When Classics Department Chair Kirk Freudenburg received an “urgent appeal” from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler to develop courses relevant to recent campus discussions about race, diversity and ethnic studies, he decided to create a new freshman seminar that examines diversity and marginalized groups using the classic texts of Greece and Rome.
Gendler’s Nov. 19 email was part of a concerted effort by the FAS Dean’s Office and the Yale College Dean’s Office to enhance the study of “the histories, lives and cultures of unrepresented and underrepresented communities” in anticipation of “unusual” student interest in courses in these areas. Gendler and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway asked department heads and directors of undergraduate studies for a list of spring 2016 courses in these related areas, and also encouraged departments to plan their future curricula to accommodate these student interest. They then compiled these spring 2016 courses into two lists, which were shared with undergraduates Monday. In their email to Yale College, Gendler and Holloway wrote that the new resources are being offered in response to overwhelming student and faculty support for the increased study of unrepresented and underrepresented communities. Gendler said the lists also directly respond to last month’s race teach-in at Battell Chapel and the Nov. 10 faculty open letter of support for students of color, which garnered nearly 600 signatures.
“We didn’t really know what a totality of courses looked like and we wanted to generate a list to recognize the faculty and student interest in studying the cultures of underrepresented communities,” Holloway told the News.
The first list contains the courses that are either taught in or cross-listed with the African American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Departments and the American Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration programs. The second list is longer, including all courses found in a broader range of departments which explore diverse identity. The first list includes 48 courses, excluding those pending approval. The second list names 118 courses, also excluding courses that have yet to be approved. Gendler and Holloway said they expect these lists to grow in the following weeks as relevant courses are identified and created. Classes for the fall 2016 semester have yet to be set, and Gendler said professors are welcome to send new course ideas to the YCDO.
Gendler said the vast majority of the courses on the second list were already being offered, although there are some exceptions. For example, Freudenburg was previously scheduled to teach a Latin course this spring, but dropped the class to develop the freshman seminar. He secured funding for a replacement instructor for the Latin course through the FAS Dean’s Office.
“The administration generously agreed to fund a course in advanced Latin to replace the one I was vacating, and that’s what has made it possible for me to make the shift — so real funds had to be invested in order to allow me to teach the course I have in mind,” Freudenburg said. “I hope to get a diverse set of students in the class — the greater the variety of backgrounds and interests the better.”
Some faculty members were critical of the email and the new resources. American Studies professor Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82 said while the list is substantial, she wishes it were longer. She added that she hopes this list sets a baseline which professors can add classes to in the future.
American Studies and ER&M professor Birgit Rasmussen said she does not need a list of courses to promote underrepresented fields, but rather more faculty who specialize in these areas. The few current faculty who teach these kinds of classes are overworked, she added. Rasmussen said the new resources may be helpful for students but still seems like “window dressing.”
American Studies professor Zareena Grewal said the new lists show that communication between the administration and faculty and students has improved. She added that there is an “anti-intellectual rhetoric” in academia that dismisses the scholarly work in fields like ER&M and WGSS, and therefore makes them seem less serious and rigorous than traditional departments. Grewal also noted that some professors have decided in the last year to leave Yale to teach at other schools due to concerns about the lack of support for their fields of study. Anthropology and East Asian Studies professor Karen Nakamura announced in November that she is leaving this spring to teach at University of California, Berkeley, and earlier this year, English and African American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 and WGSS professor Vanessa Agard-Jones ’00 announced they will leave to teach at Columbia University next fall.
“Reading the list is a bittersweet experience,” Grewal said. “It represents some of our excellent and most popular teachers at Yale, and for some, next semester will be their last.”
Philosophy professor Jason Stanley, whose new spring course “Propaganda, Ideology & Democracy” was on the second list, said his course will focus largely on the construction of stereotypes, such as the use of propaganda to create negative stereotypes about black Americans. Stanley said he does not yet know how much student interest there will be, but designed the lecture course to serve a large audience.
Students expressed gratitude for the new resources, though some criticized the email’s vagueness and said there needs to be more substantial action to support ethnic studies.
Haylee Kushi ’18, an ER&M major, described the email as “confusing” and “misleading” since it presented lists of already existent classes as if they were new resources.
Kushi said ER&M courses are regularly overenrolled and that more professors should be hired to meet the demand. For example, she said there were 27 students in a Native American literature class that was capped at 15 people. Kushi added that Yale professors not already trained to teach issues on race and ethnicity should not do so because they are not qualified.
Other students, such as American Studies major Alex Zhang ’18, who serves as Asian American Studies Task Force co-chair, said Holloway and Gendler’s email seemed to portray ethnic studies courses, WGSS, Af-Am Studies and ER&M as being primarily about the study of identity. These disciplines may have focused on identity in their early stages of development in the 1970s and ’80s, but today, these fields have shifted to study the social inequalities affecting certain groups, Zhang said.
“This distinction is crucial because if everyone thinks ethnic studies is about identity, that kind of dilutes what the field is and it makes the field seem less rigorous than it actually is,” Zhang said. “It’s not so much about students ‘finding themselves’ as it is about analyzing how the distinctive histories of places have shaped the day-to-day experiences of ethnic groups.”
Still, Zhang added that he was glad the email was sent to all Yale undergraduates because it helps destigmatize ethnic studies fields as being only for minority students. Several students said they saw the email as a tactical move to avoid further criticism from students rather than a genuine effort to make new resources available. Rob Henderson, an Eli Whitney scholar, said the email was a clever way of avoiding making these subjects required, as per the demand of Next Yale, a fledgling student group focused on addressing issues of race at Yale. Henderson added that he expects professors in his major, psychology, to rethink their curricula to meet student interests.
“I think it opens the doors to take the field in a different direction, to explore identity within the domain of psychology,” Henderson said.
Several professors interviewed said the names of their classes can mislead people into thinking that courses not actually deal with race, gender and identity. For example, Dimock said students often expect her class “Nonhuman in Literature and Culture” to have few African-American, Latino and Asian-American writers on its syllabus, when in fact many of the class’s themes deal with underrepresented cultures.
“[I] hope that other faculty would also design their classes with a flexible view of race and gender,” Dimock said.
English professor Amy Hungerford said students in her class, “The American Novel Since 1945,” read and discuss texts that deal with issues of race and ethnicity in America. The syllabus includes readings ranging from the lives of Native Americans in novels by Cormac McCarthy to police brutality in stories by Flannery O’Connor.
Hungerford said the new resources are like “x-ray vision” for students looking for courses that deal with these topics.
“I think there’s a genuine question in people’s minds about what is going pedagogically in these areas,” Hungerford said.
While Hungerford said the humanities are not better-suited to address issues of identity than the social sciences, she also said that not everyone is trained to teach race and ethnicity. Yet professors of economics or social science should still be concerned with issues of race, inequality and justice, she added.
“Teaching courses requires expertise,” Canadian Studies and WGSS lecturer Theresa Cowan said. “Hopefully we’ll see resources being directed toward the hiring and ongoing support of faculty with the expertise required to teach courses like those on the list.”