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story | Ryan Ma, Contributing Reporter
photo | Ryan Ma
On August 24th 2019, the Ramayana – an ancient Indian epic familiar to Yale-NUS College students – was brought to life in an enthralling musical performance. Held at the College’s Performance Hall, the musical was performed by artists from Traditional Music of Tanjore, Singapore, a South Indian traditional music company. Dr. Sureshkumar Muthukumaran, Postdoctoral Fellow of History, opened the evening with a brief introduction to South Indian music and different cultures’ interpretations of the Ramayana.
Among the audience were many first-year students, who had only recently been exposed to the epic through the Common Curriculum. For many of them, seeing the tale presented through music helped them better understand a difficult and unfamiliar text.
Xie Yihui ’23 had never been exposed to the Ramayana during her education in Singapore. However, that did not stop her from enjoying and connecting with the musical. “I think it’s probably because music and sound are universal, rather than restricted by linguistic and cultural barriers,” she said.
The musical was a milestone in the College’s move to link the residential experience more closely to the Common Curriculum. At the heart of this move is an increasing focus on experiential learning. By helping students identify personally with the material they are studying, experiential learning events help the Common Curriculum celebrate diversity, especially during a semester of change and adjustment for newly enrolled first-year students.
Take the Ramayana musical, which comprised songs in four Indian languages written for various purposes. “Several of the songs you heard were written in a devotional context,” said Dr. Muthukumaran, “[Some others] belong to the field of popular entertainment, [and were] explicitly written to be performed by travelling theatrical troupes.”
These eclectic sources allowed the musical to capture a wide range of cultural interpretations of the epic. For Suvansh Manektala ’23, who grew up with hearing the Ramayana in Delhi, the South Indian style of music felt both familiar and different. “Back home, the recitals that I went to were based a lot on improvising, so it’s more like a jazz concert in that sense. This [performance] felt a little more prepared,” he said.
Previous experiential learning events have also been well-received by students, said Professor Terry Nardin, Director of the Common Curriculum. “In Philosophy and Political Thought, the teaching team performs a debate at the end of Semester 1 on Brahmanical and Buddhist conceptions of the self. Students have [also] watched lots of films, such as a performance of parts of the Ramayana in Bali,” he said. “Different things help different students because we learn in different ways, but multiple ways of experiencing a text can’t hurt.”
When asked about future plans for experiential learning, Mr. Nardin said that efforts are ongoing to integrate the Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries program with the rest of the Common Curriculum. Next semester, the college will enlist the help of Professor Lee Cuba from Wellesley College to develop experiential learning programs. As a sociologist, Prof. Cuba’s research focuses on how people obtain their identities when moved to new places. He is currently writing about how students at liberal arts colleges acquire a sense of “at-homeness” on campus.
The faculty are not the only ones contributing to experiential learning. The Dean of Students Office has been playing an equally crucial role by supporting such efforts in a systematic way.
“First, we will identify what the overarching learning objectives are for the residential curriculum,” said Dean of Students Robert Wessling. “And then we will align our programs to help achieve them.”
Developing the next stage of residential curriculum will take the whole year, said Dean Wessling. “We have a phased process, because it requires a lot of input from different stakeholders, including students, faculty and staff. And then we’ll roll it out for fall next year, focusing only on the first-year experience.”
While experiential learning can never replace rigorous academic research, it plays a uniquely important role in the Common Curriculum, which aims at breadth over depth. During their period of transition, first-year students would benefit greatly from experiencing other perspectives alongside their own, just as they slowly find their place alongside others in this diverse community.