Maddie Bender

Yale launched a new exploratory committee last week to examine the unique challenges and untried techniques of teaching undergraduates in the 21st century.

The “Teaching for the 21st Century Committee” was created in anticipation of the opening of the two new residential colleges next fall. Spearheaded by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler, the 16-person committee — which administrators described as broad in scope — will conduct fact-finding work throughout spring 2017 and will produce a report on their findings by July 1. The report is expected to prompt further committees next academic year to address the report’s recommendations.

“We envision the arrival of the two new colleges has created an opportunity to say, ‘We know the fact that more people are coming in [means] this is a nice opportunity to take a moment to think about the practice of teaching in our current age,’” Holloway said. “This is not to say that something is broken at Yale. This is a great opportunity [to] take a moment to do an assessment of what we think we already do well — we can do better.”

The committee will formulate a series of questions about how traditional methods of teaching could be enhanced by the technological advances of the digital age, according to committee member and geology and geophysics professor Bhart-Anjan Bhullar ’05.

John Rogers ’84 GRD ’89, professor of English and the chair of the new committee, said many of his fellow committee members are interested in exploring interdisciplinary teaching and looking at different types of pedagogy across academic divisions. He added that the committee aims to offer a “road map” for ways in which professors can learn from each other across the University.

“A central aim is articulating goals and ideals about teaching and learning in the years ahead while responding, at the same time, to the changing needs and interests of Yale College students,” Rogers said.

Bhullar said that there are three central reasons the committee is needed this year: the relatively new University leadership, the need to broadly examine the influence of new technologies and changing student demographics and interests with the expansion of Yale College.

The committee will also look at Yale’s peer colleges and universities to see how different schools manage undergraduate classrooms, Bhullar said. He added that the committee hopes to first look at different approaches to disciplines, such as incorporating questions of ethics and philosophy into hard sciences and taking data-driven approaches to literature. Then, the committee will develop a set of ideas about which methodologies are valued and which less conventional teaching pedagogies could be used at Yale.

“There is information out there in the form of course syllabi, and all of us professors have to report how we’re doing our teaching and are given enormous freedom about how to do it,” Bhullar said. “But you’d think there must be someone up there at the administrative level keeping track of it all, trying to understand trends, and the truth is actually there isn’t really anyone up there charged just with doing that. We want to gather things together and understand what’s going on, and get a broad picture of teaching across Yale College.”

Rogers said that the committee would not be solely focused on incorporating technology into the classroom. While the committee will examine potential advantages and drawbacks of new technologies, Rogers said, it is also aware that many learning environments at Yale are distinguished by the “gloriously low-tech teaching and learning that can happen, for example, around a seminar table or in a lecture hall.”

The committee will plan for rest of this semester, likely breaking later into smaller subgroups focused on different topics like the role of technology-based learning, object-based learning, pedagogical methods and ways in which arts could be tied to sciences, Bhullar said. The committee will have met twice by the beginning of December, and its exploratory work will “proceed most intensively” in the spring, Rogers said.

“Nothing that we generate in this committee will go directly into University policy immediately,” Bhullar said. “It’s sort of a fact-finding and suggestion-generating committee in that it’s supposed to lead into the creation of potentially other committees that will be charged with implementing more specific policies.”

The mandate of the committee, according to its official charge, is to think broadly about the goals of 21st century undergraduate education, particularly ahead of the expansion of the student body beginning next year. The statement suggests examining other concerns such as the relation between graduate and undergraduate teaching and the role of ladder and nonladder faculty.

“I am excited that this ‘blue sky’ committee will convene conversations among faculty and students across the campus about ways that teaching at Yale can become even more engaging and effective,” Gendler said. “I imagine humanists getting ideas from scientists, and vice versa. I imagine great lecturers and great seminar leaders learning from one another about how their pedagogy can be transformative.”