Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Yeshiva College Curriculum Review

Untwain, Detwain, or Retwain?:
A Hope for the Yeshiva College Curriculum Review

by Noah Greenfield

[Editor's note: Yeshiva College is currently undergoing a curriculum review (I II). This essay is a longer version of a thoughtful opinion piece by a current YC student published in the YC newspaper The Commentator (link).]

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” - Mark Twain

The YC Curriculum Review (YCCR) should have two main goals: 1) To improve the education of YC students generally, and 2) Specifically, to take advantage of the Orthodoxy of YC students to that end. While the first goal is fairly obvious, the second is less clear. But either the Orthodoxy of the students is ignored (the current curriculum is not always innocent in this regard) or it is taken advantage of. Instead of ignoring it, or (worse) reacting to it, YCCR needs to take full advantage of it. In terms of YCCR, almost every student in YC has three relevant sides to their Orthodoxy: Involvement in Orthodox culture, values, beliefs; A year in Israel; Study in a religious Jewish Morning program. How can these be taken advantage of to improve the education at YC? And how, in general, can YCCR improve the YC education?


Click here to read moreThere needs to be a new requirement – for YC professors. Every single professor in YC needs to have a real understanding of Jewish culture. This is not a call for conversion or any other religious coercion. It is about improving the pedagogy and the student-professor relationships in YC. YC students all come to their education with their Jewish training. When the teacher knows substantially about Judaism, it is very helpful. When the teacher doesn't have the foggiest idea about Judaism, the experience is less rich. Of course, YC should hire the best people in the field, but taking into account that its students are Orthodox Jews, the education should be cultivated by people who have the capacity of dealing with these issues.

Non-Jewish professors, of course, have much to offer the parochial and sheltered cultural existence of YC students precisely due to their unique backgrounds and experiences. But kulturkampf isn't productive or smart. Without basic cultural literacy, at best, these professors' culture gets lost in translation; much worse, they misunderstand, are misunderstood, offend and are offended.

For those professors without Orthodox (or Jewish) knowledge, something more substantial than a tour of the Beit Midrash needs to be required. This is not to suggest that the new Physics professor needs to attend shiur (if you don’t know what this is, you just proved the point), but it would be wonderful if she were to have attended a shabbat on campus and/or have read 200 pages of basic Jewish reading, or any other requirements a student-faculty committee would put together. This is not just to improve things inside the classroom, but outside the classroom as well. If YC wants student-professor relationships to develop, an accidental impression of Orthodox culture, never mind complete ignorance of it, is simply unacceptable.


YC needs an academic base geographically located in Israel. This would provide a home away from home for YC professors to do research in Israel and to collaborate with Israeli academia. More significantly, from a student point of view, it would give YC the opportunity to take back the greatly desired 4th Year – not by insisting that students tack it on at the end of their college career, but by including it within their Year in Israel experience. If YC were to optionally offer (at least Jewish Studies and Hebrew) prerequisite courses to students spending their year in Israel, offered at nights or on Friday mornings, it would accomplish many of the goals of the 4th Year. Additionally, it would benefit greatly the many students who would take advantage of improving their (especially Hebrew and general Jewish) education during that year. Lastly, having an academic base in Israel would enable more students to take a semester or year abroad while staying within YC, providing them with Torah, Madda, and a change of climate.


YC should create intensive first year seminars dealing directly with Torah Umadda. If nothing else, it would serve as a brilliant intellectual transition from the year in Israel. Torah Umadda is a topic of urgent relevance to many students arriving on campus, a topic much more relevant than other first year seminar topics, like Heroism, or Immigration (as important as those topics are). It is also a topic which students deal with deeply, in their personal and social lives. Just look at how many articles on the subject are written in every edition of The Commentator! Brandeis is not ashamed to require a History of Brandeis course. This is what YC is all about – it, too, should not be ashamed to teach it.

The courses should be writing and research intensive, giving small groups of students intimate exposure to a professor (or even two – with only 3 years on campus, early exposure to disciplines and personalities is key), interdisciplinary, with opportunities on and off campus. Possible topics are many and fit many departments, if not all, (and, arguably, would be much more interesting substitutes of other general requirements): Science and Religion, the History of YU, Judaism and Other Religions, Midrash (if you don’t know what this is, see 1 above) and Literary Theory, etc. The role models are many as well. Public lectures given by people like Chancellor Lamm, Dean Srolovitz, and the many Orthodox professors who deal with issues relating to Torah Umadda in their various fields would add fodder to the small class discussions and unite intellectually the incoming student body. Torah Umadda is at the heart of this place – it should be thought and taught. Why not?


