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YC Curriculum Revamped: Amid Faculty Debate, Luders Steps Down

Just a few weeks ago, no faculty members were willing to speak to The Commentator about Yeshiva College’s new curriculum, which has been finalized after many years of quiet development.

But on Thursday, December 15, during Club Hour, Deans Frederic Sugarman, Barry Eichler, Raji Viswanathan and Rabbi Yona Reiss held a meeting with student leaders to unveil plans for the new curriculum.  At this meeting, Viswanathan outlined the new curriculum, and explained the new “core courses” that will replace the current general requirements.

The new curriculum replaces the current general requirement courses with core courses. As opposed to requiring students to take the classic courses, such as two humanities courses or two laboratory sciences, students will have a chance to take a wide variety of courses, within a set structure of eight categories.  The titles of the eight categories of courses are: First Year Writing, First Year Seminar, Cultures over Time, Contemporary World Cultures, Interpreting the Creative, Natural World, Experimental and Quantitative Methods, and Human Behavior and Social Institutions.

Aside from the First Year Writing classes and First Year Seminar, these courses are entirely new to Yeshiva University. They will be interdisciplinary courses, created by faculty members from multiple departments. For example, Cultures over Time is currently being developed by some of the university’s political scientists, historians, Jewish historians, and English department faculty. Each course category has overall objectives established, and every semester, five or six different courses will be offered under each category. Professors ultimately get to decide exactly what to include in their syllabi, but they must work in concert with other faculty members associated with the relevant course category to ensure that the course fulfills the overall objectives of that category.

As of now, the number of Jewish Studies requirements will remain the same, at eight, although there is talk of reducing the Bible requirement to three courses from the current four. In these discussions, the Yeshiva College deans did try to engage the RIETS office, which is in charge of the Jewish studies requirements, but the RIETS office has yet to respond with suggestions or input.

Viswanathan and Eichler stressed that there were multiple benefits of these new interdisciplinary courses. For example, the overall number of credits that students will be required to take will be reduced from 53-55 credits (20 courses) to 44 credits (16 courses). This will allow students, even after taking into account their 32 Israel credits, to have the option of taking more elective courses.

Another benefit to the new system is that it allows students to obtain a wide breadth of knowledge and to experience different fields of study and disciplines that they may have completely passed over in the old system. Eichler gave an excellent example to demonstrate this point.  He explained that a student, who, for example, received a 5 on the AP Psychology exam and took one political science course, might never take an economics course. Under the new system, whether or not the student takes a course taught by an economics professor, some of his courses will incorporate economic theory.  In this way, students will be exposed to a variety of disciplines in their first year or two in college.

Aside from the creation of six new categories of courses (which will eventually translate into 30 to 36 new courses per a semester), the new curriculum recreates the First Year Writing courses. The First Year Writing course and First Year Seminar, which will replace the current Composition and Rhetoric I and II requirements, respectively, will become three-credit courses that meet for the standard hour and fifteen minutes, for, noted Viswanathan, the professors found that the current 50-minute slots were not just enough time to teach the courses. Eichler added that this change was also a result of an audit of the writing from students of the regular composition course and the current First Year Seminar courses, which found that the writing from the First Year Seminar students was much stronger.

The new First Year Seminar (FYS), a course to be taken during your second semester on campus, will be very similar to the current second-semester Honors seminar. Although the course will be writing-intensive, an English professor will not necessarily teach it, nor does it have to be an English course. But, to ensure that whoever teaches the FYS courses is comfortable teaching and grading writing, Professor Gillian Steinberg is the head of a task force designed to help faculty members teach and grade writing.

The FYW and FYS courses, along with the other core curriculum courses, are slated to be taught by full-time professors. There will be “no more adjuncts [teaching these courses],” Viswanathan firmly stated.  The FYS will be taught by writing specialists, not just by English professors.

