Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Shlub: The Model YU Student

The YU website will be the subject of a number of future posts. In the meantime, I would like to focus on one, simple cosmetic feature.

Marketing is all about sales. Thoughtful, creative, and most importantly, catchy ads exist because they increase sales. Sometimes, ads are created which highlight special features of the product. For example, a movie advertisement will portray the movie as really funny, or really raunchy, either way attracting customers interested in a good laugh, etc.

Another technique is to focus less on the product itself and more on the positive effects of owning that product which will occur to the consumer i.e. you. So, for example, if you buy an iPod, you will become a really great dancer. Or, if you buy that cigarette, you will become a cowboy.

The YU website is in part a marketing device. As such, it displays many images of YU and its students. Somehow, it seems to me, the YU website does not employ either of the techniques listed above. If it would, it would try to spotlight: 1) the quality of the product itself or 2) the benefits it will have on the consumer, someone who associates with YU, you.

If I were the YU website and wanted to show off the greatness of YU, I would display pictures of its prestigious administrators, like President Joel and Rabbi Lamm, its historic figures and moments, the Roshei Yeshiva, pictures of its great scholars - maybe actually in a classroom setting teaching students. This is not the case. Instead, the YU website has pictures of American flags, the statue of liberty, the atrocious brickwork of Amsterdam Avenue, and many, many MTA students. All that tells me is that YU is in New York, is ugly, and is at least in some ways more like a high school than a university.

More significantly, if I were the YU website and wanted to show of the benefits of associating with YU on someone who associates with YU, namely, you, I would follow the common practice of advertisers in this regard. They want you to think that you will be happier, cooler, better looking, etc, by having their product. If you buy Nike, you will play ball like an NBA star. If you drink Budweiser, you will associate with better looking people. If you buy a BMW, you will become significantly classier.

Remember the last billboard you saw? Did it involve a chubby MTA kid or a beautiful model? Did it show an unshaven shlub or an award winning actor? The message: If you go to YU, you will become dorkier. Honestly, I find it insulting. Am I really so miserable as a YU student? Or are those guys really representative of my looks, my taste, my persona - of what it means to be a YU student?

The only excuse I can think of for the YU website is that the ugly, stupid looking kids they feature are the children of major patrons of YU. Or, they really think that YU either attracts or somehow creates sloppy, unkempt students.

My Constructive Suggestions: Hunt down some better looking guys (and more Stern women generally) and have an actual photo shoot with them. Stay away from highlighting the campus - as it currently exists, it is depressingly ugly and uninspiring. Take some impressive shots of the people who count in this place - scholars, presidents, rabbis, its history, and its future. The YU website, obviously, needs some fundamental makeovers, but a cosmetic one would go a long way.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do you beholders think?

[Of course, there are one or two exceptions to nerd rule on - you know who you are - but they are exceptions which prove the rule.]

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Winning, not Whining

This post may be a bit dated, but I think the main ideas are still relevant and it's a nice complement to Noah's most recent post on our mission statement.

In the age of Noah Feldman, nobody likes a complainer. So before my next post I decided to clarify that while I do a lot of complaining, I try not to be a complainer. Unlike so many Commentator articles I've read this year, I promise that every single one of my posts will end with a practical (not necessarily easy) solution to the problem(s) discussed. More importantly, instead of sitting back and hoping that our little sarcastic posts will automatically revolutionize YU, I hope that we will be able to follow up by 1) bringing our issues to the relevant administrators 2) taking real action (where possible).

For example, in a previous post my colleague Ben suggested that the library provide little slips of paper for writing down call numbers. After this, I decided to buy such little slips of paper and place them in the library, in order to show everyone how easy and convenient such an addition would be. You all know what happened next. In addition to my actions, Ben is currently planning a meeting with Dean Berger in order to discuss implementing some of his other suggestions.

Hopefully our whining won't be for whining's sake, but with an eye to real change. Please remember to include YU in your tefilos.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Slightly Revised Mission Statement

This blog is called THE YU VENT because it is catchy (I think, anyway), not because it is devoted to complaining about YU (though that happens sometimes). So I changed the Mission Statement to reflect that this blog is more about discussing the present and future of YU than to necessarily complaining about it. (See above, under the big blue THE YU VENT title.)

Wishing everyone good luck on their finals, etc,

Broken Promises and Billion Dollar Investigating

In his most recent post, Matt Williams of Academic Senate fame, noted that despite a commitment by President Richard Joel to create "No Smoking" areas on campus, no progress has thus far been reported. This bothers me.

What bothers me is not the second-hand smoke blowing outside Furst Hall, but the administrative smoke screens clouding the communication and trust in this university.

I don't have an issue with smokers. But when President Joel makes a commitment and doesn't follow through, we should all take issue with that.

For all I know, the YU administration may have spent billions of dollars and countless hours investigating and preparing to tackle this issue. Yet, even if President Joel spends billions of dollars investigating and preparing to tackle the issue, if he doesn't tell us, if he doesn't inform YU's students, alumni, and faculty, do we have any reason to think that anything is being done, that his commitment will be followed through?

I, as a loyal fan of President Joel, believe that he must be working on this. But I wish I did not have to rely on emuna peshuta. I wish he would just tell us.

Has YU made other commitments which have not, as yet, happened? Would you like to hear about what is taking so long? Please let THE YU VENT know about 'em in the comments. We will try to do something about it.

[UPDATE: At the last Town Hall, if I remember correctly, President Joel promised a new Wi-Fi system that would extend across the whole campus within weeks, not months. He got a big applause for that, but even now I can barely get wireless in the library, let alone anywhere else.]