The YC Bible requirement aims to ensure that every YC graduate, as a responsible member of the Orthodox community, has solid familiarity with the Hebrew Bible. But is a YC SLO (student learning outcome) necessarily equivalent to a knowledge of Akkadian etymology? Is not R. Schachter's knowledge of Tanach also an excellent SLO (even if it would not pass as academia)? Knowledge of the Bible should be expected of every YC graduate, but this knowledge need not be academic. A knowledge of Rashi or Ibn Ezra should be at least as valued as one of Wellhausen or Kugel. A RIETS Bible option would be an excellent way for certain students to dodge unnecessary discomfort, for others to take advantage of other modes of Bible study, as well as provide more options for students and for professors, who can teach other courses pertinent to Near Eastern Studies. Ultimately, YC, in terms of its Jewish – and especially its religious – SLOs, must work in tandem with RIETS.


The University of California, MIT, Northwestern, among many other high-ranking schools, all work on the Quarter system, instead of YC's model, the Semester system. The Quarter system is a much better calendar for YC. Briefly, the Semester system has 2 sessions, each between 15 and 18 weeks long, with an optional 9 week summer session. The Quarter system, on the other hand, has 3 sessions, each between 8 and 12 weeks long, with an optional summer session of about the same length.

The UCLA Senate recently published a list of reasons why it prefers the quarter system:
1) There can be a wider range of course offerings, more subjects covered, and exposure to more professors;
2) Fundamental and introductory courses can be taught more often;
3) The consequences of failure in a particular course are less severe;
4) Students benefit from the intense focus of the quarter system;
5) From the student's perspective, the impact of “boring courses” is reduced;
6) Within the shorter time frame, instructors are more likely to set priorities and be more careful regarding content;
7) With more courses overall, quarters give more opportunities for courses in the professor's area of expertise.

There are other reasons why quarters fit YC better. The quarter system forces students to take fewer courses and fewer credits per quarter, giving them time to focus more carefully on each course without having to worry about 14.5 other credits being taken, besides for shiur. It also jives better with the Jewish calendar. UCLA, for instance, doesn't usually begin classes until late September or even October i.e. after sukkot (!), without being in any official sense a Jewish school. If YC were to do that, it would create the fantastic bonus opportunity for its students: A Torah-only Elul at YC/RIETS (which deserves an editorial in and of itself).


Shiur provides an excellent educational model for Orthodox students. Given serious blocks of time to prepare (or else face the intellectual and social consequences), shiur consists of a mix of high level lectures, which for the most part assume the work done in preparation, and high level discussion of the issues, texts, and concepts at hand. The adoption of this model by YC would greatly enhance its education.

This is not an Orthodox invention. It is the current practice at Oxford and Cambridge, and several other Honors Colleges elsewhere. Ohio University Honors Tutorial College, for instance, employs a “program for students capable of a more independent approach to study [i.e. Orthodox chavrusa-trained students] than is usually available in a traditional classroom setting, where students meet weekly with their tutors for individual or small group sessions to discuss their week's readings and the essays they have written over that reading. Students also take part in weekly seminar discussions.” This model would provide students with less class time (and thus more time to prepare, think, breathe, etc) and more quality class, where the readings can actually be expected of them – or else.


The best classes in YC do not require attendance. Professor Johnson, for instance, introduces his Logic course by stating something along the lines of, “Feel free not to come to class. But don't expect to learn the material, or pass.” Logic is well attended precisely because the material cannot be learned without the teacher and/or the other students participating. Regrettably, not every YC class is like this.

If a student can get an 'A' without ever attending, given the minimal amount of time at YC as it is, it is imperative that that free time be given to him, to catch up on other work, Torah study, or even a trip to Central Park. No attendance is also quality control. If a YC professor has many students who perform well without attending class, what does that say about that professor? It does not say she is a bad person, but it does say that she is a waste of YC's money and the students' time (they, of course, have already figured this out.) If students are forced to go to class, it does not mean they will participate anyway. Many students forced to go to class surf the Internet, play computer games, or work on papers (which they would be better off doing in the quiet of a library). Attention, unlike attendance, cannot be enforced. Attendance is a policy that rewards poor teacher performance, infantilizes student decision-making, doesn't enhance classroom participation, and perpetrates the mistakes YCCR is trying to correct. Attendance must no longer be attended to.


