Mixing disciplines

Every May for the past three decades, about half of Yale College graduates leave the University with a degree in history, economics, English, political science or biology — each of which has been a part of the Yale curriculum since at least the early 1900s. But over the past 15 years, Yale’s undergraduate curriculum has expanded to include at least six new interdisciplinary majors that combine academic approaches from a variety of fields.

Some of these majors, including modern Middle East studies and South Asia studies, focus on specific geographical areas of growing international importance, while other programs — such as ethics, politics and economics; ethnicity, race and migration; and global affairs — synthesize different academic fields.

“Just as the scholarship has become deeper and more interdisciplinary, so the world has become more complicated and more international,” said Stephen Pitti ’91, director of the program in ER&M that was established as an independent major this February. “The frameworks for studying have diversified and grown and that reflects the diversity of today’s world.”

While Yale College has more major programs that most of its peer institutions, the introduction of these new majors both accommodate students’ academic interests and seem to evidence profound changes within academia.

“The quest for knowledge is dynamic, never reaching a final state in which we can say, we now have all the methods and all the materials we need,” Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said in an email to the News.

A CHANGING WORLD?

At its Feb. 2 meeting, the Yale College faculty approved the ethnicity, race and migration program as a stand-alone major, capping a 15-year-long effort to expand the major. The change is the latest addition to the increasingly interdisciplinary curricula offered at Yale.

The ER&M program explores the forces that have created today’s multiethnic world and requires analysis from a broad range of fields, Pitti said. The variety of perspectives offered through such majors, he added, allows students to “think internationally and trans-nationally” about historical and contemporary processes.

Eb Saldana ’14, a student majoring in ER&M, said that by exploring the subject of ethnicity and migration with different methods, she is able to “get the bigger picture” and examine issues related to current policy making and social interactions.

“ER&M offers tools to look at the world around you through an academic lens,” she said.

The modern Middle East studies program, formally approved in February 2008, also satisfied a growing academic interest by combining classes previously offered across a variety of separate departments about the culture, history and politics of the area into one course of study, said Beatrice Gruendler, one of two directors of undergraduate studies for the program.

The interdisciplinary approach, Gruendler said, is necessary given the “complexity of a region that comprises billions of people and combines several traditions.”

“The increasing emergence of this area made necessary the creation of a major that would allow students to approach the Middle East in an interdisciplinary fashion,” Gruedler said.

While ER&M and MMES have only been established recently, Yale has offered one wide-ranging approach to a discipline since at least 1979, when the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program was established, said Howard Bloch, Sterling professor of French and chair of the Humanities program.

These interdisciplinary majors provide a useful framework to analyze an increasingly interconnected world, Bloch added. Ethics, politics and economics, for example, was established as a major in 1993 to explore how these three fields could complement each other and provide students with pragmatic skills, said political science professor Steven Wilkinson, the director of undergraduate studies for the major.

The program, while not offering specific career training, prepares students to enter a variety of fields — including academia, government, law, journalism and even filmmaking and music, he added.

Global affairs, founded in 2010, replaced international studies as a standalone major devoted to hands-on study of international security and development. Sophia Clementi ’14, a sophomore who has been accepted to global affairs and EP&E, agreed that these programs allow students to learn “real-life skills and knowledge” that can be applied in the study of social and political problems.

“As we are faced with more complex, global problems,” she said, “you need to explore how each field is related to other spheres of knowledge.”

COSTS AND BENEFITS

Still, Gruendler expressed some concern that interdisciplinary majors such as MMES are at times too broad and don’t ensure the depth required by a liberal arts education.

Faculty members, she said, have addressed this issue by requiring foundational courses and mandatory language proficiency for students in the program.

“We had to guarantee enough introductory courses for students with no previous background in the study of the Middle East,” she said.

In defence of EP&E, Wilkinson rejected the claim that interdisciplinary majors are too broad, citing a required set of “core courses” for the major: “In our case, I’m confident this criticism doesn’t apply,” Wilkinson said.

Gruendler was not the first to identify a potential downside for these majors: Concerns about the establishment of interdisciplinary programs had already been raised by the Committee on Majors, established in 2000 to monitor the majors offered in Yale College. In its Report on the Interdisciplinary Majors released in January 2007, the Committee identified such majors as “a benefit worth having and therefore a cost worth paying,” while also discouraging the addition of more interdisciplinary majors because of the monetary and teaching resources required.

Such majors, the report said, demand constant supervision because “the founding enthusiasms behind them can attenuate, and they can be rocked by exogenous events and actors.”

David Mayhew, Sterling professor of political science and chair of the Committee of Majors in 2007, said the report did not forbid the establishment of new interdisciplinary majors, but simply suggested that they “be more careful” when implementing additional programs.

After the 2007 report was released, three new interdisciplinary major programs have been introduced: Computing and the arts, MMES and global affairs. But there have been others proposed. Justine Kolata ’12 organized an April 2011 conference called “Human Rights Studies in Academia” that drew about 170 attendees to discuss a potential program for the study of human rights.

Kolata said that while she could explore this field through courses offered in the Political Science department, the subject of human rights is interdisciplinary in nature and should be studied through an independent major. Her proposal, though endorsed by over 40 Yale professors, was never officially approved due to lack of funding and teaching resources. Instead, a committee of faculty members has met several times throughout the past year to discuss adding human rights as a concentration track within the political science major, Kolata said.

“Yale is very traditional,” Kolata said. “In order to introduce a new major, you have to go through a lot of bureaucracy and guarantee that you have funds available, as well as professors that can teach.”

Throughout this process she faced the challenge of convincing administrators that the study of human rights is broad enough to be analyzed through different perspectives, Kolata added.

CONSTANT GROWTH

All six professors interviewed agreed that Yale’s liberal arts curriculum, by its nature, is constantly evolving to include new majors and programs that reflect emerging interests in academia.

Gordon said that non-traditional fields like environmental studies, film studies and South Asian studies are now seen as “dealing with some of the most important questions of our time,” even though they were barely recognized 30 years ago.

“A curriculum evolves because scholarship evolves,” Mayhew said. “New majors and programs are constantly created or terminated, and there is nothing surprising or disturbing about that.”

Established faculty support, expressed student interest and available academic resources are crucial to the approval of a new major, Gordon said. A department or faculty council must present the Committee on Majors and the Provost’s Office with a proposal to introduce a new major program, which must ultimately be approved by a vote of the Yale College faculty, he said.

For instance, while ER&M was only promoted to stand-alone status this February, interest in the field has been present at Yale as far back as the 1970s when many courses exploring subjects related to migration, race and ethnicity issues were included in the Blue Book, Pitti said. Over the 1980s and 1990s, students and faculty pushed for the introduction of more classes in these topics, he said, until the program was finally established as a second major in 1997-’98 academic year.

The expansion of the Yale College curriculum was addressed in a 2009 evaluation conducted every 10 years as part of a reaccreditation by the New England Association of School and Colleges, Gordon said. The study, he added, questioned if the University possessed the resources necessary to sustain all its programs and departments, especially in light of the slowed expansion of faculty.

Yet Gordon said that the richness of the program of study at Yale “is something to boast about,” as it shows the variety of paths to a liberal arts education that the University offers its students. He added that Yale College should not only conform to the changes in research and education, but should also “take the lead in exploring and developing them.”

Comments

  • monty

    “A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.”
    ~~Thoreau~~