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College of Humanities and Science: Is NUS making another Yale-NUS?

On Dec. 8, 2020, the National University of Singapore (NUS) launched the College of Humanities and Science (CHS), a collaboration between Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Faculty of Science (FoS), while incorporating an interdisciplinary common curriculum.

CHS is set to enrol 2,000 students in autumn of 2021, who will be able to choose any of the 30 majors previously offered by FASS and FoS. The number of required modules for majors will be reduced to make space for the common curriculum modules.

Comprising 13 modules, or one-third of the total curriculum, the common curriculum hopes to impart essential foundational skills and broadens the students’ intellectual foundations. It comprises:

  • Five new integrated modules: Asian Studies, Integrated Social Sciences, Integrated Humanities and two modules in Scientific Inquiry;
  • Six General Education modules: three existing general education modules and three new modules in Design Thinking, Artificial Intelligence and Community and Engagement; 
  • Two new interdisciplinary modules: a basket of offerings that students can choose from.

The discussion about the new college was especially heated within the Yale-NUS College community, which developed its Common Curriculum when it was founded, similar to CHS’s one. As many questions about the launch of CHS emerged, Yale-NUS’s satirical magazine, The Mocktant, parodized the establishment of CHS as a love-affair turned sour.

Credits: The Mocktant, 2020.

So what exactly is CHS, and does this scaling up of interdisciplinary learning mean Yale-NUS is becoming less relevant in the scene of Singaporean higher education? The Octant investigates.

Common Curriculum: Uncanny Similarities and Misunderstood Differences

The similarities between both colleges’ common curriculum are apparent.

Melvin Yap, associate professor in Psychology at NUS and part of the CHS Steering Committee’s key members, said “the Humanities integrated module will revolve around analyzing texts, appreciation of the importance of history, and qualitative critical thinking about the human condition.”

In comparison, at Yale-NUS, Literature and Humanities 1 and 2 aim to “cultivate the cultural, aesthetic and rhetorical literacy needed to become a cosmopolitan reader of human experience,” according to the online course description.

At CHS, the Social Sciences integrated module will “revolve around the empirical study of people and society, and help students appreciate the social complexity being studied by social scientists”. 

In a similar vein, the learning outcome of Comparative Social Inquiry at Yale-NUS is that “students should be in a better position to question why societies are the way they are and to consider how to bring about desired social change.”

The similarities between CHS and Yale-NUS Common Curriculum don’t end here. Quantitative Reasoning (QR) and Scientific Inquiry 1 and 2 have their homonymous counterparts in Yale-NUS.

As an evaluator of one of Yale-NUS’s majors, Chew Fook Tim, the Vice Dean of Faculty of Science at NUS, said: “We are fully aware that Yale-NUS has Scientific Inquiry and Quantitative Reasoning modules, too. Some of my colleagues teaching these courses at Yale-NUS have also given us inputs as well, very useful ones. However, we also evaluate and learn from other liberal arts colleges and larger universities.”

Agreeing that the interdisciplinarity will be similar to Yale-NUS, Mr. Chew said, “the difference [with Yale-NUS] is that we have a very direct goal: we are hoping to expose students to what we think the future would be like, to prepare them for a complex and changing world—one that is digital and data-driven.”

He went on to explain that this is why digital literacy is one of the key components in the common curriculum. “I understand that Yale-NUS also has Quantitative Reasoning within the common curriculum, but maybe our thinking of quantitative reasoning is more than just about learning how to do statistics. It will also include looking for patterns in large datasets, how one handles such data, and about teaching them how certain conclusions come about.”

Yet, Yale-NUS’s QR is also not a statistics class. Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS said, “QR has many goals, and different faculty will have different perspectives, but one thing I think is particularly important is to develop the skills to assess quantitative arguments critically.”

“I sometimes hear arguments where data is given some special status, where if someone says ‘well I’ve got the data’ then others may assume their argument must be correct or valid. This is not the kind of critical thinking I hope we cultivate here.”

Hence, the academic offerings in these two NUS colleges seem to have more in common than they initially appear to.

Responding to the similarities, Mr. Yap said, “our teaching faculty and folks involved in the design of CHS are widely aware of and draw inspiration from cognate programs from around the world. In this respect, Yale-NUS is no exception, given the many ties of friendship and collaboration between the NUS main campus and Yale-NUS. ”

However, there were many interdisciplinary programs from before the existence of Yale-NUS in NUS, and “It is, therefore, natural that we will draw upon these existing capabilities and depth of experience more than anything else,” added Mr. Yap.

Building on Existing Modules and Expertise

Bernard Tan, Senior Vice Provost at NUS, told The Octant that the university started planning for CHS at the beginning of 2020. During “circuit breaker,” Singapore’s 2-month long COVID-19 lockdown, “the CHS Steering Committee meetings were held, starting in the summer, to shape the curriculum,” he said.

