department must craft its curriculum in order to prevent ideological pigeonholing.

Two: Similarly, ER&M may attract a specific set of students with preconceived worldviews. These Yalies will likely find their outlooks unchallenged and even reinforced by the ideas they encounter. It sounds trite, but college should be a place to encounter different perspectives, not reinforce existing ones. Students who grapple with topics or ideas outside of their comfort zone grow intellectually and morally. Creating an academic echo chamber stifles this important educational goal.

Three: ER&M becomes Yale’s 78th standalone major, further balkanizing the faculty into discrete groups. The proliferation of departments leads to turf wars, unnecessary administrative overhead and less cohesion among professors. While ER&M faculty may continue to affiliate with other departments such as political science or history, they should resist the temptation to exclude themselves from the broader Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Unfortunately, the department has already moved into its own location at 35 Broadway, suggesting that the trend toward compartmentalization will only continue.

Four: Like other themed majors, ER&M encourages undergraduates to hyperspecialize in a particular field. While the movement of peoples — devoid of political overtones, if that’s possible — may be a worthy topic of study, it seems an inappropriate tool for general education. Even many graduate students concentrate on broader fields. When Yale encourages focused majors, we fail to provide students with a liberal arts education. Instead, we teach them highly specific material at the expense of a broad academic background.

Five: Potentially minute majors like ER&M often create learning environments in which students encounter the same few peers in a majority of their classes. Admittedly, such a scenario is better than oversized departments in which students fall through the cracks (for example, political science). Still, underpopulated majors foster their own set of downsides. Imagine having that one section jerk in every seminar or rehashing similar debates with the same peers course after course. As much as a diversity of viewpoints leads to a better classroom culture (see point two), a multiplicity of personalities exposes students to different ways of thinking, different skill sets and different classroom dynamics.

These five concerns constitute a jumping-off point for a broader conversation. Over the next few years, our community should hold ER&M (and similar majors) to account by subjecting them to these and other rigorous standards. The result may be politically unpalatable — it will require us to openly confront truths about our own biases. But doing any less jeopardizes our core values.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.


  • silliwin01

    “But we cannot pretend the emperor has no clothes.” I thought the story involved the people pretending the emperor was wearing clothes.

    • River_Tam

      Don’t you know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes was written by dead white men and should thus be excluded from the Yale curriculum?

      • River_Tam_Biggest_Fan

        Absolutely no one is saying that. Stop attacking straw men.

        • River_Tam

          It was a joke, RTBF. Lighten up!

  • Jess

    Clearly you’ve never majored in a small department/interdisciplinary program before. Let me tell you, it sucks. But not for the reasons you’ve outlined. It sucks because you lack the support network that a “real,” structured department has. It sucks because you always get stuck in cross-listed seminars with people who don’t share your “preconceived worldviews” (i.e. you have to explain in pretty much every class why RACISM is BAD).

    Also, how on earth can you say Yale is dedicated to being academically neutral on political issues? Isn’t political science our largest major? How do you think people can study politics without straying from the “neutral”? How do you think that the pursuit of “neutrality” is not, in itself, a political statement (and a cowardly one at that)?

    Pluralism is not the same as neutrality.

    • btcl

      Political science doesn’t fall into this trap because it’s a large enough department – there are conservative and liberal professors, conservative and liberal students, conservative and liberal texts. The subject is also not inherently politicized; instead it provides a framework with which to evaluate modern issues but not with a specific set of biases.

      • Jess

        Political science is not political?

        Clearly you’re defining “frameworks within which I am comfortable working” as “not politicized” and “frameworks within which I am not comfortable working” as “politicized.” Which is the kind of BS that would get you eye-rolled in a “studies” seminar.

  • penny_lane

    My mother went to college part-time while working full-time. She was going to minor in women’s studies, but chose to drop it because her classmates would criticize her for being married.

    I can’t comment on how such dynamics might work today at Yale, but the risk that a popular ideology might push away others with different viewpoints is concerning, and would be an impediment to genuine scholarship.

    • River_Tam

      Don’t worry, I was told I subconsciously was a self-hating woman when I said I was pro-life. I was shopping a WGSS class. The person who said it was the professor.

      • ldffly

        Please tell me you took that course at Berkeley.

        • River_Tam

          I want to say it was in WLH, but it could have been in LC… I dunno I only showed up twice to shop it.

          • ldffly

            What is this–do all the dumbbell professors hold class in Harkness these days
            instead of Linsley-Chitt?

