Class at Yale is like a three-legged stool, Yale history professor John Demos said.
“One leg is the lectures, another is the readings. The third leg is a chance to interact with other students and instructors,” Demos said. “You take one leg away and it’s just not as good.”
But many students at Yale, if given the choice, might opt for a two-legged stool instead. Complaints about the relevance of sections are common among undergraduates, and along with the scheduled GESO strike next week are giving administrators and the Committee on Yale College Education cause to take a closer look at how to make sections more effective.
A Yale professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said he thought the disruption caused by striking graduate students might have a dramatic impact on sections in the future.
“I would anticipate that there will be a pretty fundamental reevaluation of our dependence on sections in the wake of a strike,” he said.
Political science professor Ian Shapiro, who is on the Committee on Yale College Education, or CYCE, said the committee has heard complaints that there are too many sections, and that sections are not well-integrated into courses. But both Shapiro and American studies professor and committee member Jon Butler said they would not discuss specific proposals of the committee.
“I think it’s important to respect the confidentiality of the CYCE, whose work simply cannot be accomplished well in a fishbowl,” Butler said in an e-mail.
A draft of the committee’s report will be released in early April. The committee plans to hold a faculty meeting and a series of town meetings with students after the report is released. Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said he hopes to have a finalized report by summer and start implementing recommendations in the fall.
“I’ve talked to many students who’ve told me how valuable section was,” Brodhead said. “I’ve also heard from many students that there are too many sections.”
Brodhead said sections were not always so universal at Yale. Instead, many professors would allow time for discussion after lecture for students to interact with instructors, Brodhead said.
“When I myself was an undergraduate there were in fact some sections, but not many,” Brodhead said.
Many current undergraduates said they feel overwhelmed by the number of sections and underwhelmed by their value.
“I don’t really like going to sections,” Helena Ajudua ’03 said. “I don’t think anybody does.”
Steven Becker GRD ’06, who has been a teaching assistant in two cell biology classes, said that in the sciences, where section attendance is not mandatory, most students do not take section seriously.
“Out of 15 people, about 12 or 13 usually show up,” Becker said. “Each week 10 of them are fully prepared. I’d say about half of those 10 are really engaged in the class.”
Graduate School Dean Peter Salovey said the main purpose of sections was to supplement the work of the professor in the classroom. He said sections were crucial in classes that have difficult material or that require discussion for better understanding. For the graduate students, sections provide teaching experience future employers have come to expect.
Salovey used the psychology department as an example of a successful use of sections. He said the psychology department uses sections in a few key courses that stir up a lot of discussion. He said sections can also be helpful when there are specific skills the students need to master, like lab experience. Though for many courses, including “Introduction to Psychology,” which Salovey once taught, he said discussions were better in the full lecture.
But Ajudua said that “Introduction to Psychology” was a class where section would have been useful.
“It didn’t really feel like there was anyone you could go to if you had questions,” Ajudua said.
David Nealy ’05 said that he thought the mandatory humanities sections were less valuable than the optional math and science sections. Ajudua said that the value of sections depends largely on the department.
“I think in something like a music class [it is] not really important,” Ajudua said. “In a class like philosophy, it’s a good idea.”
Several administrators and professors said that professor involvement, which includes attending sections and meeting with TAs weekly, was crucial to making sections valuable to students. Becker said that Yale offered little assistance when he was a TA last fall.
“I had no direction. I felt that the University was not trying to teach me how to teach,” Becker said. “The MacDougal Center offers teaching workshops but often classes are in the middle of the day and students can’t go.”
Shapiro said he thought some of the discontent over sections is overblown.
“I’m reminded in politics of people who say ‘All politicians stink but my congressman is fabulous,'” Shapiro said. “The vast majority of my TAs have gotten rave reviews.”
Brodhead said changes in sections were necessary to restore student enthusiasm.
“I think we have fallen into a habit of being somewhat unimaginative about sections,” he said. “People ought to think of a range of possibilities.”
Though he declined to speak about the discussions of the Committee on Yale College Education regarding sections, Shapiro did have a personal recommendation.
“The single best thing you can do is — produce more writing-intensive sections,” he said. “The small group atmosphere with a lot of intensive feedback I think is invaluable.”