Critiquing the Common Curriculum
Regina Marie Lee
With half a semester over, the Class of 2018 has finally had a taste of a key aspect of Yale-NUS: the Common Curriculum. For six weeks, freshmen took classes in Philosophy and Political Thought, Literature and Humanities, Comparative Social Institutions and Scientific Inquiry. Many were excited for the Common Curriculum courses–did it meet their expectations?
A common sentiment from freshmen was that classes were valuable and engaging. Tong Ray Nee ’18 said, “Classes have been exhausting but very enriching. Seminar discussions were insightful, and drawing parallels between seminars helped. I also got to explore areas of study I have never touched, like the natural sciences.”
For Jane Zhang ’18, it was the professors that made her learning come alive. “With professors who are very passionate about the subject because it’s their specialty, everyone in the seminar is really engaged and very interested.”
However, the flip side was true as well. She continued, “But in other seminars, where maybe the topic for that seminar is not the professor’s specialty, they might not know what to say and that decreases the morale of the class, if the professor seems to not know what he is doing.”
This sentiment about professors not being adequately prepared was echoed by Seow Yongzhi ’18. He said, “The common curriculum is very well-designed, but because it is so broad, there are some areas that professors don’t specialise in, so they might not carry across the material as clearly. In some instances, students might end up teaching the professor.”
Evan Ma ’17 agreed, and attributed this problem to professors not having enough time. He said, “When the professor doesn’t have the time to digest the material and break down their own assumptions, they sometimes go into class a bit confused or uninterested. It’s not that the curriculum is bad, or that we shouldn’t have different professors teach one course, but the professors need more time.”
Responding to these concerns, course coordinator Professor Marty Weissman said, “Students, from their experience in previous schools, expect a science class to have a science expert at the front of the room who knows all the science facts. But this class is primarily about process — how the iterative process of observation, theory, model, and prediction works, and how it varies from one field of science to another. In SI, the students shouldn’t expect the instructors to have mastery of every field of science. Rather, they should expect the instructors to have thought deeply about the scientific process, and to be on their side as they struggle through challenging material together.”
Admittedly, some of this feedback is not new–they were raised by the Class of 2017 too. With the concerns voiced by the sophomore class last year, the professors did alter the courses somewhat.
When making changes, the coordinators took into account student feedback as well as the makeup of the teaching team. Professor Rebecca Tannenbaum said, “We wanted to play to the strengths of the faculty who are teaching the course this year. For instance, since we have three psychologists teaching CSI, we reshaped the course to give more attention to psychology early on.”
These changes, however, were mainly focused on the curriculum. For the CSI course, the professors decided to expand on popular topics, such as religion and power, and eliminated others that did not work as well. Moreover, the topics were rearranged. Tannenbaum explained, “This was to better reflect important themes in the course and to make the course more of a coherent whole. The first half of the class now focuses on the theme “the power of the social”; the second half focuses on institutions.”
Similarly, for the SI course, Weissman spent time “writing and rewriting a scientific narrative for the course”. He said, “Last year, the course seemed to jump dramatically from week to week, and I hope that this year the course seems smooth for 3-4 weeks at a time, maybe more.”
“But students might have to ponder for a while before they see all the connections,” Weissman added, admitting that it was hard for all students to understand inquiry points “even when they are sometimes neck-deep in the scientific content”. To facilitate this, professors tried to “make explicit mentions of these scientific process moments in lecture, and carve out time in seminar for discussions of this process”.
The extent to which the curriculum can be changed also depends on the domain of the course. For the Literature and Humanities 1 course, there was more flexibility. Humanities Division Director Professor Rajeev Patke explained, “The broad aim of the Literature and Humanities courses is to introduce significant cultural products from a variety of world civilisations.”
He added, “Based on student-feedback and faculty evaluation of course workloads, the teaching team decided to rebalance between coverage and depth, reducing the amount of reading. LH has more flexibility in this respect than courses like PPT and CSI which are committed to key thinkers or to thematic topics. For example, we tried out Don Quixote, Hamlet and St Augustine, but decided to drop those to make room for other key texts from different cultures and periods.”
For the PPT course, the amount of reading was also reduced significantly. Professor Nicholas Silins explained, “We decided to cut back on difficult systematic works that require extended immersion for comprehension. To allow us to immerse the class more deeply in systematic yet more accessible works by Santideva, Descartes, and Mill, we cut works by Cicero, Zhu Xi, Machiavelli, Galileo, Hooke and Plato’s Republic.”
Still, even with changes to the curriculum, some students may still struggle to keep up with classes, falling behind or losing interest. To deal with this, it is essential that professors can adequately engage students in seminars. Yet, students, especially in a new college like Yale-NUS, also play an important role.
Ma said, “To me, a problem with the Common Curriculum is students who give up too easily and quickly without putting in the effort to try to understand. When you see half of the class not doing their readings, that hurts morale. That to me is not in the spirit of Yale-NUS.”