From the Editor

Romance novels and Viking archaelogy

In mid-July, James Franco—soap-opera actor, Green Goblin (of Spider-Man movie fame), and incoming graduate student in English—told Good Morning America he would start teaching at Yale in January. A few days later, the English department chair informed the Yale Daily News that Franco had proposed a residential college seminar. But it had not, he added, worked out.

Two weeks later, Yale announced that the college seminar program was under review and no applications were being accepted for the spring semester.

Looks fishy, doesn't it? But it's deeply unlikely that the prospect of the Green Goblin teaching undergraduates could scare Yale into suspending a program. The residential college seminar program was created, in part, expressly to give people like Franco—nonacademic professionals—a way to teach at Yale College. The program, started in 1968, is a product of its time: designed to be unstructured. Department rules and distributional requirements aren't the governing forces. Instead, each residential college has a committee of students and faculty who review instructors' applications and can seek out teachers for courses that interest them. All seminars must pass standard faculty course reviews.

What comes out of this process is satisfyingly novel. The list often includes highly specialized courses, in areas where the college doesn't typically specialize. A seminar called William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of Modern Conservatism is on offer this fall; so is Viking Age Archaeology. There is always an abundance of hands-on training, the kind that can yield sterling connections for your career years later—for instance, The Film Director's Craft and even Venture Capital, the Start-up Company, and the Law. And the program can be relied on to dip into the offbeat. There is the much-blogged-about Christian Theology and Harry Potter. Last spring, a seminar on historical romances was taught by the authors of To Tempt a Rake and The Seduction of the Crimson Rose.

One of the most valuable functions of the seminars is as a home for courses that should be, but aren't yet, in the regular curriculum. Yale's first tenured African American woman, Sylvia Ardyn Boone, first came here to teach a seminar on black women. George Chauncey '77, '89PhD, author of Gay New York, is now one of Yale's star historians. The first course he took on the history and culture of homosexuality was a college seminar.

Are all these things in danger now that the program is up for review? Is "review" a euphemism for "on its way out"? I'd put that at close to impossible. The seminars provide too many things that Yale values—student career networking, academic experimentation. And reviews take place often in the Levin administration; Yale College dean Mary Miller '81PhD says this one had come due.

But it's worth noting that what seem to be missing from the current mix of seminars are Yale professors. The current and latest instructor lists feature, besides the professionals, mostly Yale graduate and professional students and academics with Yale lecturer appointments. Yet the program was created partly so faculty could test-pilot innovative courses that don't fit in their departments. My guess is that any retooling will include some steps to make college seminars more attractive to professors.

Meanwhile, the News reports, Franco has turned his would-be seminar into an undergraduate musical. And in his third year, he'll be eligible to TA. 


The comment period has expired.