Despite being known as one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the United States, Yale’s courses and majors are continuously changing to reflect a shifting present and a more nuanced approach to history. In the past year, these changes have included a new urban studies major, a new certificate in data science, the rebranding of two Yale institutions and the end to a decades-old art history course.
On March 1, the Committee on Majors officially approved urban studies as a new major available to students in the class of 2021 and on. The new major, which was previously only an area of concentration under other majors such as architecture, American studies, political science and Ethics, Politics and Economics, will consist of 13 courses, including the senior requirement.
According to Assistant Dean of the Yale School of Architecture Bimal Mendis ’98, ARC ’02, “a study of urbanism is a vital part of a liberal arts education” and gives students the “capacity to transform the world around us” amidst the challenges and opportunities of urbanization today.
The major focuses on a spatial understanding of urban environments and will help students engage with urban planning and design, in addition to analyzing urbanism and political economies. The major will have no specific concentrations, although students will consult with Director of Undergraduate Studies Joyce Hsiang ’99, ARC ’03 to develop a specific focus.
The introduction of the major speaks to the demands of an increasingly urbanized world and is appropriate for a range of students interested in policy, development, urban planning, the environment and more. The major incorporates courses from the American studies, architecture, environmental studies, political science and anthropology majors.
Continuing the trend of adapting to a transformed landscape, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun announced on Jan. 11 that students from the class of 2020 and beyond may pursue a certificate in Statistics and Data Science. The certificate is meant to equip students — regardless of major — with the training to perform data analysis and quantitative research in a variety of disciplines.
Proposed by the Department of Statistics and Data Science and approved by the Committee on Majors and the Yale College faculty, the data science certificate will comprise six courses, including one introductory data analysis course. The certificate is modeled after the advanced language certificate introduced the year before and will appear on students’ transcripts.
Chun hopes that the concentration will reduce some pressure to double major and will thus give students more academic freedom to explore a broad range of courses.
Another change this academic year came in the form of the rebranding of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Department of Geology & Geophysics. On July 1, FES will officially become the Yale School of the Environment, a name that seeks to better encompass the mission of the school and the breadth of its work. In an unrelated change, the G&G department became the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences two days later to more accurately describe its academic scope.
The name change reflects an increasing awareness of the climate crisis and a push to take action against “interrelated environmental, social and economic inequality,” Franz Hochstrasser FES ’19 said.
Within the newly branded YSE, University President Peter Salovey GRD ’86 and the Yale Corporation also voted to create the Forest School to acknowledge the role of forestry in the school’s history and its continued importance.
Similarly, G&G’s name change looks to provide a more accurate view of the department’s work, according to FAS Dean of Science and Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Jeffrey Brock ’92. In an email statement to the News, Brock wrote that the name change “reflects the growing diversity” of faculty research and “recognizes how Yale’s Earth and planetary scientists make discoveries that support the future of life.”
These changes have long been in the making. For over a decade, G&G professor Jun Korenaga has advocated for a different name to acknowledge the department’s comprehensive interests and to allow for broader “intellectual horizons.”
While the FES and G&G name change was met with limited backlash, one change in the History of Art Department this year faced major criticism and generated controversy.
Starting next academic year, Yale will discontinue its famed introductory survey course in art history, a course once taught by the likes of famous art historian Vincent Scully ’40, GRD ’49.
Tim Barringer, art history department chair and “Introduction to Art History” and “Renaissance to the Present” instructor, said that the course and its title had troubling implications regarding the idealized Western canon and that it suggested that European art was the most important or even the only genre worth studying. In the future, the course will instead be broken up into an assortment of introductory survey courses, including “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road” and “Sacred Places.”
“I believe that every object I discuss in [“Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present”] (with the possible exception of one truly ghastly painting by Renoir) is of profound cultural value,” Barringer said in an email to the News. “I want all Yale students (and all residents of New Haven who can enter our museums freely) to have access to and to feel confident analyzing and enjoying the core works of the western tradition. But I don’t mistake a history of European painting for the history of all art in all places.”
This spring, in the course’s final rendition — which drew over 400 students to the first session — Barringer sought to question the idea of Western art itself by introducing comparisons with modern art and putting Western art in conversation with art from a variety of regions, cultures and traditions.
The decision to scrap the survey course generated backlash from students, as well as dozens of news outlets, which condemned the University and the professor as “snowflakes.” According to the Washington Sentinel, the decision is “another example of our system of higher miseducation trying to destroy American education in favor of pushing anti-American ideologies.”
Some students also think the removal of the course will be a disservice to non-majors. “If you get rid of that one, all-encompassing course, then to understand the Western canon of art, students are going to have to take multiple art history courses,” an option unavailable to most students, Mahlon Sorensen ’22 said.
These changes follow several recent structural changes to the art history major, which are largely the result of student feedback.
“These surveys and those that we will continue to develop in the future are designed in recognition of an essential truth: that there has never been just one story of the history of art,” Director of Undergraduate Studies Marisa Bass ’03 said.
Proposals for new courses and significant changes to existing courses are reviewed by the Course of Study Committee.
Rebecca Huang | firstname.lastname@example.org