Mr. Yap said that NUS has been offering smaller-scale interdisciplinary programs for decades. Such examples include the Special Program in Science, University Scholars Programme (USP), the University Town College Programme, etc. 

Agreeing, Mr. Chew said: “The idea of [CHS] has been years in the making. In fact, Yale-NUS is also part of our learning, isn’t it? We observe how Yale-NUS developed its curriculum, the successes of what Yale-NUS has been doing right. And of course, we also learn from whatever Yale-NUS has not been doing well and are improving on.”

Among the 13 modules that will form the Common Curriculum, some already exist (e.g., writing, computational thinking, quantitative reasoning), although modifications will be added, and others will be entirely new (e.g., integrated modules, design thinking, artificial intelligence).

Would faculties have sufficient time to develop the modules within a year while dealing with other teaching and research workload?

“Yes, definitely!” Mr. Yap said, “[new modules] will be based on the valuable experience gained in existing modules.”

“Let’s take the Humanities integrated module as an example. Associate Professor Loy Hui-Chieh, the instructor leading that effort, will be drawing upon experience from a related humanities-based seminar that he has been teaching for the last nine years in the University Scholars Programme, and a large gateway module he has been teaching for the last five years.”

There will be some early testing of the curriculum and materials as well. The CHS committee intends to use some of the newly designed materials as preambles to “iron out some of the niches and rough out the corners,” such as using them as sample courses or materials in summer modules, Mr. Chew said.

Acknowledging that the first iteration of the course might not be perfect, Mr. Yap added: “We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but instead stand ready to make any necessary refinements to our modules in the years to come.”

Concerns about Practicality Abound 

Those not directly involved in the planning of the college tend to be more cautious than optimistic about the new college.

Understandably, FASS and FoS are among the largest and most established faculties in NUS. Collectively, they have over 20 Departments, 30 majors, and 700 faculty members; over 1000 modules are offered each academic year, according to statistics provided by Mr. Yap.

The public first learned of the new college on Sep. 10, 2020, in President Tan Eng Chye’s opinion piece on the Straits Times.

Right after, experts commented that it is “easier said than done” for faculties designing interdisciplinary classes as they tend to overvalue their own academic focus. 

A student from USP, another interdisciplinary college in NUS, also expressed doubts. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said in our text exchange: “I think the announcement is too rushed—students have less than a year to prepare for a new program in NUS. It doesn’t give me the confidence that they thoroughly and rigorously planned the curriculum.”

Within Yale-NUS, doubts about the college are common given that Yale-NUS has a very different beginning: its common curriculum was developed from scratch by faculty members specifically hired for the college.

Neil Mehta, one of the inaugural faculty of Philosophy and Political Thought 1 and 2, recalled the founding years of Yale-NUS: “All faculty were heavily involved in building the common curriculum from nothing, and it took us a full year to have a first draft of the common curriculum. It was an intensive process.”

“We met in 2012 at Yale. We had outside experts who we flew in to help us understand certain texts that we did not understand ourselves, and we did a lot of consulting with each other and with outsiders.”

Yale-NUS’s inaugural class was to experience the first iteration of the curriculum in 2013, which was far from perfect. At that time, “There was an attempt to teach Plato’s Republic—the entire book—that was a disaster, and we’ve never done that again,” Mr. Mehta said.

The faculty members adjust the curriculum annually based on the feedback from instructors and students. In 2015, they wrote a 98-page self-study of the curriculum detailing its achievements and challenges. A new round of Common Curriculum review at Yale-NUS just commenced in semester 1 of AY 2020/2021.

Mira Seo, the Director of the Common Curriculum and one of the co-chairs of the Review Committee, said: “The common curriculum is very costly in a lot of ways for students, for faculty and the college. What I worry about for the future and what I would like the review to address very effectively is to make it more sustainable for everyone, so that more people can participate in it, more people can enjoy it, more people can learn from it.”

Comparing Yale-NUS’s program and its counterpart, Ms. Seo expressed sympathy towards NUS: “[CHS] is a large program that’s being imposed on existing faculty, rather than our program which was designed by faculty specially recruited and dedicated to this task.”

Adding to that, she said: “We don’t have that many people to deal with, whereas if NUS is going to do a structural change, they have to use a huge amount of activation energy to put it together. I’m not sure there’s going to be faculty energy for that.”

“If they can deliver by August, that would be a great achievement. It’s an enormous task to create a new form of general education for all Arts and Sciences undergraduates on such a large scale.”

To this, Mr. Yap said that large scale provides more resources than challenges: “Our access to a large, wide-ranging, and deep pool of talented researchers and teachers makes us well-positioned to offer and sustain a suite of high-quality modules for the Common Curriculum.”

