“Say what? SAYBROOK! Say what? SAYBROOK!” Residential college cheers are regularly heard at intramural sports games, but this time, the setting isn’t Yale’s playing fields—it is a small classroom in Scheffield-Sterling-Srathcona hall. After hours of preparation, the time has come – not to demonstrate athletic superiority, but to pick classes. This is the residential college seminar draft, the culmination of a long process of evaluation, negotiation, and strategy.
Most students know the Residential College Seminar Program for its nontraditional courses; recent offerings have included Christian Theology and Harry Potter, The Science of Brewing, and Hip Hop Music and Culture. Instructors aren’t Yale professors— they are professionals, hailing from fields as diverse as screenwriting, children’s literature, politics, investment, and nonprofit management. The classes themselves are unique, but so is the student run process that gets them here in the first place.
Established in 1968, the seminar program was born during a period of social revolution as a response to what the Yale College Dean’s Office called “a widely felt need for innovation and experimentation in the Yale College curriculum.” In an effort to forge bonds between students and the administration, the Dean invited undergraduates to help build the course catalog. Four decades later, experimentation and innovation are still hallmarks of the program. College seminars are, in fact, required to offer something that the regular curriculum doesn’t already include.
College seminar proposals flood Yale each semester — between forty and seventy five individuals, on average, apply to teach. In each college, a small group of students gather with a faculty advisor to form a seminar committee. They’ve got work ahead of them — committee members must read and discuss all proposals, then interview applicants before they decide which classes to select.
Each college meets candidates in a slightly different way. According to Ian Walker ’10, head of the Silliman Seminar committee, “a few colleges will try to have a block of interviews in one day. We kind of have a different philosophy…we wine and dine our interviewees. What we usually do is take them to dinner in Silliman dining hall, we spread it over a week or two.” Davenport takes its own approach: interviews are conducted in faculty advisor Eytan Halaban’s apartment to contribute a homier feel to the process.
When interviews are finished and applications are read, the committees must pick their top choice courses. They need to find which ones are most engaging, to sift through what’s fun as a concept and determine what works as a class. According to Halaban, “a lot of proposals come that are frivolous. A subject is taken and given a sexy title.” It’s up to the students to see through the title and make sure the syllabus itself is up to par.
What one committee finds compelling, another might find unappealing. That’s a good thing — while all the colleges read all the applications, each can select only two per semester. If they all pick the same favorite class, they’ve got to fight for it later on. According to Geoff Shaw ’10, former seminar committee coordinator for Branford, “there is never an objectively most popular class…One time, there was a class on I-banking that I thought would be the most popular – I thought it would go in a flash, but it didn’t wind up going soon.”
The process finally concludes at the long-awaited “draft.” Coordinators from every college meet to battle amongst each other in the name of academic selection. It can get intense. Walker summed up the whole experience: “It’s like the United Nations of colleges.” According to Shaw, Branford’s seminar committee develops a detailed strategy before entering the draw. They determine a ranking of desirability for their choices, and decide how much they are willing to compromise in the sponsorship of certain courses.
But Branford’s biggest rival puts them to the test. “Saybrook is very passionate about the committee,” Walker reports. “They’re very passionate about the whole seminar process in that they have people come to the draft in Saybrook gear, facepaints. Basically after every Saybrook draft pick…they go crazy for five seconds and then it goes to the next thing. It’s really funny and it lightens the mood. I kind of wish more colleges did it.”
Though one Davenport representative described the draft is “a passive-aggressive cut-throat process,” Shaw and Walker categorized it as “collegial” and “friendly competition,” respectively. Most seminar committee members will take few, if any, of the courses they’ve personally picked; for them, the time and emotion invested in the draft comes down to residential college loyalty. To each college their own, and may the best class win.
Julia Knight is a Freshman in Davenport College and associate editor for TNJ.