During their first year at Yale-NUS, students read the Odyssey alongside the Ramayana, juggling Don Quixote with the classical Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”
These texts give just a single snapshot of Yale-NUS’s “Literature and Humanities” class, a compulsory course for first-year students. Built on the college’s mission to provide an education spanning the East and West, the class came out of much contention among the college’s inaugural faculty members over what should be included in the course, according to a commentary on Yale-NUS published in January and co-authored by Yale-NUS professor Petrus Liu. The school’s first cohort of professors, including Liu, had to balance great works and non-canonical literature, not limit Asian literature to Chinese books and pay tribute to Singapore’s multi-religious society by featuring Muslim and Buddhist work in its syllabus. Last month, Yale-NUS announced several changes to its common curriculum science requirements, but left the literature and humanities component unchanged.
In addition to addressing the difficulties of designing a curriculum in any setting, the commentary noted another challenge faced by Yale-NUS’s literature and humanities faculty: Because Yale-NUS students are a self-selecting, risk-taking group, they prefer various forms of expression, such as screenplays, video essays and poetry, and lean away from traditional literature analysis.
“What was perturbing was just how many students considered the analytical paper an archaic exercise that might inhibit their growth as independent thinkers,” Liu wrote in the commentary of his experiences teaching the class “Modern Chinese Literature and Film” at Yale-NUS. All but one of the 18 students in the class opted for a creative project in place of an academic paper. Liu could not be reached for comment.
Yale-NUS literature and humanities professors interviewed said the challenges associated with teaching their subjects are not specific to Yale-NUS, as the paper suggested.
Shaoling Ma, a Yale-NUS literature professor who previously taught at Pennsylvania State University, said she noticed two major difficulties during her teaching career: students familiar with literary analysis over-rely on terminology, and students who are not comfortable with that type of coursework resist critical thinking and take the easy way out. She has seen these problems in students outside Yale-NUS, she said.
Yale-NUS literature professor Andrew Hui, a former postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and student at Yale Divinity School, said that whether in Connecticut, California or Singapore, students struggle with close-reading skills. What might make teaching literature at Yale-NUS more difficult is that 60 percent of the student body graduated from Singaporean high schools and pursued the Cambridge A-levels before college, which means many students enter Yale-NUS with little previous exposure to literature, Hui said.
Those students, Hui said, come into Yale-NUS with the presumption that they are not prepared to analyze literature. But it is often those without a literature background who are the keenest readers, he said.
Yale-NUS English literature professor Rajeev Patke said there are differences between teaching at Yale-NUS and the National University of Singapore, whose faculty he joined in 1988.
At NUS, classes focus primarily on texts written in English, while the syllabi at Yale-NUS are rooted in texts translated from other languages. The smaller average class sizes and greater variety of student backgrounds at Yale-NUS also add to the difference in class dynamics, he said.
Yale-NUS humanities professor Heidi Stalla, who is part of the teaching team that designs writing prompts for the “Literature and Humanities” class, said her students are eager to learn all forms of expression, including academic writing and creating writing.
“Innovation is inextricably linked to analysis,” Stalla added.
For first-year students, the “Literature and Humanities” course spans the fall and spring semesters.