70 years later and still the same verdict: DS is a success

Directed Studies (DS), which began in the 1940s as “an experiment in liberal education,” celebrated its 70th year March 31-April 1 by inviting to campus hundreds of the program’s alumni for a series of talks and panel discussions.

Alumni and faculty members who have taught in the DS program described its lifelong impact, agreeing that DS was a transformative experience for them.

Among them was Stefanie Markovitz ’94, ’01 Ph.D., who was in DS her freshman year at Yale and has since taught in the program as a professor of English. In a panel on “The Student’s Perspective” she described how her sense of aloneness as a new Yale student dissolved in DS. “What was extraordinary about that first semester was how quickly that sense of not belonging was erased by the fact that we were talking about such big questions,” she said. “Those big questions are open to everyone, and all of the classrooms made us aware of that. That was the biggest prize — how quickly I felt at home after not being at home.”

Faculty members started DS seven decades ago “to see whether some Yale students would benefit if they began their studies by following a coordinated plan of study instead of piecing together courses for themselves,” according to the DS website. “Faculty designed a set of courses to be interdisciplinary, intellectually coherent, and personally meaningful, and the dean kept notes on the experiences of the first cohorts of students and asked for their feedback. After only a few years, the results were so promising that The New York Times proclaimed Directed Studies a success.”

Today, the DS program — which is limited to 126 freshmen, who apply to participate — consists of three integrated full-year courses in philosophy, literature, and historical and political thought. The courses begin with classical antiquity and the Bible and continue through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Early Modern period, ending in the 20th century. Each of the three courses meets weekly for one lecture and two discussion seminars, and as part of their learning, students also make trips to the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and other venues.

Robin Kelsey ’83, ’94 J.D. said that he has been trying for years to replicate the DS program, either in his own learning or by creating a similar immersive and interdisciplinary experience for students at Harvard University, where he is dean of the arts and humanities and the S.C. Burden Professor of Photography.

“I think what DS produces is this extraordinary sense of gratitude and attachment,” said Kelsey, pointing to the many alumni who returned to campus to celebrate the program’s anniversary. “I think the form of DS is the critical part: You bring together a relatively small group of students and faculty, and you keep them intensively involved with one another over the course of the year. Integrating the intellectual journey and the social journey is a critical dimension.”

Emily Bazelon ’93, ’00 J.D., a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research scholar in law at Yale Law School, said that the “social” aspect of DS is as much a part of her memories as the intellectual exploration that took place in her courses.

“Freshman year can be confounding,” she said. “You have to figure out who you are and who your people are. A lot of students in my DS courses were people I might not necessarily have met or been drawn to otherwise. But it was such a deep intellectual experience that we shared, and so we would continue our conversations at lunch. Hashing out these ideas in class — there was so much power to that that we had to keep talking afterwards.” Bazelon added that she especially enjoyed “the interconnected nature of classes, and the way they were talking to each other.”

When Jeremy Shamos ’56 was in DS, the program lasted for two years rather than its current one. In “The Student’s Perspective” panel, he said he enjoyed the small and intimate classes with professors and the fact that he “wasn’t sitting there and being lectured to,” adding, “There was the feeling that the work was being explored by the students and faculty together. It was a conversation.”

Pamela Karlan ’80, ’84 M.A., ’84 Ph.D., the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford Law School, told the large audience in the Whitney Humanities Center that to this day she still recalls three passages from her DS readings of classics that continue to shape her life. Reading in Dante’s “Inferno” about the Futile — souls of the dead who did nothing remarkable in life — convinced Karlan of the importance of “making a commitment to things,” she said. A passage in Thucydides’ “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” about the fragility of democracies inspired her to spend her life working on issues of democracy, especially voting rights. The third passage, from Plato’s “The Symposium,” deals with the subject of friendships, and the alumna said it has been an impetus for her to carefully nurture her own. “For me, friendships have been one of the most important things in my life, and I don’t think I thought about friendship in that critical way” before reading Plato, she said.

Bazelon said that the act of translating the works she and her classmates read in DS has helped her in her work as a journalist. “I often feel as a journalist that I’m going off to explore some topic that may require a lot of reading for me,” she said. “My job is to remember the big questions and be a translator.”

Each of the panelists shared how particular works in DS have continued to influence their thought and action, ranging from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to Plato’s “The Republic” to James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” They also praised DS for the weekly writing assignments on such texts, saying that they learned to write well in the program. Markovits told the audience that a habit she developed in DS of highlighting metaphors and similes in every text is one that she often practices today.

“In DS, we have to absorb outrageous amounts of information over short spans, and that was a way for me to get a handle,” Markovits said. “The structures I created to do that have made me a better teacher.”

In a conversation about “Directed Studies and the Future of Liberal Education,” panelists — including current or former DS teachers David Bromwich, Emily Greenwood, and Pericles Lewis, among others — spoke about the value of studying the Western “canon” and whether the DS model can be expanded to be multicultural in focus and to reach greater numbers of students, both at Yale and beyond.

 “DS@70” also included a talk by Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria ’86 on “Why Study the West?” and one by Jeffrey Brown, chief correspondent for arts, culture, and society at PBS Newshour, titled “Reporter’s Notebook: An Education in Poetry and the News.” Alumni were also invited to attend special seminars — more than a dozen in all — led by Yale DS faculty; topics for these ranged from "Epictetus' Handbook" (philosophy) to "Virginia Woolf as a DS Reader" (literature) to "W.E.B. Du Bois's 'The Souls of Black Folk' " (historical and political thought).

Jane Levin ’75 Ph.D., senior lecturer in the humanities and the former director of undergraduate studies in DS, led a panel on “Teaching in a Common Curriculum” and Kathryn Slanski, current director of undergraduate studies for DS, led “The Student’s Perspective” panel. Bryan Garsten, chair of The Humanities Program, moderated a panel discussion exploring the topic “Beyond DS: Staying Connected to the Life of the Mind After College,” which featured former Yale president Richard C. Levin ’74 Ph.D., among other panelists. 

Kelsey said he “stole” the DS model for an experiment at Harvard he is now trying to expand — a yearlong course called Humanities 10. “I’m working very hard right now to make the study of humanities at Harvard as compelling as possible,” said the Yale alumnus. “I think this [DS] model of conversation, of this intensity and intimacy, is something that clearly works.”