In Pierson College on Thursday night, Howard Dean ’71 and David Berg ’71 GRD ’72 sat at a long table, answering questions about a residential college seminar they hope to co-teach in the fall. Dean, the former governor of Vermont and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Berg, a clinical psychiatry professor at the School of Medicine, were interviewed not by Yale College Dean Mary Miller or Provost Peter Salovey, but by Yale undergraduates, who sat listening around the table.
“Politics is the subject matter by which we get to talk about interpersonal relationships,” Dean said matter-of-factly to describe his and Berg’s proposed course, “Understanding Politics and Politicians,” which intends to examine the overlap between politics and psychology.
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More than 40 students, members of their residential colleges’ seminar-selection committees, squeezed into the room to interview the pair of Yale alumni, who are both Pierson graduates and longtime friends.
“It’s not going to be the garden variety ‘Let’s bring a politician into Yale,’ ” Dean said of the seminar, eliciting laughter from the students when he added, “Do not expect Barack to show up here.”
Interviews like Berg and Dean’s are just one in a series of steps that comprise the student-driven college seminar selection and approval process. By Wednesday, 49 prospective instructors, each vying to teach one of an anticipated 18 residential college seminars, will have interviewed to work at Yale in the fall of 2009, said Cathy Suttle, the program coordinator for residential college seminars.
Although student-picked seminar proposals go through multiple stages of faculty approval, undergraduates are the first ones to vet prospective courses and instructors, giving them the unique opportunity to shape a select portion of the Blue Book’s yearly offerings.
INTERDISCIPLINARY AND INNOVATIVE
The 40-year-old Residential College Seminar Program seeks to “expose undergraduates to topics and modes of inquiry not available within Yale’s departmental framework,” according to its Web site. The program’s stated raison d’être typically translates into courses that offer nontraditional subject matter and teaching methods. For example, current proposals for the fall of 2009, which have been posted on the classes*v2 server, range from “Scientific Principles of Brewing” (beer, that is) to “The Corporate Board of Directors” to “The Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.”
When the college seminar program was founded in 1969, interdisciplinary coursework was more rare in the College’s curriculum, Miller said in an interview Tuesday. Now, she explained, college seminars have evolved in many cases also to address new areas of scholarly interest — Internet privacy or computer modeling of biomolecules, for example.
The seminars, after all, are hand-picked by undergraduates. Students can generate seminar ideas and solicit course proposals from prospective instructors, or prospective instructors may apply to teach on their own, Suttle explained.
Yale faculty, administrators and graduate students, as well as individuals from outside the University, are eligible to submit applications, which were due by Jan. 13 for the fall semester of 2009. Each application required a course proposal, projected budget, résumé or curriculum vitae, course description and syllabus, as well as at least two letters of recommendation.
Applicants generally must have terminal post-baccalaureate degrees in their areas of study, as well as some experience teaching at the college or university level. Exceptions are sometimes made for registered graduate students and individuals with at least five years of professional experience in their respective fields, Suttle explained.
Often the instructors are Yale alumni who are drawn to return to their alma mater. As an undergraduate at Yale, instructor Danielle Tumminio ’03 DIV ’06 ’08 said, she took two college seminars which inspired her to apply to be an instructor while she was studying at the Yale Divinity School. This semester Tumminio — who is currently a doctoral student at Boston University and has also taught at the University of New Haven and Central Connecticut State University — is, for her second time, teaching the seminar “Christian Theology and Harry Potter.”
“It was a nice place where my interests and background could create the course like the one I’m teaching,” Tumminio said of the college seminar program. “It seems like it’s a really innovative part of the University.”
TAKING THEIR PICK
Prospective instructors are not screened before their applications are forwarded to residential college seminar selection committees via the classes*v2 server, said Suttle, who compiles the applications and checks that they are complete.
It is the selection committees — comprised mostly of undergraduate students but, in some colleges, also of graduate affiliates or faculty fellows — who get the first shot at evaluating the proposals and interviewing candidates in order to decide which courses their college is interested in sponsoring. A seminar must have sponsorship from two colleges in order to be offered.
Pierson’s seminar selection committee head Martin Dominguez MED ’12 named “sexiness” as the main factor he considers when judging seminar proposals. He said he looks for courses that address subjects that are “really on the minds of students,” like the financial crisis or current events.
Calla added that Branford’s committee looks for courses with real-world applications and interesting subject matter that seems to “cover a gap in the Blue Book.”
Indeed, on Thursday Berg and Dean made their expectations for their course clear: The reading will be somewhat lighter than that for most Yale courses, they explained. But, Dean said, students will be expected to do “intellectual work” in the form of thought and discussion, as well as assigned interviews — with the two professors, fellow students and politicians.
The seminar “won’t be for the emotionally faint-hearted,” Dean cautioned. “If somebody’s not saying much, they’re going to be called on,” he said of his planned teaching style, which he said will stem not from the desire to intimidate but an interest in honest, open discourse.
In anticipation of the Berg and Dean interview, Dominguez conceded, “Nothing they could really say is going to convince us that it’s going to be bad.”
THE SEAL OF APPROVAL
College committees can conduct interviews with prospective instructors up until Wednesday, when all 12 committees will come together for what Suttle called the “draft,” the final event where residential college representatives deliberate and choose their preferred seminars.
Each seminar, Suttle said, “takes a lot of approval … to be official.” After all, every one must meet the academic standards of any other course offered in the College.
After the draft, Suttle explained, the proposals go through three phases of faculty review. First, the proposals are evaluated by the 12-member Committee on Teaching in the Residential Colleges, a faculty standing committee on which two students also serve.
One of those students, Caleb Dorfman ‘09, said that in addition to verifying the qualifications of the prospective instructors, the committee assesses the academic rigor of the proposed courses, ensuring that the seminars offer about the same quantity of reading and graded assignments as other Yale courses.
“We as students understand what we’re looking for in a course and what a meaningful course load is,” he said.
If the committee finds inadequacies in any proposals, it usually reaches out to their prospective instructors to “fix the kinks,” Dorfman said.
Next, the proposals pass to the Course of Study Committee, a Yale College standing committee that reviews all courses offered for credit in the College. And finally, the Yale College Faculty votes whether or not to approve the proposed seminars.
Once they are approved to teach, seminar instructors are appointed lecturers in Yale College or, in the case of registered graduate students, part-time acting instructors.
But while the college seminar lineup for next fall will be finalized by this spring, come next semester, a whole new selection process begins: students will have to apply for the limited number of spots in the seminars their peers selected.
For as Berg and Dean both emphasized Thursday, a productive seminar ultimately depends on the students in it.