This week, dozens of former Directed Studies students will find themselves back around the seminar table.
Funded by a $280,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation — a grant-making organization focused on improving higher education — DS faculty will assess the impact of their “core text” program on students. Now, in the second year of the three-year grant, former and current DS students have been invited to participate in group discussions of six to eight students, led by researchers from the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College. In addition to allowing students to reflect, faculty said these discussions, which aim to reflect on the successes and failures of the program, could lead to long-term changes in the way DS is run at Yale.
“The point of these conversations is not so much about what we want to do about DS and the day-to-day functioning of the program here,” DS Director of Undergraduate Studies Kathryn Slanski said. “It’s so that we can better understand the impact of a program like DS.”
DS is a year-long, competitive freshman program focused on the western canon.
Slanski wrote to former and current DS students earlier this month requesting their participation in the discussion groups, held Monday through Thursday this week at the Whitney Humanities Center. Over 100 DS students signed up to take part in the discussions. To gather further student input, faculty will use themes that arise from these discussions to create an online survey sent to all DS alumni, Slanski said.
So that students feel free to be completely honest, no DS faculty or staff will be present at the meetings, Slanski said. Eight of 10 students interviewed said they planned to attend a discussion group.
“I think, broadly speaking, there are two questions to address: What is the place of a core curriculum in a liberal arts education — should we have programs like this?” said Ben Marrow ’17, who plans to attend a session. “And assuming we have a core curriculum, how should it be structured?”
While most students interviewed said their DS experiences were largely positive, others expressed concerns.
Hayun Cho ’17, who left DS after the first semester, cited many problems with the program, including its lack of diversity in students and faculty, excessive focus on only “traditional” descriptions of the Western canon and too-brief discussion of some texts. Curriculum issues would not have been such a problem if the program had been marketed differently, she added.
Marrow said much of DS is very valuable, but that the program also has its drawbacks, including the large portion of a student’s schedule it requires and the “almost too rigorous” pace — qualities that deter students who may otherwise have been interested in the program.
“My biggest issue is what the cost is,” Marrow said. “I came out of DS knowledgeable on everything they intended to teach me, but I’m almost a year behind everyone else — taking intro classes when they’re taking second-year classes.”
Claire Williamson ’17 said overall she would recommend DS despite its rigorous nature, but there are certainly some improvements that could be made — namely, reevaluating certain texts in the curriculum.
Charles Blaich, the director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College and the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, who is one of the researchers leading the discussion, said he and his colleague will also gather faculty input while on campus. Like the student discussions, these faculty discussions will take place in small focus groups, Associate Director of Inquiries at the Center of Inquiry Kathleen Wise added.
Blaich declined to comment on any specific discussions that have taken place in the focus groups, but said that this kind of review is a normal process for colleges and universities. The Teagle grant is also being used to review similar programs at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.
The initiative will likely result in a joint publication from the three universities evaluating the text-based programs in terms of what works well and what does not, said Norma Thompson, a DS professor involved with the initiative. In addition to helping the three universities involved assess their own strengths and weaknesses, this document may serve as a model for the many colleges hoping to create similar programs, Thompson added.
DS professor Joshua Billings said the curriculum is “always a work in progress,” noting that the faculty meets every year to revisit it.
But even beyond routine curricular revisions, there may be room for greater change to DS. These changes will depend on the student feedback received, said Humanities Program chair and head of DS Bryan Garsten.
“DS began as an experimental program, and it’s been a tremendously successful experiment, so the change that comes to DS comes relatively slowly,” Garsten said. “But there is room for much quicker innovation to happen.”
However, Slanski said given the extensive contact she already has with DS alums — through groups like the DS ambassadors and the recently formed DS student advisory committee — she does not expect to be surprised by the feedback from these meetings. Still, she said she will pay close attention to any issues that do arise.
Former Yale College Dean William DeVane founded DS in 1946.