Viswanathan and Eichler acknowledged that many of the new course categories place a particular emphasis on culture. Viswanathan noted that “this developed from internal faculty discussions” and meetings.  Eichler explained that, in these meetings, the faculty asked, “Are we really doing the right thing with our students in educating them, and having them come out as well-rounded and informed students who can deal with issues of the 21st century?” According to Viswanathan, the answer was no.  She explained that the “faculty really felt like we are not educating our students to function in the world today.”

The new courses will examine cultures that are “specifically non-Western,” noted Eichler.  He explained that through the study of culture, students will hopefully learn to ask questions, such as, “What is a culture?” “How do you define ‘culture?’” “How is culture studied?”  By studying these issues, Eichler further added, students will be able “to get an understanding of what a global society means.”

The courses that address culture are not the only core classes designed with practical intentions.  Eichler explained that many of the core classes will be based around “the issues that occur in society today,” such as the current banking crisis or healthcare reform.  These types of curricula could be studied from an interdisciplinary perspective, and will often consist of topics that even those majoring in related subjects (such as economics and biology for the above two topics) may never address throughout their studies.

While no student will be required to take his core courses in his first year or two on campus, Academic Advising will recommend that he finish these courses in the first two years on campus. Viswanathan and Eichler said that although one could finish all of the core classes in a year, most students, partially due to their Jewish studies requirements, would require a year and a half or two full years.

While the new curriculum has many advantages, there are a few drawbacks to the new system.  At the meeting on Thursday, student leaders pointed out multiple downsides to the new curriculum. Ari Gartenberg (YC ‘12), Co-Chair of the Honors Council, noted that pre-med students, especially those majoring in a hard science, will have a difficult time finishing all of their core requirements in the first two years, and may be required to take their core classes in their third year. Also, this may require pre-meds to stay for four years on campus, especially because students will be unable to use AP credits to exempt themselves from the core classes.

Daniel First (YC ‘13), Vice Chair of the Honors Council, voiced another objection, explaining that since the “electives in secondary fields will no longer satisfy core requirements, and all of the majors will be lengthened, it is hard to imagine anyone being able to pursue a serious course of study in a secondary field, even if they stay for four years.” First further noted that this will have a significant effect on the academic plans of future Honors students, as many Honors students double major.

Another drawback of the new curriculum is that students will be unable to use Advanced Placement (AP) credit or other college courses to fulfill any of these requirements. The one exception to this is that a student who has a year of hard sciences with lab and a year of math is exempt from Quantitative Methods.  Still, students will be able to use AP credits to advance in their major. Further, transfer students will be unable to fulfill the core requirements with transfer credits, and would be required to take the core classes. Viswanathan did note that they will probably scale transfer students’ new curriculum requirements based upon how far into college the student is.

While all of the above seems new and exciting, current students need not worry, for while the new requirements go into effect for Fall 2012, current students are “grandfathered” into the old requirements.  Still, if a student wishes to take one of these new courses, he is welcome to.  Further, students can fulfill some of their general requirements with some of the new-curriculum courses.

The new curriculum is certainly a major step forward for Yeshiva University.  For over 75 years, the curriculum has not undergone any significant changes.  This attempt to make students more prepared for life when they leave college and to expose students to a variety of disciplines and cultures is undoubtedly a lofty one.  Although there were mixed responses to Thursday’s presentation, a full evaluation of the new curriculum is premature, and can only be made after the curriculum is implemented and has had time to evolve.  Still, from the details provided at the meeting last week, it appears that the administration and faculty members have created a product that may successfully accomplish these goals.

Faculty members, however, are not quite so sanguine. Many speculate that the new curriculum will wreak gradual dissolution of many YC departments. Departments like Philosophy, Art, Music, and Political Science already struggle to offer more than a handful of courses each semester to the very few students who major in these subjects or choose to take electives in these fields. Under the new curriculum, YC students will have even less of an incentive to take such courses, as many of them fulfill none of the new requirements.

Dr. Joseph Luders, former Chair of the Department of Political Science, has stepped down from his position in anticipation of the negative consequences the new curriculum might have on his department.

A source says that professors from many departments were unaware of the curricular developments until the meeting with student leaders. These professors are mostly the ones whose departments the new curriculum may severely weaken.