“Piggy back” majors reach stand-alone status

The faculty’s approval of ethnicity, race and migration as a standalone major last Thursday has left South Asian studies as the only major at Yale that must be taken with a second area of study.

Since the mid-1980’s, Yale has offered five majors that could only be pursued as second majors, four of which have since been replaced by standalone majors. Administrators and faculty interviewed said these “piggyback” majors are generally created on a trial basis until they acquire enough resources to stand on their own. While professors said achieving standalone status is a testament to a program’s coherence and rigor, they viewed the “piggyback” phase as useful for testing and growing a major.

“There is no set period for when — or if — a newly created major becomes permanent,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said. “Sometimes a program will grow quickly and add a lot of faculty in a short time. Sometimes it will grow more slowly or not at all. It is a judgment call on the part of the faculty of the program as to when the program is ready to propose such a change, and a judgment call on the part of the faculty as a whole as to when to confirm it.”

Last year, the global affairs major replaced the “piggyback” major in international studies, which administrators said was made possible by the new resources of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Yale also previously offered such majors in “studies in the environment” and organismal biology.

Students majoring in South Asian studies must still choose a second major, but the program has experienced significant growth in recent years, which South Asian studies professors said may prompt them to consider pursuing standalone status for the major in the future.

The South Asian studies program now offers at least three times as many courses as it did in 2007-’08, its first year, and has also added language courses in Tamil and Sanskrit, said Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, chair of the South Asian Studies Council. While only a few students chose the major in its first years, six seniors will graduate from the major this spring, and 11 more students are set to graduate next year, said Tariq Thachil, the major’s director of undergraduate studies.

Thachil said he would like to see the major expand to include around 20 or 25 students per year, and he said faculty will “revisit” the question of whether it should stand alone depending on future growth.

But right now, he said faculty in the program feel South Asian studies complements the other majors students pursue with it. As with second-only majors offered in the past, South Asian studies has flexible requirements, which makes it easier to attract students to the major in its early stage, Thachil said.

“The thought was, we wanted to make this major an opportunity for students to engage with the region, but not do so in a way that exempted them from the broader pursuits of a liberal arts education,” Thachil said.

Yale’s first “piggyback” major was studies in the environment, created in the 1984-’85 academic year, according to data from the Yale College Publications Office. As with the other “piggyback” majors that would follow it, studies in the environment was interdisciplinary, drawing from humanities, social science and science departments, but without ladder faculty of its own. Professors affiliated with “piggyback” majors said since these majors do not lie within a department, it is more difficult to find faculty dedicated to them.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the former major — which was replaced by the standalone environmental studies major in 2001 — did not have a permanent home and was at times supported mostly by the History and American Studies Departments — later by Geology & Geophysics — and has since become anchored in the School of Forestry & Environmental Science.

While Yale’s other “piggyback” majors have been interdisciplinary, ecology & evolutionary biology professor Jeffrey Powell said organismal biology was created in 1990 because faculty felt that the biology of organisms was being overshadowed by molecular, cellular and developmental biology. The creation of the EEB Department in 1999 allowed an EEB major to replace organismal biology, he added.

Yale College currently offers over 70 majors.

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