A Not So Common Curriculum
story | Rhyhan Astha
photo | Rhyhan Astha
At its core (no pun intended), the Common Curriculum serves to equip Yale-NUS College students with a broad-based understanding of fields that they might have never thought to broach.
This explains the many modes of thinking freshpeople have to switch between within a single week: from Comparative Social Inquiry, to Philosophy and Political Thought, to Quantitative Reasoning and to Literature and Humanities (LitHum). Sam Hussain ’22, who majored in Business Administration at a polytechnic in Singapore before attending Yale-NUS, said, “To be honest, none of the subjects I took in school can directly translate itself as advantageous to my mastery of the Common Curriculum. […] This is a good thing, since I get to see the Common Curriculum with fresh eyes.”
While Sam espouses the ideal reaction to the Common Curriculum, I believe that because each Yale-NUS student comes from different backgrounds, the Common Curriculum ultimately advantages some students over others. While some students may have come from a high school with a greater emphasis on the humanities and writing, others might have come from a background that emphasized scientific and mathematical methods.
This background has a direct impact on performance in school, as some students fare better than other students in certain subjects. For the latest paper that we freshpeople had to do, which involved identifying a problematic passage in Valmiki’s Ramayana or Homer’s The Odyssey, strong writing and analytical skills were necessary to create a coherent piece of academic work. For Ian French ’22, who came from a public high school in California where he took the SAT and the International Baccalaureate exams, there was a “big focus at high school on close reading and analysing an author’s intent,” which prepared him for LitHum.
I resonate with French’s experiences, as I took two literature subjects in school, which aided me in writing that essay. Many times as I was analysing Rama’s character, I realised I echoed the techniques used by my teachers in high school to deconstruct passages in books and poems.
What does this mean for students who never took these subjects in high school? Aren’t they automatically at a disadvantage when it comes to subjects in the Common Curriculum? I believe so; in a span of seven weeks or so, how is one able to independently acquire strong essay writing skills that other students have honed for a long time?
In addition, subject material is not the only thing students need to get used to. Yale-NUS offers a seminar style of instruction that many students are unfamiliar with. Ayrton San Joaquin ’22, who came from a private high school in the Philippines, said, “The style of teaching in my classroom was [one where] the teacher talks and the entire class just listens, [with] some discussion afterwards. But in Yale-NUS, you have to direct the discussion with the professor.”
Seeing as seminar participation can constitute a large proportion of one’s grades (for LitHum, this is 40%), it is important for students to speak in class. However, one’s participation is obviously hampered by many factors which include requiring a longer time to process one’s ideas and translate that into words, and also a lack of confidence that stems from being unfamiliar with stating one’s opinions in a group setting.
Nonetheless, I think what the Common Curriculum does well is providing enough space for students to develop these skills on their own. One essential feature of the Common Curriculum is the ungraded semester, where the final grades of students are only reflected as a CS (Completed Satisfactorily) or CU (Completed Unsatisfactorily) grade. This has been beneficial for Freya Lalani ’22, who came from a private high school in India where she took the International Baccalaureate examinations, to develop her personal voice in seminars.
Lalani said, “I think my strategy is very simple: ‘Speak up’. I always just speak up, whether it is to ask for help, show some concern, clear doubts, or even simply discuss things. People here are extremely helpful and I find that a lot of times, my doubts are solved simply by talking to friends.”
I believe that the merit of the Common Curriculum is that while it does place some pressure on students to step out of their comfort zone, it also allows students to do so at their own pace, seeing as academic performance for the first semester is not reflected in one’s transcript.
So what can the Common Curriculum at Yale-NUS do to fulfill its aim to “drive critical, creative and active thinking?” On the one hand, Yale-NUS does provide academic support through the Writers’ Centre and the availability of office hours for students. This enables students to independently develop the skills they need for essay writing or clarify concepts that they have learnt in seminar.
At the same time, some things can be improved. Lalani says that there should be more opportunities for students to “exchange strategies and come up with creative solutions.” French says that there should be “more standardization of practices in seminars” to tackle this issue. This can allow students to apply what they have learnt in one seminar to another more seamlessly. While these solutions are not concrete, I concur because one of the ways students can bridge the disparities in their skill sets is through greater collaboration with each other.