Jared Yeo || Guest Columnist
Photo used with permission from Yale-NUS Admissions
“Wow, your college is doing so much. You are really fortunate to be in Yale-NUS,” my mother said as she flipped through the Yale-NUS College Year-in-Review. I sat next to her, and felt a sense of pride – I was part of something that I can say I played a part in creating. At the same time, I started reflecting: Is Yale-NUS really what is portrayed to our parents and the rest of the world? Is our college really the greatest, awesome-est thing that we keep telling ourselves it is?
Some events over the past few weeks have compelled me to reconsider those questions. Don’t get me wrong. I love this college and I am a huge advocate for it. Yet, the more I think about it, the more it seemed that the college that my mother reads about in the promotional materials and the college that I am actually experiencing, are two separate colleges.
The Promised Dream
When many of us were considering Yale- NUS as our college of choice, we bought into the promises and the ideas that were proposed to us. We were wowed by the innovative programming and curriculum, and during the first EYW, we were even asked to think about how to use $10,000 in the creation of student groups and organizations. Rightly or wrongly, the ideas and promises that we were offered created exceedingly high expectations of the college, which we held onto when we entered the hallowed doors of Yale-NUS College.
But the ideas and promises offered were at the end of the day, merely ideas and promises. We never really considered the minute details— what are the policies for student organization funding? How would the common curriculum work out? How are we going to deal with limited space before having our own campus?
And therein lies the problem. We were offered a dream of a college, but the reality seems a bit too different. From the way the Common Curriculum was executed to the various limitations we have in student life affairs, there is a huge disconnect between the expectations that we were sold and the reality we are seeing. This deficit in expectations is the reason why many students, mostly sophomores, feel rather exhausted and disappointed. (Just look at the Obama Administration, and it is clear how exceedingly high expectations would lead to exceedingly high disappointment.)
Don’t get me wrong. As Yale-NUS students, we are fortunate to have a lot of resources invested in us, and we are aware about the limitations that we have to navigate and the obstacles that we have to cross. We chose Yale-NUS because we can adapt to numerous changing circumstances of a start- up university—and we have proven this time and again. But what compounds the problem of the deficit in expectations is how problems are addressed in this college, which then creates an impression amongst students that our own college administration is the limitation or obstacle to that dream.
One example is the lack of clarity in policies and systems (in every aspect of this college). It is understandable that policies and systems are not necessarily in place in a start- up. Honestly, I see that as a great opportunity for the administration and students to work together to create such policies. However, policies and processes are often made on the fly and constantly amended. Additionally, certain policies are made as knee-jerk reactions to events that occur, often without discussion with the community-at-large, affecting students in ways that the administrators might not see or understand. What is discomforting too is that at times, the impression given is that non- student stakeholders are given more weight than student opinion.
Justified or not, this creates resentment, dissatisfaction, and in the long term, disillusionment. We start to question if the promises of institutional support exist, and try to balance the “go aim for the stars” encouragement with the reality of unclear policies. This complicates the way in which we view the school and our place in the larger picture of the college.
Disgruntled students are common in higher education. But what is worrying at Yale- NUS is the sense that students are starting to not care and give up. What makes it worse is when students start to leave (of course there’s a myriad of reasons, but this disillusionment is one). Many more are thinking of doing so. A close friend of mine confided that a major reason why people are staying on is because at this late stage of our college careers, there’s a huge sunk cost in leaving.
I wrote this column to flag out this issue, one that many students have been talking about, though mostly to each other. It is not my intention to play the blame-game, nor to deny the hard work of the staff and faculty at Yale-NUS. Instead, I hope students and the administration start talking more candidly and honestly about where we all stand, so we can find a way forward to deal with the ‘slump’ the student body is facing, instead of giving excuses for it.
We were all sold on an overpromised dream and many of us are disappointed. But should we continue to be tired, jaded and angry at unfulfilled promises? I believe that we should try our hardest to come together as a community to build that dream college with whatever tools we have, no matter the limitations or obstacles. If we succeed, that would be our legacy. If not, at least we tried to live up to that dream. That’s the least we can do for ourselves.
As a member of the inaugural faculty at Yale-NUS College I have a privileged perspective on the promises we’ve made and fulfilled in a year and a quarter of teaching in the Core Curriculum and what more we have yet to do.
This perspective has been deepened in the nine weeks of teaching a II-year Core course, Modern Social Thought (MST), where we have been harvesting the fruits of a previous year of work. What struck me immediately in the first assignment this semester was how student writing improved over the course of a year. Several of my MST students were also in my sections for Comparative Social Institutions (CSI), so I even have specific comparisons to make from one year to the next. More generally, the sheer quantity of writing students produced – and the close attentions that writing was given by their professors and the staff of the Writing Center – resulted in extraordinary progress. At the end of the first semester last year I estimated that students had written some 70-90 pages of professor-reviewed material across the curriculum. That is remarkable. And its effects are manifest.
The second promise I see fulfilled in the Core is the creation of a single universe of discourse within which we can build a College-wide conversation of increasing complexity. One example: the introduction of a conversation on family last year in CSI which was refracted in section conversations on gender in MST. Or the 2MC ‘Anthropological Imagination’ course now underway that was designed to build upon and critically engage our discussions of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim (among other thinkers) in MST and the work we had done the previous year in CSI. The discussions we have in that seminar based on a limited set of readings selected to be in conversation with the Core are far richer and more sophisticated than I could have hoped for in a II-year anthropology course anywhere else. My colleagues visiting from the University of Chicago and Vassar College, who have been frequent visitors in that seminar, remark often of the sophistication and depth of our students’ discussions. I agree. It’s amazing.
We are far from perfect. Even as we teach MST we are in a thick process of reviewing it, both within the teaching staff and with the students, too. We began a critical conversation of the syllabus with the students within just a few weeks of beginning the course. We convened an evening symposium and discussion critiquing the concept of modernity within European social thought, and some 25 students came and contributed their critical perspectives, too. This conversation has continued in and outside of the classroom. And we will convene a formal symposium on thinking about modern social thought more broadly and critically next semester – not only among the faculty but with the alumni/ae of MST as well.
There’s more to say about the promises we’ve made, kept, and (as of yet) failed to keep. But I am optimistic that these conversations will continue, that the process of thinking through the Core Curriculum – and other aspects of our College – will result in ever-more impactful approaches to teaching and learning, self-governing, and growing. In the meantime, I hope that we – sophomores all, profs and students alike – might imagine how all this may look in years to come as we reflect back on this remarkable moment and the extraordinary progress we’ve made as individuals and as a community of learning.