One of the hallmarks of a liberal education is the idea that a plurality of disciplines are worthy, valuable and essential. Indeed, Yale’s expansive course catalogue encompasses that notion: Everything from “James Baldwin 1964–1987: Transnationalism, Exile & Intimacy” to “Biotransport and Kinetics” carries an identical, single Yale College course credit. While many of us take it for granted, the diversity of genres of classes we can take during our four years here is an exceptional privilege.
But there is one small but growing genre of course at Yale that should be curtailed. It is, in many cases, unworthy and unequal to most other classes: the celebrity course. These are classes taught by non-academics, people who’ve instead proven their worth in the “real world.” In the political science department, for example, celebrity courses are taught by political pollsters and leaders in journalism. In the English department, they’re taught by distinguished authors and literary critics. Most blatantly, Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs features an entire academic program named after former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66.
At their best, celebrity courses offer an opportunity for us to learn from experience. In my own encounters with them, the celebrities that Yale deems faculty for a semester have interesting stories to tell and sage advice to share. But rarely are these classes seriously academic or truly rigorous. Rather, most of my classmates rightfully view these courses as fun, fifth class–level weekly chats to accompany schedules otherwise taught by rank-and-file Yale faculty. As course evaluations for celebrity courses consistently reflect, the visiting celebrity ditches structured pedagogy and measured scholarship for war stories. It should come as no surprise, then, that several celebrities invited to teach at Yale this semester took to Twitter just days before shopping period to crowdsource pedagogical advice. These guests’ careers have usually comprised many impressive accomplishments, but teaching is rarely one of them.
This may all be a bit harsh. But it’s worth thinking about what truly comprises good teaching. First, good teaching is reflective of the context in which it is delivered. An instructor should have an intimate understanding of what Yalies are capable of and what other sorts of classes accompany their own. Second, good teaching is characterized by frequent, high-quality feedback. A celebrity who visits our campus weekly is not only unlikely to maintain a real physical presence outside of the classroom, but is also unaware of what real grading and assessment looks like — a skill that Yale faculty, on the other hand, develop through years of experience. Finally, good teaching is motivated by pedagogy. Some argue that the practice of teaching can take on a broad rubric of acceptability. I disagree. Pedagogy — that is, delivering content with tact and effect — is learned, not inherent. It makes sense that Yale faculty, whose whole career trajectories can actually be influenced by teaching quality, are more invested in teaching well than the celebrity who takes the Acela Express to New Haven once per week.
That’s why celebrity courses should not constitute part of a Yale College degree. Yale courses should be taught by those who have real incentives to deliver sound instruction — people like lecturers, postdoctoral fellows and tenured professors. At the same time, however, Yale should use its strong reputation and generous resources to continue to bring these celebrity instructors here as guest speakers rather than teachers.
All of this isn’t to say that a Yale experience shouldn’t include exposure to experts in the field. The head of college teas, lectures and departmental talks peppered through my time here, many of which have included some of the most important names in fields from politics to journalism, have been immensely valuable. So while these celebrities should stay out of the classroom, Yale should continue to direct its resources to experiences outside of the classroom. The Yale Politics Initiative’s master-class series with people like former Senator Jeff Flake and political strategist Robby Mook offers a strong example of an academic department drawing on experienced leaders in the right way. More departments should establish similar programming.
Celebrity courses at Yale are usually fun and interesting accompaniments to course loads otherwise made up of Yale academics. But teaching at Yale should be left to the experts — people who are building careers of teaching and research, not visitors who view teaching as one of many jobs.
Emil Friedman is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs monthly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .