Commentaries - October 2009

Below is the first part of an article appearing in today's "Yale Daily News." For the full article, click here.

One of the Yale Admissions Office’s favorite selling points to prospective students — that, unlike at many other large research universities, all of Yale’s tenured professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences teach undergraduate courses — is widely believed by students and faculty.

But it’s not that simple. In fact, there is no policy requiring professors to teach undergraduates, and in any given semester, a handful of them, for a variety of reasons, do not.

According to this year’s Yale College admissions viewbook, “100 percent of tenured professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences teach undergraduate courses.” Interviews with professors in several departments reveal that faculty members believe this to be a rule. However, Deputy Provost J. Lloyd Suttle confirmed Thursday that no such policy exists.

Indeed, a search on the Online Course Information Web site reveals at least a dozen Yale faculty members who are not teaching undergraduate courses this year. In many cases, Yale College students still have the opportunity to be taught by these faculty members if they enroll in graduate-level courses, and administrators said that (while they do not have formal records) they have not identified any professors who routinely do not teach undergraduates.

Still, admissions representatives often use the idea that professors must teach undergraduates to emphasize Yale’s focus on undergraduate teaching.

“Most of the tour guides when discussing the introductory biology courses will mention that, even at the introductory level, there are Yale’s most renowned professors in the classroom, for example [Nobel laureate] Sidney Altman in MCDB 200: Molecular Biology,” tour guide Matthew Sheehan ’11 said.

While Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said he understands that scheduling conflicts can preclude professors from teaching undergraduates in a given academic year, he said he still believes Yale expects all tenured faculty to teach undergraduate courses.

“Our viewbook states that 100 percent of tenured faculty in the Arts and Sciences teach undergraduates, and we convey that to [prospective students], because that is Yale’s expectation,” Brenzel wrote in an e-mail.

Dialogue last night and today with my friend Dave (a former student and someone who has often disagreed with my positions, although not--thank goodness--my mode). I was tempted, outside the dialogue, to add a final editorial bloggy word from me, but then decided to leave the discussion as was.

Dave: Loathe though I am to consume your time, and please don't consider this to be a request, I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on this mess on your blog/Facebook/somesuch: [A YouTube video of schoolchildren being taught to praise the President.]

Al: Just like what I had to do for JFK in grade school!

Dave: That your *reassuring* citation to precedent is boomer Kennedy devotionals (I'd love to read one) isn't a good sign, especially for Obama (I mean that on a policy level) or the well-being of the country. Anyway, I'm not going to be a time schnurrer. Be well.

Al: My point is perhaps that presidential devotionals, performed by idiotic teachers and civic leaders, are ubiquitous across eras and ideologies. Americans have devotedly prayed for their presidents, and instructed their children to do so, long before YouTube could capture the phenomenon. Doesn't make the purveyors of such crap any less or more idiotic. But doesn't either require us to change or perception of JFK or Reagan or Ike (oh did the heartland love Ike piously) or the current president. And Prezes who came along in times of malaise (Washington, FDR, Reagan, Obama) stir this idiocy more than others, but not, to me, significantly.

Dave: You'd know better than me, which is why I was curious what you thought. I don't find the ubiquity reassuring. There's differences in eras, depth and scope of devotion, and what's driving the devotion (reaction). The new devotees are last year's dissafecteds and the tea partiers and birthers are last years devotees. If you see these things as inversely correlated oscillations, your reassurance that they are constant is undermined to me by the idea that they can get further and further out of whack.

Al: Bottom line for me is that there are some people out of whack on both sides of liking/disliking the president (as for any Prez*). I don't pay much attention to them on either side. (* I've read over the years about the intense hatred of JFK. I'm not a fan of JFK's presidency but I really can't give much credence to those irrational views; my disappointment with him has little or nothing to do what those people were feeling.)

Dave: To steal a play I learned from you, the reassurance by ubiquity sounds...ahistorical ;-) On an abstraction-level, doesn't how far out of whack and where matter? And what they're doing to put it back on track? One of the things that's been interesting to me lately is the conversion of unlike things between different forms--there are people, for instance, who turn degrees of volatility (oscillations in price) into money irrespective of whether the change in value in up or down. And that's things that get incrementally measured--ideas are doing all sorts of unmeasurable, even contradictory, things at once. I've decided I don't like these people--they're very big and uncoupled from things. Their motivations are suspect and their means to implement their motivations, good or bad, aren't reliable or safe to bystanders.

Listen to this 1-minute preview of next week's reading at the Writers House by Rae Armantrout:


As I sat down to compose this note I proimised myself I wouldn't get worked up. Today during some somewhat relevant googling I happened up one of those Term Paper Mill sites. You know the ones. You've been assigned to write about Mercutio's relationship to Romeo and you find on the web that this company will sell you a 5-page paper on said topic. Everyone in academe (on one side of the paper-assigning divide or the other) has pondered this, at least briefly. I always assumed that if one of my students bought a ready-made paper from such an enterprise, I would notice it immediately--either because of the odd and invariably somewhat off-the-point presentation of the argument or because it would be badly argued and poorly written too.

But the price. Here's the kicker. Today, looking for a quick e-text of Stevens's poem "Mozart, 1935" (readers of this blog will know that I am somewhat obsessed with this poem)--I was too lazy at the moment to walk to the shelf for my copy of the book--I found a 5-page paper "interpreting" this poem. The cost: $59.75. I was so chagrined that I was very tempted to buy a copy and then...what?....expose? rail against? these people. What's more, the little summary reading of the poem remarkably resembles my own reading of it (in a book and at least two articles, the latter available online). Is it possible that I would have been buying a hack-job remix of my own article on the poem? (Click on the image above and left for a larger view.)

I think I would have asked for reimbursement from my university-sponsored research fund for this expense. After all, it would have been research. No?

How desperate would a student have to be to use one of these sites?

As Stevens says, "Play the present."

At Paul Baker's Wordsalad today: "I have not attended the u. of pennsylvania and have not enjoyed the privilege of attending classes with charles bernstein. but you know what? Bernstein has been one of my most valuable and appreciated teachers over the past 5 years or so. How? because of his poetry, his radio programs, his books of essays and criticism, his conference appearances, his blog (which, yes, promotes his own work, but to a much larger degree promotes the work of others), and because of his work with Al Filreis, producing the audio content on Pennsound. I met Charles at a conference last year sponsored by the Academy of American Poets in NY a year ago. The guy’s passion and counter-establishment perspective will always be attractive to me."