Requirements in YC, sadly, must first be understood in terms of turf; something akin to gang warfare is occurring on the 5th floor of Belfer. In South Central L.A., the Bloods and the Crips gained prominence because they had something which every addict needed: crack. In YC, the Bibs and the Crits (Bible and English departments) have achieved a similar prominence due to their having something which every YC student needs: general requirements. Departments that don't have access to this "good stuff" (like Speech and Psychology) have to watch their backs. It is dubious that any decision about requirements will be made without the pressures of this violent politic. To invoke 2Pac, "that's just the way it is."

If YC is to have any expectations of its graduated students, it will need to have general requirements. But if it is to have general requirements, then it must also have a system where such requirements can be bypassed, namely, by being able to test out of them. Requirements are about knowledge, not about the (often painful) experience of taking the requirement. If that knowledge is already obtained, then the requirement should not required. YC's expected SLOs should be translated both into requirements and into tests, which, if taken and passed, enable the student to move on with his education. If a requirement cannot be translated into a test, if the student cannot prove his adeptness in a particular subject, then what is the point? There is no point – so YCCR needs to end it. What YC should require is knowledge, not wasteful classes.

The requirement is often wasteful and excessive, but its sister, the prerequisite, is promising and neglected. Why must senior students sit in the same seminars as freshmen? Why must Foucault's thought (and name pronunciation) be taught in every humanities course? What is the point of an Intro course if the material will have to be repeated in the Advanced course? Currently, prerequisites are not enforced in YC primarily because requirements do not properly assess the knowledge of students.

(Like this overheard conversation between a Jewish Studies professor and a student wanting to get into his course: “The course requires Hebrew, but since you went to a yeshivat hesder, I'll let you in – you probably know Hebrew better than the guys who took 1205.”) So the same testing suggested for requirements should be applied by prerequisites. Firmly enforced prerequisites, complimented by well-structured majors, will replace the need for ill-regarded general requirements.

While some requirements may prove to be unnecessary if testing out is adopted (especially Physical Education), others requirements – really SLOs and very basic prerequisites – should be required: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet, Email, and Personal Finance. If a student knows how to use Excel, then he should be able to pass out. But if one is expected to know how to use Word or PowerPoint for a class – let alone in the real world! – then it must be taught early on, and not haphazardly learned simultaneously with the content of the presentation itself. The entire university would gain tremendously if more students, professors, and administrators actually knew how to use the Internet and email in a skillful and efficient manner. And for YC to claim to forge responsible members of society, Personal Finance must be taught. Students without this knowledge are at major risk of doing financial damage to themselves and their families. They will need to know how to budget to be able to finance graduate schools, send their kids to day schools and, eventually, to their alma mater. Once again, this is something from which not only students have to gain – if nothing else, it will improve future alumni donations.


The scholarship for students interested in staying an extra year in YC is a fine idea, but a 4th Year Track, offering the same financial incentive (3 years of tuition spread out over 4 years) makes more sense. Firstly, many students who decide to stay on only do so later in their YC career, so they end up treating their first 3 years in the same, rushed and frenzied way non-4th year students treat it. Besides, offering a track, with financial benefits, suggested course loads, guidance, and professional and academic opportunities will make the 4th year more tempting and more welcoming. YC must show the tangible benefits of staying the extra year and market it to incoming students as such. For instance, incoming students would be more likely to choose the 4th year track if it entailed opportunities with the BA/MA program at Revel, Research at AECOM or Cardozo, or a Great Books program like that at St. John's (this last idea also deserves a paper in and of itself). The 4th year works best not when it is a 4th year, but when it is 4 holistic years – coupled with financial incentives, professional opportunities and intellectual excellence.

Each of these 9 suggestions, if implemented, will drastically change the education at YC. Let this article arouse discussion and feedback from students, professors, and administrators. One can only hope that it will lead to real change, and for the better. Let not YC be contwained.


Here is what I think: Asking which general requirements should be required and which should not be is simply asking the wrong question.

For starters, the term “general requirement” is too vague. Conceptually, I think there are three categories of such requirements, which, if clarified, will enhance the discussion.

