Sophomores, does this sound familiar? You shopped five seminars last week and then gave up after receiving five e-mails confirming your rejection. Although your current adviser knows you better than the one your college dean assigned to you last year, he is in no place to counsel you on your choice of a major — in part because he teaches French and you gave up on French months ago, and in part because you’re still confused about what you’re interested in. Your beloved freshman counselor graduated last spring, your grades could have been better last semester and now you have to choose among TAs to ask for a recommendation for a summer internship. Yes, sophomore slump has struck. And no one seems to be listening.
Three years ago, however, someone was listening. In 2003, the Committee on Yale College Education (CYCE), charged by President Levin with identifying ways to achieve such goals as “protecting and strengthening close intellectual contact between faculty and students,” issued more than 80 pages of recommendations on how to improve undergraduate education at Yale. The report inspired tangible reforms, including changes in the distributional requirements, International Summer Awards — which provide funding to students receiving financial aid for one Yale-approved summer opportunity abroad — and the freshman seminar program. These reforms have satisfied pressing needs. Yet the report offered additional recommendations that, while addressing needs equally critical to the wellbeing of the student body, were seemingly discarded.
One of these recommendations was the creation of small classes for sophomores — not just freshmen. In a section entitled “Small Classes in the Freshman and Sophomore Years,” the report recognized that neither class had access to the “small group experiences” that facilitate “active intellectual engagement” and serve as a “breeding ground for … close relations with faculty.” While the CYCE acknowledged that freshmen and sophomores may attend small classes in math, foreign languages and expository writing and that freshmen may apply to the Directed Studies or Perspectives on Science programs, it determined that these offerings were inadequate. In a conclusive statement, the CYCE held, “[W]e recommend a major effort to increase opportunities for students to study with ladder faculty in small groups in both the freshman and sophomore years.”
Although it noted that “a good lecture course can make an excellent introduction to a field,” the CYCE emphasized that in the interest of both undergraduate and graduate students, sections taught by TAs “should supplement, not replace, the direct engagement of students and faculty that is the core relationship of undergraduate study.” The report affirmed that, in particular, “social science departments need to think about student-faculty contact in the early years more systematically than they do now and to create opportunities where they are lacking.” It further proposed the creation of college seminars that give priority to underclassmen as well as a stronger Perspectives program and a “Directed Studies in Science” to allow at least some freshmen in the sciences to escape large lecture halls.
What emerged from this chapter of the report was a freshman seminar program overseen by Dean George Levesque in 2004. That program has been largely successful, according to professors and students alike. Yet the report noted that “[m]any students pointed out that current opportunities are much more problematic for sophomores than they are for freshmen.” Today, the number of small classes easily accessible to sophomores remains pathetically small. And despite the CYCE’s recommendation that an administrator “coordinate small-group learning before entry to the majors,” at this time no administrator has been assigned the responsibility of ensuring the creation of small classes easily accessible to sophomores.
One might object that freshmen require individualized attention in the classroom much more than sophomores. Fresh off the boat, first-years often struggle with their newfound independence from adult guidance and are more discouraged by the sense of anonymity that accompanies attendance at a relatively large university. This is probably true, and these factors clearly justify a freshman seminar program. But sophomores also encounter difficulties particular to their year that small classes may effectively alleviate.
Around this time last year, my peers and I began to apply for internships and fellowships that required recommendations. But because we had taken mostly lectures, few of us were able to form strong relationships with professors and obtain recommendations that surpassed mediocrity. Sophomores also face the imperative of choosing a major. Frequent conversations with a professor familiar with one’s interests and abilities could reduce the indecision and confusion sophomores experience when choosing a specialized field. “Sophomore slump,” experienced by some (though not all) sophomores, frequently involves a sense of indirection and worsened academic performance that the intimate setting of a small class and a close relationship with a professor could help to correct.
Let me be clear: I do not advocate the immediate creation of a centralized sophomore seminar program. The freshman seminar program has existed for only two years and should be a priority for the administration until that program becomes a fully stable part of the Yale College education. In the meantime, though, faculty members should be approached to teach a class for sophomores “every three or four years,” as the CYCE report advises. This ad hoc establishment of sophomore seminars would obviate the need to hire more faculty and also ensure minimal effects on existing seminars accessible primarily to juniors and seniors. In fact, this is the same method Yale used to get the freshman seminar program off the ground. Then, particular administrators took it upon themselves to recruit faculty; now, no Yale administrator is accountable for ensuring the future implementation of the CYCE report’s recommendations on sophomore education.
Unless directors of undergraduate studies or members of the administration take up this task, much of the class of 2009 — and 2010, 2011, 2012 and so on — will spend a year of their lives as undergraduates unsatisfied with subpar job applications, anonymous in the eyes of the faculty and slumping into large lecture halls. Yale, give them a reason to stand tall.
Allison Pickens is a junior in Trumbull College.