            I was being facetitious; I hope you were, too!. I meant UC Berkeley, not Berkeley College.

          • silliwin01

            LC is a terrible building that is light years away from everything else important on the Yale campus.

      • penny_lane

        The most unfortunate thing about that is that s/he could have made one of many excellent arguments in favor of choice, or at least started a reasoned discussion about implicit misogynistic attitudes in out society, but chose to behave immaturely instead.

  • T

    “the movement of peoples — devoid of political overtones, if that’s possible”

    BAHAHAHAHA. Right. Because people migrate for fun, and it never has anything to do with “political overtones”.

    • desch

      Agreed. People dont leave their communities and families for places where the media openly expresses dislike and displeasure with them because its fun.

    • River_Tam

      The author clearly means that the study should be devoid of political overtones. Context is hard.

  • joematcha

    Ok, I’m not going to pretend I don’t get where you are going with this, but I think such an obvious contradiction needs some sort of explanation rather than be waved away.

    “Students with dissenting viewpoints often find that only approved opinions are tolerated within particular majors’ seminars and sections. Sadly, many of these classes examine important issues from which students of all stripes could benefit. But not all feel (or are) welcome.”


    “It sounds trite, but college should be a place to encounter different perspectives, not reinforce existing ones. Students who grapple with topics or ideas outside of their comfort zone grow intellectually and morally. Creating an academic echo chamber stifles this important educational goal. ”

    So people within ER&M should not be in an echo chamber, and grapple with ideas outside of their comfort zone, but ER&M should not be challenging dissenting viewpoints that differ from their supposedly borg-like totalizing ideology because that makes other students not feel welcome? Every department has its own methodological, and resulting political, biases and for a liberal arts education to work the students themselves should try and expose themselves to as many of these as possible for them and challenge their own viewpoints.

  • bcrosby

    So-called “value neutral” or “apolitical” social science inevitably does nothing so much as prop up the status quo. But I guess if that’s your project, then sure, bringing in voices of women, queer people, people of color, and so forth does indeed threaten at least the ideology of white male hegemony. If that’s ‘political’ pedagogy, sign me up.

  • Dedwards

    You can get a degree in being a liberal! Only at Yale…

  • desch

    I’m curious Zelinsky, how many ERM classes have you taken? None? ok got it. There are very few specifically ERM classes. The rest are taken as a mix of classes from other departments. So it is frequently cross listed.

    ERM is my second major and in order to complete the degree I have to take classes in 5 different departments. Most of my credits for this major come from History and political science because it is interdisciplinary. There is actually a bit of a problem creating a middle group between everyone in the major because we all work in such different backgrounds. So your line about us all coming from the same part of campus is unfounded. Especially when you look at the different subjects that we are all writing about. Did you even talk to someone in the major before you decided all of these things for us?

    I am not sure about how I feel about it as a stand alone. It compliments my interests here well and gave me a chance to write about the fields I research more intensely. Yes, I am probably more specialized than you are in your studies, but I have still developed the skills from the major that would come to any other liberal arts major. I figured out what I wanted to do here with my studies and I did it through ERM. Can you say the same? Will you write your thesis on a topic that you REALLY REALLY care about? Because I will.

    • River_Tam

      I took an ERM course. It was fascinating but I think Zelinsky’s exactly right about the problems with it.

      • desch

        wow. I’m actually shocked and pleased to hear that you did take one.

        • River_Tam

          Needed to pad my GPA.

          • silliwin01


  • attila

    The entire point of ERM is to be mindless crap organized around a particular political viewpoint. Perhaps some students want that, but the point of Yale College´s committees and so forth is to prevent it from happening. They imcro-manage the requirements for majors in disciplines — yet they allow this mess to become a stand-alone major.

    It´d be interesting to know the real reason this happened — clearly someone connected with ERM is considered important enough to get this approved.

  • River_Tam

    I once claimed in an Anthropology section that that assimilation was a neutral value proposition, that we could safely use our own “cultural lens” to evaluate other cultures, and that culture itself was not inherently valuable. I also suggested that it was better to intrude upon an indigenous population and give them things like modern medicine, etc to improve their quality of life rather than trying to preserve them as some sort of anthropological curiosity.

    What a storm that caused.

    “Social sciences” are inherently flawed (and I include the policy aspects of economics in this, but not the parts that are more like applied math) because it masquerades as science with objective truth claims when in reality it is approached with a bias worthy of humanities and arts.

    • penny_lane

      It’s because your language is clearly too hyper-colonial. Who are we to intrude? How can we presume to engage in such imperialist actions as giving? Why is our medicine so much better just because it’s modern?

