Light & Verity

In lieu of minors, college offers certificates

New ways for graduates to signal proficiency.

Alex Eben Meyer

Alex Eben Meyer

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Last spring, Yale College added a new certificate program that lets budding medievalists show off their specialty. Although Yale does not have an undergraduate medieval studies major, students who complete five courses on medieval subjects can now graduate with a certificate in medieval studies that will appear on their official transcripts.

The program is just one of a growing number of certificate programs at Yale that gives students a way to signal proficiency in something other than their major—a significant change for a college that for decades has resisted adding minors to its curriculum, even as many of its peers have started to do so.

The medieval studies certificate, according to faculty in the program, provides students with a robust structure for pursuing Yale’s vast selection of courses covering the medieval period: a variety of disciplines and departments including anthropology, classics, East Asian languages and literatures, English, history, music, Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and religious studies. Students are required to complete courses in more than one discipline and more than one geographical zone, and three of the courses must be outside the student’s major.

“There’s an enormous number of faculty who specialize in the medieval period and an enormous number of really interesting medieval courses scattered across the university,” says Emily Thornbury, a member of the English literature faculty who served as the inaugural certificate director for medieval studies last spring. “So we felt that we could really do students a service just by making visible these courses and the possibilities they could explore.”

Medieval studies joins education studies, Islamic studies, translation studies, programming, and data science as one of six non-language certificate pathways on offer in the college. Since 2019, Yale has also conferred certificates for advanced study in 19 languages from Ancient Greek to Yoruba.

Certificates are a partial resolution to a decades-long debate over introducing minors in Yale College. Despite several campaigns, the pro-minors camp has never quite had its day, even as all the other Ivies except Brown will offer minors to students by fall 2023. In 2010, Yale’s Committee on Majors emerged from nearly three years of deliberation “with a firm consensus” against incorporating minors.

“It is unclear that minors would constitute an intellectually rigorous academic experience,” the committee wrote in a final report that year. “They seem to encourage the gathering of credentials for credentials’ sake.”

In the 2018–19 academic year, the Committee on Majors litigated the issue again, after a Yale College Council poll that fall found that, of 3,200 students surveyed, 84 percent agreed that “if minors were offered at Yale, I would want to have a minor.” With the survey results in mind, the committee came back in the spring of 2019 with an alternative approach: “expanding current certificate offerings to include disciplines-based certificates as well as a broader range of skills-based certificates.”

“By creating certificates, you do two things,” says Pamela Schirmeister ’80, ’88PhD, dean of undergraduate education in Yale College. “One, you make a collection of courses legible to the outside world. It sounds different to say, ‘I have a certificate in medieval studies’ than to say ‘I took six courses in something that could be called medieval studies.’ . . . But I think it is also the interdisciplinary nature of the thing, to encourage students to really make use of a liberal arts college. If you’re trying to get a liberal arts education, you should be studying across disciplines.”   

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