College seminars in full swing

After budgetary constraints slashed Yale’s residential college seminar offerings in half in 2011, the seminar program has returned to its previous level.

The 50-year-old program, which allows individuals from outside the University community to teach courses that are not within Yale’s traditional departmental structures, went under review in January 2011 after the University’s budget began to feel the impact of the recession and the seminar program’s longtime director, Catherine Suttle, left Yale. Though the program continued to function at reduced capacity for several semesters, Yale resumed offering roughly 20 seminars per term in the 2012–’13 school year, and now, three semesters later, the program has stabilized at this prereduction level.

Faculty and students interviewed expressed enthusiasm about the resurgence of the program and said the seminars provide a space for innovative teaching and learning.

“I am a big fan of the program,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. “I think it’s one of the ways that we make it possible for individuals who don’t have traditional academic credentials to have an impact on the classroom with their sustained and profound life experiences.”

Aisling Colon, who was appointed college seminar program coordinator in fall 2012, said she receives between 40 and 60 course proposals each term, a number that has remained consistent in the past five years despite financial struggles.

Miller said the seminar program allows alumni to give back to their alma mater. About half of the 18 seminars offered this fall are taught by Yale alumni.

Two of this term’s college seminar instructors interviewed said they applied to teach their own course after having a positive experience with the program while students at Yale.

“I was very lucky when I was a Yale undergrad to have taken college seminars, and I thought they were wonderful in my experience,” said Maxim Thorne ’89 LAW ’92, who teaches a Yale College seminar entitled “Philanthropy in Action.” “I thought that I could both give back to Yale and to students, but in an innovative way.”

Colon said the seminars embrace unconventional teaching that is not found in the regular Yale classroom. Students in Thorne’s philanthropy class act as actual philanthropists, working together over the course of the semester to choose how to donate a $100,000 gift.

Danielle Tumminio ’03 DIV ’08, whose Morse College seminar “Christian Theology and Harry Potter” has drawn approximately 100 applications each time she has taught it, said she chose to teach within the seminar program because she felt it allowed “an innovative approach to pedagogy,” adding that the course lets her push the boundaries of teaching theology.

Hal Brooks ’88, who teaches the Silliman College seminar “Composing and Performing the One-Act Play,” said the program brings alumni and students together.

“It’s a fantastic program — it allows people who are out in the real world, who have a love of the Yale community, to see the energy of all the students,” Brooks said. “It’s a great opportunity to come back, to stay a part of Yale and to connect those students to the community outside Yale.”

Residential college seminars remain consistently oversubscribed — three professors interviewed said they received over 90 applications to fill only 18 spots. While the hassle of getting into the oversubscribed residential college seminars can be exhausting, students interviewed said their experiences with the classes have been positive.

Eric Stern ’15 — who has taken two residential college seminars, “Ethical Dilemmas of Legislators” and “Perspectives on Stem Cells” — said he enjoyed both classes, adding that the ethical dilemmas course was one of the best courses he has taken at Yale.

“In my experience, most of the instructors are experts and really cool people in their field,” Stern said. “I wanted to get perspective straight from [them].”

Stern added that he plans on applying to more residential college seminars in the future.

The first residential college seminars were offered in 1969.

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