Shopping period at Yale [10.01.11]

Jan 13, 2011 by

Shopping period at Yale [10.01.11]

In the first two weeks of classes Yale students shop around.  Not for clothes, or notebooks, but for courses, even if the  principle is the same – you buy what you like and hang back what you don’t . Except that you choose between hundreds of professors, who do not say a word (but sometimes give you an evil glance) if you come in their classroom 10 minutes before the end of their lecture – after all, the shopping period is a human right of every Yale student.

In the first two weeks of classes nothing is certain, everything is in flux. Most professors hate it while most students love it. There is no obligation, no proper homework, just a broad spectrum of choice and a bit of a hassle to get from one classroom to another as fast as possible.

In my Advanced Spanish class that I shopped today the professor proclaimed her belief in the value of the shopping period: “Just shop around, see which professors you like, each of us has  a different style. Check the dynamics of the class, the contents of the syllabus. It is important that you choose a course that best fits your needs and your learning mode. The most important thing is that you benefit from the course you choose.”

Most undergraduates hardly looked at her as she spoke –  they must have heard the same speech many times already – but I found it spectacular. Since when these are the students that choose professors and not the other way round? In Europe most syllabi and plans for classes are set in stone even though the American educational freedom is gradually spreading. Tradiationally, a student is supposed to fulfill formal requirements and informal expectations of the professor. Here at Yale there are also some formal requirements – for example an undergraduate should take a certain number of credits from each department – but within the system there is enough freedom to move around, to look for things that interest you, to compare. Some could call it consumer society brought to extreme, but I wouldn’t.

For me, it is a great systemic way to teach students what independence means and how important individual preferences and choices are. It seems to me that the whole American educational system is designed to encourage students to “find themselves”. It is a system built  in a Socratesian spirit.  While at univeristy students go though the process of both the discovery of Yale and self-discovery – one facilitated by another.

No wonder therefore that the graduates of top American universities come out into the big world with a boosted sense of self-value, individuality and confidence. These schools (to use the American slang for ‘universities’) are not there for researchers or professors, but primarily for students. This might be one reason why American graduates  typically provide generous financial support to the universities they went to. The university system works like a business here, but this is a different story and a different blog.

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