New Haven Diary: Yale and its Colleges

For the past five months I have been living, reading, writing, conversing, and occasionally speaking publicly, in the environment of Yale University and its community of New Haven.

There are many contrasts between Yale and New Haven on the one hand and Melbourne and its oldest University and College on the other, but lots of points of recognition as well. Both parallels and differences have been useful things to observe along the way. Although most of my time has been taken up with writing projects I have been able to speak with some senior leaders, faculty, and students and acquired some sense of how they perceive the institution and the wider community.

One area of real similarity is the importance of the college system at Yale. All first year undergraduates are allocated randomly to one of twelve residential colleges (Melbourne has eleven). Although Yale is much older than Melbourne (1701 to 1854), Trinity is older than Yale's colleges which were established in 1921 in conscious imitation--like Trinity--of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

Much of the college experience would be familiar to Trinity residents; although they don't wear gowns for dinner, students live and study in communities roughly comparable in size to ours, play enthusiastic intra-mural sports, get to listen and converse with leading scholars local and visiting, and the intangibles that come with this sort of experience.

During my time here I was privileged to be included in the Fellows events of Timothy Dwight College, one of the twelve. Master Jeff Brenzell was a gracious host and I was able to meet and talk with many alums, faculty and other distinguished locals who gather monthly for lectures, events and conversation.

The 'TD' Fellows and equivalent groups at the other colleges at Yale are somewhat larger and broader than Trinity's or the Oxford/Cambridge versions, and provide a sort of meeting point between the College and its wider constituency of friends. They get rich fare intellectually (and otherwise); speakers this past semester included Pulitzer Prize winning historian Debby Applegate, whose book The Most Famous Man in America tells the fascinating and verging-on racy story of leading 19th century cleric Henry Ward Beecher. Another evening with the Fellows was a privileged behind-the-scenes look at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, whose Director, Derek Briggs, is a Fellow of Timothy Dwight College.

Yale students have similar possibilities at events like "Master's Teas" which may have a close equivalent in Trinity's "fireside chats"; leading lights of academic and other spheres not only hold forth but are available for real conversation--one of the hardest things to find in the modern public university.

Of course the Yale undergraduate cohort is much smaller than Melbourne's, more like their collegiate resident counterparts in Australia. Although residence is far more normal in the USA, there is also increased reflection in this country--not  so much at Yale itself--on options for commuter and distance education models, given increased costs and the desire to make at least some version of degree-level university experience widely available. Not that Yale isn't engaged in expanding its educational horizons or distance learning, but that's for another blog. But at Yale the residential college is firmly at the heart of the experience, so much so that two new colleges are currently being built.As often in the past, I have been led to think of the collegiate aspect of the University of Melbourne's life as like that of a US liberal arts college embedded within a large public university.

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