Yale ought to undertake a survey of the seminars that it offers its undergraduate population in order to determine how effective they actually are at teaching material to students. I believe that the way most seminars are taught right now is ineffective, and that departments ought to contemplate radical changes to seminar format to increase their quality.
The standard Yale seminar in the humanities (I cannot speak for the sciences) looks something like this: The class meets once a week for two hours, with approximately 100-150 pages of reading per week, with the grade determined by class participation and two or three papers. The class time in seminars is dominated by professor-led discussion of the reading material assigned for that class. Ideally, students are supposed to read material carefully and completely before coming to class, respond to class discussion with insightful and relevant comments, and use this knowledge base to pursue a particular strand of the class in the context of a paper.
The problem with the seminar system at Yale is that it believes in this rose-colored ideal. Of course, professors will always admit that they realize that students often fail to do the reading before class, or never do them at all, and that papers are often completed the night before they are due. They aren’t stupid — they’re professors at Yale, after all. But if professors are aware of this, then why do they persist in teaching within a model that is ineffective? Perhaps because they do not realize how ineffective seminars can be.
The first problem is that students rarely do all of the reading assigned for a given class. Even the dutiful student who reads and highlights every page often does not find total understanding in the first reading. Most seminars assign dense or technical works written by and for the academy, or old classics that are written in difficult prose. To get anything more than a shallow understanding would require at least a second reading, if not more. But the pages assigned preclude this option.
Some professors try to fight this by assigning worksheets or response papers. But Yale students are too smart for this. Yalies can write 500 words about a book if they hold it in their hand and look at the cover picture long enough. And there is no reason not to do this; professors never call students out on their bull, either because they don’t recognize it or they are afraid to do so. Worksheets, which attempt to draw a student into the details of a work, are equally ineffective. After a few looks at the index or table of contents and some page scanning, a small detail is found, and another worksheet question is answered.
The lack of a deep understanding of the reading then hurts the class time itself. Since student discussion dominates seminar time, we would hope that the comments are informative and interesting. But lack of preparation often makes this impossible. A student who has only a general awareness of what the reading was about can easily make two or three comments in a seminar, by overinterpreting an obscure and unimportant passage (“I found this line especially interesting…”), or responding to another student’s comment (“I read Marx differently than Steve, in that…”). The vast majority of student disagreements about author interpretation in a particular work would be resolved if both students actually understood the work.
With these observations in mind, professors who teach seminars ought to seriously consider some of the following changes:
Reduce reading load: Students would be more likely to carefully read a particular week’s reading if it were 50 instead of 150 pages. It will decrease the breadth of a course, but increase depth.
Call students out on their bull: If a student is going off on a meaningless tangent, or is making a comment just to make a comment, stop him. He is wasting precious class time.
Lecture in seminar: I’ve come to Yale to hear an expert say intelligent things on a particular topic, not to hear college kids attempt to comment on material they don’t yet deeply understand. Tell me what you think, and tell students when they are wrong.
Short quizzes on readings: I’m a senior, so I’ll thankfully never be faced with this, but quizzes on reading details would probably get students to read the assignments carefully.
This is not to say that I haven’t learned a great deal from my time in seminars at Yale; believe me, I have. And I realize that part of the value accrued to students in seminar is the chance to discuss material in a classroom setting, with Yalies, the some of the smartest students in the world. But I do believe that seminars could be designed with the realities of student life and student priorities in mind.
Zachary Zwillinger is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.