  1. REQ (pronounced “wreck”) - The knowledge expected of a graduated student. An example: YC expects that every graduate will know how to write. This category includes the subcategory of OnceREQd, knowledge expected at one point of a graduated student. NYU, for instance, has a OnceREQd: President Joel is expected to have taken calculus, but he is not expected by NYU (his alma mater, or YU, for that matter) to know calculus now. (I wonder if he does...)
  2. PreREQ – The knowledge expected of a current student. An example: Every student in Physics II should have the knowledge of Physics I.
  3. X-REQ – The experience expected of a graduated student. An example: Harvard has every student complete a thesis. The thesis entails much content, but it also involves a certain experience, namely, writing a long paper, working with direct guidance on an advanced topic, etc.
REQs, PreREQs, and X-REQs – O My!

What to do with these categories? (I don't want to deal with the very strange notion of OnceREQd here.)

The Pass-Out

The notions of REQs and PreREQs are not bad ones. If YC is to have any expectations of its students, it will needs REQs and PreREQs. But as opposed to X-REQs, they should be pass-out-able. We already do this with Advanced Placement exams. (Whether actual credit should be granted is a different question, which, I think, should vary depending on the subject.)

The question then becomes which courses should be experienced and which have pass-out-ability. (See The Scandalous Misuse of X-REQs below).

The point of this argument is not that students should take fewer courses. It is arguing that students should take more appropriate courses. If a student already has the knowledge taught in a given REQ, then he should not take that REQ. This would enable (and ennoble) that student (and the professor of the REQ) to take (and give) more advanced courses.

Thus, if a student, because of deep personal interest, already knows the material taught in Medieval Jewish History, and can pass a test to that end, then he will be able to take more advanced courses in Jewish History. And Jewish History professors will thus be able to teach more advanced Jewish History courses. (For the record, next semester there is only one Jewish History elective – this is scandalous considering the amount of professors – great professors! – in that department).

The Scandalous Misuse of X-REQs

Somehow, many courses at YC are treated as X-REQs. This, I believe, borders on scandal. It simply makes no sense for intro courses and science-for-dummies courses to not only be learned, but experienced.

Intro courses are not X-REQs. They must always be considered PreREQs.

Hebrew courses are not X-REQs. They must either be considered PreREQs or REQs. (Look out for a future post about YC Hebrew.)

Labs, of course, are X-REQs. From just about everyone I have spoken to about the subject, both science and non-science majors, just about the only thing gained from taking a lab was, indeed, the miserable, guinea pig-like experience. As one friend recently put it, “I spent 2 hours confirming that, in fact, gravity still works, at least at the time of my experiment.”

Whether labs should be required, in light of this categorization, is another (I think very good) question.

Physical Education, right now at least, is treated as an X-REQ. I personally do not understand why this should be required, or at least why it needs to be viewed as an X-REQ. I do not get what its role in YC is, besides, of course, sustaining itself and offering fun classes for people who want to take them or not. Should this be required? Why?

Great Expectations

What does YC want of its graduated students? Right now, I can think of 5 things:
  1. YC wants to give them a broad liberal education.
  2. It also wants them to have a religious education at one its affiliated morning programs.
  3. It also wants to give them a solid Jewish (cultural, historical, lingual) education.
  4. It also wants them to have depth in at least one specific major.
  5. During their free time, they should also have a “college experience”
Now, of course, expecting all of that is simply crazy given the amount of time YC students have. Forget four years – to do that properly will take at least a decade. So how should YC balance those 5 basic goals?

For starters, YC is not going to be able to compromise the expectation of its students having a religious education with an affiliated program. The best it will do is to allow IBC students to take courses which count for YC credit or to allow Roshei Yeshiva to teach Bible, as I suggest.

So, how to balance the other 4 goals (liberal education, Jewish education, depth in a major, and a “college experience”) in 3-4 years?

I think consolidation can help. Having Bible as part of the religious education instead of the YC education gives YC greater ability to achieve its other goals by knowing that part of its Jewish education is being taken care of.

Offering more interdisciplinary courses that can cover more required knowledge in less time would also be wise.

Pass-out-ability will help too.

As for the rest, I have no miracle answers. But I think this is good thinking for the discussion.
Noah Greenfield is a contributor to THE YU VENT, a live, open forum where students, administrators and alumni talk about the present and future of YU.

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