      Clearly you should have said, “expand access to life-saving, evidence-based medical interventions to less developed parts of the world” instead.

      • River_Tam

        “Bio medicine”. That’s my favorite term.

        • grumpyalum

          I’d argue that the biggest issue here was the claiming of neutrality. As a pretty leftist, post-modern person who did some anthro, I would actually also intrude on the indigenous people, but this isn’t some claim of neutrality. It’s also not really in the purview of anthropology to say whether it’s net effects will be positive or negative.

          Most of the storm, given my experience in anthro, was probably focused on the idea of false neutrality.

        • penny_lane

          “Imperialist” is my favorite. I’ve been told that it is “imperialist” for me to volunteer in public schools, or even substitute teach in one, because I myself went to private school all my life.

          • grumpyalum

            Wait? Are you serious? Like, look. I’m pretty far left and I hang out with a lot of those people and did the same pomo/poco stuff…

            But that’s just ridiculous. Like, I really do hope you don’t take Leftist arguments as being that, because that’s a pathetic comment someone made.

          • penny_lane

            I’m also incredibly far left! Or at least I thought I was until I started hanging out with Occupiers…

  • flyersandfloyd

    Hey YDN, can I also get a weekly column where I take potshots at various majors in which I have never taken more than 1 or 2 classes?

    • Jess

      Yeah, sign me up! I’d love to take a crack at economics as a discipline, even though I’ve never taken a class on it!

  • Athanasius

    There’s only really one assertion in this article I find worth examining, and that’s the claim about the ability of faculty to teach with intellectual rigor unclouded by political bias. Honestly, yeah, ER&M is probably populated by liberal professors, but if we’re going to cast aspersions on their ability to teach, I’d rather we just come out and talk about that instead of tallying up a list of fairly minor offenses.

    That said, such a broad claim from someone who doesn’t appear to have taken many (any?) courses with these professors strikes me as more offensive to the faculty in question than particularly helpful.

  • domlawton

    No, this is brilliant. We should clearly get rid of all majors and programs at Yale which carry underlying presumptions that are specific, regionally interested, or politically consequential. How about we start with Directed Studies?

  • anothervoice

    River_Tam, why do you still post here? It is not like your comments are appreciated or even insightful. Do you have no life beyond writing conservative comments on YDN articles? Get a life, seriously.

    • alphabetical

      Seriously. Didn’t he/she graduate? Who on earth would spend so much time postgrad commenting on nearly every article of their college newspaper? I can only surmise River_Tam must be deeply unhappy with his/her actual life to invest so much time into posting inflammatory comments on here…

      • River_Tam

        I’m quite happy with my life actually, but I thank you for your concern!

    • River_Tam_Biggest_Fan

      River_Tam is merely expressing her right to free speech. A lot. Like, every day. Several times a day. Yeah…it’s weird. And pretty sad.

      • River_Tam

        Sadder than, say, having a username specifically referencing me?

    • yalengineer

      As another old fart, I’m of the opinion that River_Tam at least has useful comments unlike another unnamed old fart.

    • River_Tam

      Hey anothervoice,

      This seems like a weird place for you to get mad about my comments — I didn’t realize that objection to the social sciences was particularly “conservative”.

      As for my life – it’s quite nice, thanks. I don’t expect everyone to appreciate my comments, for the obvious reason that I don’t tend to agree with most Yalies on most things.

      PS: These sure are some insightful comments: http://www.yaledailynews.com/users/anothervoice/comments/

      • alphabetical

        Regardless of your opinions I’m mostly just curious about why you post so much on here. Why?

        • River_Tam

          Mainly because I can (and because I get pretty good intellectual responses from some commenters!). I’d imagine that my motivation is similar to that of everyone who seems to read my comments (I counted 13 people who admitted on the Yale memes facebook page to having lost their faith in humanity because of my comments specifically).

    • xfxjuice

      As often as I disagree with River_Tam (and that is very often), I still respect what she has to say, and her right to say it. And as much as I hate to admit it, she has even made me question and reevaluate some of my current beliefs. Who knew having an open mind would that?!

      • River_Tam

        aw, thanks xfxjuice! I’d definitely say the same about you! Despite what some people seem to think, my views are also evolving and changing all the time – and people like you are what causes that process!

  • silliwin01

    The lesson of the discussion is as follows;

    Proper Majors:


    Easier Majors:

    Political Science, History, Economics, English, languages


    Any type of “studies”

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