News | 9:51 am | August 8, 2010 | By lauren rosenthal

2011 college seminars on hold for program review

David Berg ’71 GRD ’72 and Howard Dean ’71 presented plans for their seminar "Understanding Politics and Politicians"  in February 2009. The course was approved and was offered this past fall.
David Berg ’71 GRD ’72 and Howard Dean ’71 presented plans for their seminar "Understanding Politics and Politicians" in February 2009. The course was approved and was offered this past fall. Photo by Snigdha Sur.

Students hoping to search for Christian theology in the Harry Potter books this spring — among other academic opportunities offered by the Residential College Seminar Program — may have to wait.

In a statement sent to the News on Tuesday afternoon, Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced plans to conduct an evaluation of the program this academic year. A committee of residential college masters and deans, faculty members and students, chaired by English professor and former Berkeley College master John Rogers, will oversee what Miller called a “periodic review.”

“Although the college seminar program is not currently receiving proposals for new seminars from prospective instructors, no final decision has been made about seminars in the spring semester — and that will be one of the first charges of the committee assigned with the review,” Miller said. She added that the University will wait until the review is complete before hiring a replacement for outgoing seminar program coordinator Catherine Suttle, who plans to retire at the end of November, “in case the scope of the role changes” during the study.

But Suttle and the Dean’s Office have given mixed signals about the program’s fate in the 2010-’11 academic year. In an e-mail message sent Tuesday to student directors of college seminar committees, Suttle said administrators already plan to suspend the program for all of 2011, echoing an identical message to prospective instructors posted on the seminar program’s website in mid-July.

“The program will not be accepting applications for spring [20]11 and fall [20]11, but the seminars that are already in place for fall [20]10 will run as usual,” Suttle’s e-mail said.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon, speaking on Miller’s behalf, said in an e-mail Wednesday that seminars may be offered in fall 2011, but that this also depends on the findings of the review committee headed by Rogers.

“We don’t know yet whether applications for new seminars will be accepted in spring 2011 for fall seminars because we don’t know what all the features of the program or what the systems will be to build the program’s catalogue of offerings in the future,” Gordon said.

The study will coincide with the planned “progress report” of curricular changes to distributional and area requirements made in 2005 on the recommendation of the Committee on Yale College Education, Miller said. She added that the review will take into consideration the program’s role within the new College Seminar Office in Yale College, founded in fall 2009 and headed by Dean of Academic Affairs George Levesque.

Miller said the committee also hopes to find a way to “streamlin[e] the approval process” for new seminars, which currently includes review by undergraduate-led college seminar committees and the Committee on Teaching in the Residential Colleges, followed by a final vote by faculty to approve seminars for Yale College credit.

Erin Biel ’13, the director of the Ezra Stiles College seminar committee, said in an e-mail that she was unable to discern from Suttle’s message how the review will be conducted and has not been told how she and other college seminar committee leaders can participate. She added that she was “dismayed” by the news in Suttle’s e-mail.

“Oftentimes, these seminars fill voids in the regular Yale College curriculum or highlight unique academic niches that may be of interest to students, yet are not touched upon due to the regular curriculum’s tendency to have classes that cover multiple topics [or] themes in a semester,” Biel said.

Originally intended to allow students to take courses with non-faculty members and to afford tenured faculty the opportunity to test out new courses, the 41-year-old Residential College Seminar Program has turned its focus to more cutting-edge or non-traditional academic subjects in recent years. Popular seminars have focused on the art of brewing beer, human rights and information technology, among other topics.

Richard Rose, who taught a seminar on letterpress printing, “Art of the Printed Word,” for the past two spring semesters, said he is required to take a one-year break from teaching the seminar under the program’s current policy but is now unsure whether the review could affect his ability to offer the course again in the spring of 2012.

Neither Rose nor Danielle Tumminio ’03 DIV ’06 ’08, who teaches the seminar “Christian Theology and Harry Potter,” were aware of the review before the News contacted them for interviews last week.

Tumminio, whose seminar made national news when it was first offered in spring 2008, declined to comment on the specifics of the review because she said she does not know what it will entail, but she said she hopes the seminars retain their basic character.

“Both as an instructor in the College Seminar Program and a former undergraduate who enrolled in two courses through the program, I hope that the review process maintains the spirit of the program,” Tumminio said in an e-mail. “Nowhere else in the university can you find courses like those offered in college seminars. I believe these courses add creativity and depth to the undergraduate curriculum.”

The program was last reviewed in 2001, when then-Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead convened a committee of students and faculty to examine the program for the first time since it was founded in 1969.

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