Other Differences: Scale, Student Make-up, Specialization 

Two colleges’ founding stories set the tone of their distinct characters.  

Firstly, the class size is starkly different. The CHS’s inaugural cohort of 2,000 students will be eight times bigger than the Yale-NUS student cohort of 250.

Secondly, CHS allows greater room for early specialization and more choice in the common curriculum. Yale-NUS students would spend the majority of their first three semesters on the common curriculum. They are rarely allowed to switch the sequence of the common curriculum courses and, except Historical Immersion, students take the same set of courses as everyone else.

Mr. Chew said, “students at CHS are allowed to declare their major from even the first day they are in the college, or if they are undecided, declare them at a later stage.” They also have more flexibility in what common curriculum modules to take and when to take them. 

Students would need to take more modules to fulfil the major requirement at CHS, allowing them to go deeply into their areas of specialization.

Regarding the student make-up, Mr. Bernard Tan said. “International students are likely to make up less than 10% of the enrolment in CHS.” This means that the school character will be different from Yale-NUS, whose international students comprise 40% of the enrolment.

Lastly, Mr. Yap said, “Keep in mind that even though CHS has elements of a liberal arts education, it isn’t a ‘liberal arts college’ in the traditional sense.”

“Rather, CHS is a large college embedded within the context of a large research university. In this regard, the ‘College of Letters and Sciences’ found in large US universities are more appropriate conceptual equivalents.”

CHS to Yale-NUS—Sister or Competitor in the Making?

Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS, said: “Beyond the basic shared aim of promoting broad-based, interdisciplinary learning, CHS and Yale-NUS have fundamental differences.”

“At 250 students per cohort, Yale-NUS houses its majors within a single college and operates on a much more intimate scale.”

Yale-NUS is also “structurally more integrated” than CHS because it has “its own campus comprising learning and residential spaces to nurture its tight-knit community.”

Another distinction is that CHS does not have residential requirements.

“Yale-NUS’s education model is a fully residential, immersive experience where students will be engaged in small group teaching,” he added, and comparatively, “CHS students will have to participate in the programs offered by Residential Colleges at University Town if they are keen on a residential learning experience.”

The NUS side sees CHS as a large-scale interdisciplinary program, the biggest that NUS has rolled out to date. Yale-NUS is but a small segment of the expansive interdisciplinary programs in NUS.

Mr. Chew highlighted that scale will be CHS’s advantage: “We are building on the strength of two very large and very well established faculties established since 1929. Just by virtue of the numbers, the repertoire of the fields and the repertoire of the areas that we work in, we are larger already.”

Mr. Chew said: “We want to be able to do in CHS to do the same as [Yale-NUS] and even better but at scale.”

Ms. Roberts pointed out that both colleges have a shared pedagogical goal: “Although our small residential and fully integrated experience will be difficult to replicate on a large scale, I’m excited to see some of our curricular and pedagogical innovations being scaled to bring a larger benefit to Singapore and Singaporeans.”

While the senior administrations focus on the structural distinctions, several Yale-NUS students The Octant spoke to perceive that the academic climate in these two colleges will be very different.

A recent alumnus of Yale-NUS college spoke to The Octant on the condition of anonymity: “I think the new college will be a sterilized version of Yale-NUS—it is driven by a desire to cultivate employable skills rather than liberal arts values.”

Meanwhile, prospective students that The Octant talked to express uncertainty over the lack of available information.

Samuel, who recently graduated from Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), finds interdisciplinary learning attractive and plans to apply to both Yale-NUS and CHS. Comparing both colleges, he said, “I see that both universities have a lot to offer … so I will weigh the benefits and costs by considering factors such as the community, environment, subject flexibility, co-curricular activities and academic programs.”

Not all students are fans of interdisciplinary learning. Jordan Chan, who recently graduated from Temasek Junior College, said: “I think that the new college will be useful, but I don’t see myself enrolling in it since I personally would prefer to specialize in doing science in the university rather than still do both arts and science.”

Mr. Tan Tai Yong commented, “I see a positive and mutually supportive relationship between these two colleges … each will attract different types of students. Those seeking a truly liberal art and science experience with a rich residential component will find Yale-NUS an attractive option. On the other hand, students wishing to pursue specific disciplinary specialization might find the structure offered by CHS and the range of disciplines available at FASS and FoS more appealing.”

Closing off the interview with The Octant, Mr. Chew commented: “Obviously we will be bigger, but the issue is not who is bigger, it’s about preparing each and every one of our students from both colleges for the future and contributing significantly to society.

“After all, we are sister colleges together. If you do well, we do well; and it is in our interest to see all of us do well.”

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