Ars elegantis — the art of choice. In this case, I’m not speaking to the choice that we, students, make during shopping period, but instead to acts of choice that instructors and institutions make.
Professors have some discretion in the courses they teach, lecturers rather less. Ultimately, the choices are departmental and institutional, but perhaps those making such a choice lose sight of the question that should guide the perennial choice of what to teach: “What will our students learn most from?” Instead, departments concern themselves with “what will students be most likely to enroll in” or, worse still, “what will preserve our lofty level of institutional cachet as a department or university?” Only the last question could justify the continued training of Yale students as agents of imperialist and neoliberal agendas — through departments, courses and undergraduate programs I won’t name, but which, by now, you can name for yourself. What such programs fail to do — and I have witnessed this in the absurdly uncritical comments of some of my peers enrolled in such programs each semester — is to educate students in the historicity and power relations that underlie their training. Moreover, these programs fail to empower students to interrogate the neoliberal and imperialist consensuses that undergird their training. Such is the consequence of the art of choice for its own sake.
That is one ars elegantis, but what is the other?
Another is the choice of whom to admit into a given course. Consider application-based courses or the preregistration schema adopted by the History Department — each is a mechanism aiming to reduce some or all of the inherent uncertainty of shopping period by letting students and instructors secure their rosters to an nth degree. What this does is disadvantage, always, the student who is working one or even two full-time jobs and studying for a graduate entrance exam over the summer — those students lacking the time or wherewithal to extract from their 2,000 plus unread emails a departmental memo announcing the opening of applications or the start of preregistration. This system, oriented toward students with the luxuries of time and resources, always disadvantages poor and working class students. The shopping period system as a whole does the same, of course, but that is an entirely different column.
And if we want to examine another system of similar academic disenfranchisement, let’s look elsewhere — the creative writing application. I understand that the Creative Writing Program is fortunate to have the talents of extraordinarily gifted professionals in its classrooms. I also understand that the impulse toward allowing instructors to pick their classes down to the waitlist is one predicated on both respecting instructors’ time and on ensuring that the so-called brightest minds among us can reap the benefits of such instructors. But what bears greater scrutiny is what those “brightest minds” look like. Predictably, race plays a determining role.
To wit, in the poetry writing class I shopped my first year — I hadn’t realized there was an application — why was it that all the students invited to stay, those who had been admitted via application, were white or East Asian?
Let me calm your flustered racial sensibilities. My only real implication is that, again, systems predicated on merit or organizational ability instead admit students with resources — at Yale, these are disproportionately white students — without much regard for merit at all. Perhaps our beloved instructors, for all their liberal sensibilities, have more implicit and explicit biases than they are willing to admit on any kind of record.
It strikes me as worth instituting a system wherein no more than half of these classes’ rosters are predetermined before shopping period, and the remainder of the slots are distributed rather more justly, whether preference is given by class year or randomized entirely. Then again, it is probably too much to expect from Yale — with its historic investments in propping up and reproducing the existing owning and creative classes — to reform these systems with an eye toward distributive justice and critical interrogation.
Sohum Pal is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .