By: Yisroel Ben-Porat  | 

Is The YC Core Interdisciplinary?

When Yeshiva College implemented the Core Curriculum in 2012, it fundamentally changed its educational philosophy. Whereas the old curriculum required students to take classes from specific disciplines, the Core claims to be interdisciplinary. According to the official description on YU’s website, Core courses transcend traditional divisions between disciplines; CUOT courses “engage academic methods and approaches in more than one field,” and INTC courses “provide students with foundational tools for… various domains of the creative arts.” However, it is worth assessing this claim. Is the Core truly interdisciplinary?

Unfortunately, it seems that the Core merely pays lip service to the interdisciplinary ideal. Several of the Core categories draw heavily from particular disciplines. CUOT and INTC courses are usually stand-ins for history and literature electives respectively. Although many Core courses appear to be interdisciplinary, a closer look at their syllabi reveals their true intradisciplinary nature. Many professors simply repackage old courses changing the titles and descriptions in order to comply with the new curricular requirements. For example, “Old Regime & French Revolution” was retitled as “Origins of Democratic Political Culture,” the content of which belies the broader implications of its title. Additionally, many professors do not even bother to pretend that their Core courses are interdisciplinary.

Moreover, the increasing phenomenon of cross-listing contradicts the Core’s supposed interdisciplinarity. Last semester (Spring 2016), six of seven CUOT courses and four of five INTC courses were cross-listed with other departments. Cross-listing a Core course under a particular department implicitly acknowledges that the course belongs only to that discipline. In fact, one course “History of New York City” was initially offered only as a history elective, yet when the number of CUOT courses proved insufficient, it was subsequently cross-listed under CUOT. If “History of New York City” were truly interdisciplinary, it should have been a CUOT course from the start.

Despite the shortcomings enumerated above, the Core is indeed interdisciplinary in some ways, and there are several notable examples. Prof. David Lavinsky’s Core courses – such as “The Monstrous” (CUOT) – often employ methods from both literary and historical studies. Lavinsky’s interdisciplinary endeavors stem from his scholarly work; his area of expertise is medieval literature, a field closely connected to medieval history. In fact, Lavinsky’s forthcoming book Inscription and Sacred Truth: The Material Text in Wycliffite Biblical Scholarship (Boydell & Brewer, 2017) has little to do with literature as it is conventionally understood; rather, it is a mix of philology, biblical studies, and medieval history. Lavinsky describes his work as a “cultural history,” a broad term that encapsulates multiple disciplines. Thus, Lavinsky’s work constitutes an example of effective interdisciplinarity.

Similarly, Prof. Will Lee’s course “Shakespeare & The Arts” (INTC) draws upon art history, film criticism, and literary studies, and Rabbi Carmy’s course “Ethics & Character” (CUOT) combines philosophy and history. Prof. Lee is known for his curricular innovation, as he develops new courses almost every semester; Rabbi Carmy is a prolific generalist who teaches courses across multiple departments. Yet for the most part the Core has failed to fulfill its mission statement. In 2013, the Commentator noted that “Yeshiva College has… few opportunities for serious cross-discipline intellectual engagement” and concluded that “an interdisciplinary campus was still an ambitious and distant goal.” Three years later, that goal has yet to come to fruition.

Effective interdisciplinarity is difficult to achieve. Many professors have taught in the traditional, intradisciplinary method long before YU adopted the Core, and they are uninterested in changing their style. Additionally, interdisciplinarity by definition requires expertise in at least two fields, while most professors only have one area of expertise – the one in which they hold a PhD. Financial difficulties also pose a significant problem. According to a Commentator article from last year, Dean Joanne Jacobson acknowledged that cross-listing was created in part due to YU’s precarious financial situation, though she maintained that there are positive benefits to having core classes cross-listed with major classes. As a result, it seems that YU is forced to balance its resources between the Core and the majors.

Yet despite all of the above the Core can still achieve effective interdisciplinarity. Although YU obviously does not have the resources for a “humanities institute” – a distinctive institutional space for interdisciplinary collaboration – there are various ways YU can improve the Core’s interdisciplinarity. For example, YU can encourage professors from different fields to co-teach courses. Co-teaching can bridge the gap between two disciplines and offer courses an additional perspective. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore points out, “Co-teaching can make a subject more accessible to students. When two accomplished academics debate, they see that a subject can be approached from multiple angles.”

Similarly, YU can create interdisciplinary writing courses by encouraging professors from various departments to teach courses devoted toward the writing of their particular fields. A history professor could teach historiography, the art of historical writing. A science professor can teach students how to adapt research into articles for scientific journals. Almost every discipline requires proficiency in research and writing, and many have specific styles, methods, and conventions that govern their literatures. Not only would such courses be interdisciplinary, but they would also bolster YU’s writing minor.

Actually, YU is developing a similar initiative called “Writing Intensive” (WI). Starting next semester, the YC Core will require students to complete one course designated as WI. According to the Core’s official webpage, WI courses will articulate the “role of writing in that discipline” as well as approaches to research and use of sources. However, the WI requirements are minimal, consisting of at least “one substantial assignment appropriate to the discipline” and “one class period addressing students’ writing.” My suggestion, on the other hand, envisions rigorous courses devoted specifically toward the writing of particular disciplines.

Finally, foreign languages could serve as another possible avenue for improvement. Although French and Spanish courses fulfill Core requirements, no such option exists for any other language. Under the old curriculum, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Yiddish fulfilled a humanities requirement; now, under the Core, they only count as electives. Because students do not have time to take courses that do not fulfill general requirements, registration in such language courses has significantly decreased, causing YU to shift its funding elsewhere. By preserving French and Spanish through the Core, YU effectively killed these other languages. Why not restore the study of these languages by allowing them to fulfill Core requirements?

Professors of such languages can create interdisciplinary courses focusing on issues such as literary history, cultural studies, and the art of translation. For example, YU used to offer a course called “Greek Myths & Their Influence,” an introductory survey course on Greek mythology that drew upon multiple disciplines, including folklore study, archaeology, classical literature, and contemporary adaptation. Although Prof. Rachel Mesch does teach interdisciplinary French courses – such as “France and its Others” (CUOT) and “Parisian Views” (INTC) – YU does not offer such courses for other languages.

I urge the administration to uphold the Core’s mission statement. What exists in theory must also manifest itself in practice. Given the vast amount of time, thought, and resources YU has spent on creating the Core, YU must ensure that the Core remains a worthy investment. Although the Core is not interdisciplinary, it can be.