Faculty, students weigh in on weekly seminars
Students and faculty expressed mixed feelings about classes that are taught as weekly 110-minute seminars.
Vaibhav Sharma, Photography Editor
Depending on the class year, department and specific course, Yalies might find a variety of class lengths on their schedule — ranging from twice a week, 75-minute classes to a weekly seminar of 110 minutes.
But while some students and professors find the once-weekly seminar a helpful tool for focusing on the material and managing workloads, others told the News that it is not enough time or student-faculty contact to make the classes worthwhile.
“There are numerous traditions in numerous departments about how best to engage undergraduate and graduate students in the seminars,” Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told the News. “Some units have a long tradition of the weekly seminar. For example, in the History Department, junior and senior seminars have traditionally taken that form — likewise for philosophy and many other departments. By contrast, some other parts of the University have not had that tradition. We are always eager to learn from the students what is effective for them and their learning experience.”
In an email to the News, Sterling Professor of English David Bromwich said that he enjoys the weekly seminar format, finding it conducive to “intense discussions of just one text, or a few per session, on a topic where students are all beginning at roughly the same level and not much lecture-like background is expected from the teacher.” However, he added that for graduate seminars — which also usually clock in at 110 minutes — he would prefer a three-hour seminar, with a break in the middle.
But Leslie Brisman, professor of English, disagreed. “It’s not right that a school that prides itself so much on being the teaching school of the outstanding schools should have so many courses that involve so little teaching,” he said.
Stefanie Markovits, director of undergraduate studies for English, wrote to the News in an email that, in her department, “with very rare exceptions,” the weekly seminar is restricted to senior and creative writing seminars.
“In those contexts, this format can work well, since it leaves appropriate time for independent work and research out of class and between sessions,” Markovits said. “But there is broad consensus in our department that students’ pedagogical needs are otherwise served best by a twice-weekly seminar format. Meeting more frequently helps encourage students to keep up with the reading. It also makes it easier to reinforce what has been learned in the previous session, since there has been less time between classes.”
Daevan Mangalmurti ’24, a student in Bromwich’s class ENGL 451, “Persuasive Argument,” said that one of the virtues of meeting once a week is that they “get plenty of time to think about our readings, and there’s less pressure to be constantly working on assignments for the class.”
Given the small size of the seminar, Mangalmurti said that were the class conducted in person, there would be a benefit to meeting more than once a week, in order to create “a convivial atmosphere of discussion and debate.” However, given the virtual nature of the class, meeting once a week is sufficient.
This format also provides more than enough time to cover the material and makes the workload more manageable, not less, Mangalmurti said.
Laiqa Walli ’24, a student in GLBL 263, “Challenges of Young Democracies,” appreciated the weekly seminar format, she told the News, as it mirrors the structure of the class well. The class tackles one global issue per week, so the weekly structure allows the class to consolidate its discussion of that issue to one class as opposed to splitting the discussion across multiple meetings. Meeting only once a week also serves as a necessary balance to the amount of required reading outside of class, Walli added.
David Simon, director of undergraduate studies for political science, told the News that the 110-minute format “has always struck me as shorter than the seminar times at other institutions” but he was unaware of any specific complaints against it. Harvard University has 120-minute seminars, while Princeton University’s are three hours long.
Mark Peterson, director of undergraduate studies for history, similarly wrote in an email to the News that he was unaware of any discontent regarding the length of the weekly seminar.
For Matthew Jacobson, chair of the FAS Senate, the 110-minute seminar, like Markovits noted, is beneficial in certain situations, such as for upper-level courses and graduate seminars. But he did express concerns when more introductory-level courses use the format.
“Some of the concerns may be Covid-specific, when there is much to be said for more contact with students rather than less, and I would get behind any effort to reform this for the lower level courses,” Jacobson wrote in an email to the News, noting that first-year seminars are mandated to meet twice a week instead of just once. “But it has not been my sense that this is a pressing concern for most faculty. I could be wrong.”
Yale College seminars meet in either weekly 110-minute sessions or twice-weekly 75 minute sessions, while lecture courses meet either three times a week for 50 minutes or twice a week for 75 minutes.