More than 100 students across different class years and majors are currently enrolled in a humanities seminar, piloting a hybrid seminar-lecture structure.
“History of Addiction,” taught by history professor Henry Cowles, combines lectures with in-class breakout group discussions and individual writing assignments to make the humanities seminar format accessible to a larger group of students. The course, staffed by seven teaching assistants, meets in the Technology Enabled Active Learning classroom at 17 Hillhouse Ave. in order to utilize its multiple round tables and television screens.
“Teaching and learning in the 21st century should align with knowledge, skills and abilities that will be required to navigate the 21st century world,” said Jennifer Frederick, executive director of the newly established Center for Teaching and Learning. “Professor Cowles’ course design does this by emphasizing collaboration and interdisciplinary analysis that draws from both technical scientific texts and humanistic methods.”
Cowles said the new course format is a response to the difficulty sophomores and juniors face getting into seminars, and to the traditional format of students taking lectures early on in their Yale careers and seminars later on. He added that 145 students attended the class during the peak of shopping period, but the room could only accommodate about 105.
Daniel Grosvenor ’18 said he became increasingly frustrated with the shopping period system over his time at Yale because of the difficulty of getting into seminars, but praised “History of Addiction” as a seminar that is more accessible to underclassmen and students from various majors.
“I think that the class has been really interesting for me so far because I’m studying a topic that I’m already somewhat familiar with from my previous psychology classes, but now I’m starting to understand its historical and scientific context,” said Melanie Grad-Freilich ’19. “I really enjoy the fact that the hybrid style gives me the chance to talk in depth with other students about the articles we read, especially because some of them are seniors who have already spent several years studying addiction and some have even worked in labs focusing on addiction.”
During the seminar, which meets once a week, Cowles said he lectures on a particular topic before giving students time to discuss their readings. He gives students prompts, such as current events or published studies, to which they respond applying their readings in their groups at each table. These groups were randomly assigned at the beginning of the semester and each works with one teaching assistant.
Cowles said students collaborate on these responses using Google Docs, adding that group problem solving is a skill students should be exposed to in college as many of their future careers will require drafting arguments in groups. David Diaz ’18, a student in the class, said he thinks the course’s collaborative emphasis sets it apart from other classes.
“Few classes at Yale ask you to spend time every week working with a group to produce and defend a shared idea,” Diaz said. “It requires you to listen to your classmates more than any seminar or section and hone a practical skill that applies to many situations, professional and otherwise.”
Teaching assistant Barbara Pohl GRD ’20 said one of the most rewarding elements of teaching the class is watching students creatively interpret Cowles’ lecture to integrate their assigned readings into discussions. She added that the collaborative writing portion of the course is something that might work well in other Yale classes to help students better understand the connection between science and culture.
Grosvenor also said the TEAL room technology, including personal microphones and TV monitors around the room, is critical to the success of the course. He also praised the teaching fellows who frequently stay after class with Cowles to answer students’ questions, making the class feel more like a seminar.
“Students appreciate that they’re able to take a seminar without competing for scarce seats and Professor Cowles is very gifted at thinking of team-based, stimulating activities for this classroom setup,” said teaching assistant Lucia Hulsether GRD ’20. “The big day-to-day challenge is volume, since seven sections are happening in one room.”
Still, some students said the class is missing the intimacy of traditional seminar formats. Jay Wong ’17 said that although he enjoys collaborating with and listening to his peers, he is disappointed that the larger class size prevents him from forming a closer academic and personal relationship with Cowles.
But Grosvenor said that while the course does not completely represent a seminar experience in that students lack close relationships with the professor, he feels more engaged than he would in a regular lecture course.
While the Center for Teaching and Learning is not directly involved in this course’s funding or logistical details, Frederick said Cowles’ success is likely to inspire other future variations of this seminar structure and the CTL is well-positioned to help share lessons learned with other faculty looking to try the approach.
“In cases like this, the CTL welcomes the opportunity to showcase and disseminate interesting teaching models through digital and in-person mechanisms,” Frederick said. “We look forward to learning along with Professor Cowles about the success of his approach.”