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Aesthetics of a Learning Community

The YU Vent is eager to spotlight guest posts from other other YU fans. Here is a guest post from YC Sophomore Matt Williams. Matt is the Chairman of the excellent Academic Senate and runs the Senate's blog - check it out. As well, Matt is a really nice guy. The YU Vent is honored to have Matt contribute. We look forward to more posts from active and caring student leaders.
Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

An often overlooked and vital aspect of any learning community is, in some sense, the most visible. The shelter, the paths, the physical structures of a community signify, or at least, reflect the values that the community places on the space designated for learning. This idea has religious significance as well, especially within the context of Judaism. Not only is a special decorum reserved for the Beit Midrash and the Shul in terms of actions, but also in terms of the aesthetic nature of the space as well.

The aforementioned reflection is inherently more of a mirror, it forces us to view ourselves, evaluate our values, and act accordingly. In that sense not only does the space represent values, but it also creates values. Visitors, trustees, prospective students and prospective faculty, those on the peripheral of the learning in the community, notice these visible structures and signets of value immediately. And their glances carry weighty judgments that influence the university in tangible ways: from choosing to go to another college, or not giving that huge donation.

This important issue of aesthetics usually does take lesser priority at Yeshiva University. In some sense, this is an admirable decision by the administration. The focus of a university should be the learning, and in the spirit of, say, the University of Chicago, excessive and decadent physical features detracts from the value of the education. Still, though, even if YU was as focused on scholarship as the University of Chicago, that attitude ignores the bleed between the learning and aesthetics that distracts from the education itself.

Take smoking on campus as an example: a practice that toes the line between acceptable ubiquity and hazardous. At this point in time, though, smoking has been nationally stigmatized as a dangerous practice that, no matter how common, leads to death, slowly and painfully. And, unlike other self inflicted pains, this action tangibly affects its surrounding aesthetics, filling an area with a tarry smell, smoke, and a second hand poison that also leads to death. This issue was raised at the recent town hall meeting on the Wilf campus. President Joel, motioning to Dean Vic Schwartz, stated that smoking is a major public health hazard and that he does not want to give it credibility by designating areas for smoking, but it will and should be curbed.

In the month after that statement, smoking is still persistent outside of every building on the Wilf campus. There have been no fines, no NO SMOKING signs, or other physical measures places to insure that smoking is controlled and removed from distracting the learning community.

Another example, one complicated and taboo, are the homeless who wander campus asking for charity from students on their way to class. In a sense, this is also a distracting aesthetic. Not to designate the unfortunate as non-living physical entities, far from it, this is an important distraction, an opportunity for a mitzvah. Yet, although the mitzvah is vital, the space in which it exists may distract from the aesthetics of a learning community. There must be some way for YU to compassionately interact with these people outside of the sphere reserved for learning.

Within the classroom itself, too, Yeshiva University falls short of addressing the importance of aesthetics to learning. Small and insular desks-seat combinations sit in just about every classroom on this campus. The dynamic between students lowered at these desks and professors standing above is a familiar one practiced at high schools around this country. With this arrangement a certain familiar expectation exists, one in which the teacher imparts his or her authority onto the student.

These expectations aside, how would anyone feel sitting in those desks, miles away from the nearest electronic outlet that already happens to be in use? Is that the sort of environment we want as the front line venue in our educational institute?

I sit here writing, incredulous that I feel the need to explain and argue these points, points immediately granted credibility and acceptance at the vast majority of universities across the country, at least since the 1960s. Yet, Yeshiva University willful ignorance and avoidance of pressing aesthetic issues, I'm sorry to write this, reflects the values it places on the learning itself and discourages greater expectations for excellence. This place has the potential to be great, although, if it continues with this current attitude, it will remain just adequate.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

[Stud] Study

While Noah tackles issues of educational philosophy and ideology in the public forum, I thought I would devote a few vents to those little practical problems which, if fixed, could make the YU Experience just a bit more pleasant.

If ever there was a giant that The YU Vent had to fell, this giant is the communication problem. A deluge of unwanted emails, overcluttered bulletin boards, and ignored signs are just some of symptoms of the terrible disease that is the YU informational infrastructure.

I'll begin with a story: One evening, as I sat down to my ritual YU-email sorting (read: deleting) I came across the following message from an undergraduate sent out to the [ystud] list:

"I urge all of you to not support Rudy Guiliani, a man more authoritarian than Hillary herself, a man who will lie and bend to get whatever power he seeks."

Enraged, I immediately composed a response, sending it to this same [ystud] list:

> Shame on you, the YU administration for allowing this kind of garbage to
> happen on the ystud. What will happen when you actually have something
> important to say? When I asked a friend if he saw this letter, he
> responded that he no longer reads this type of email, probabably due to
> emails like this one and today's two (two!) emails advertising a clothing
> sale.

Needless to say, my email was rejected by the ystud moderator. "Sorry - no personal messages." I am not writing this post to let you know about my personal frustrations with a rude undergrad and an inconsistent moderator (he/she has since apologized), but to prove a larger point: there is no system. This represents issues much bigger than an email list, but the problems with ystud are fairly typical in the following two categories:

Externally: Were the rules of ystuds ever laid down and presented to the student body? Are there rules for ystuds? Who do I go to with complaints about the ystuds?

Internally: it's ridiculously inefficient.

I don't mean to say that having to spend six minutes checking my emails each night instead of three is the root of all evil. This is just one example among many where instituting a simple system could solve an annoying problem. I'll describe one possible system, though I can think of several which would fit the bill see (for more, see here).

Similar to other email lists, there should be the option of subscribing and unsubscribing to different types of emails. Say I want to receive the emails about Morg Mart but not about Pre-Law meetings, or vice versa. A simple menu on the giving a student the option of which emails he or she would like to receive would provide this service. This system set up, each club president or society advisor will be in charge of their individual group's email list, choosing when to send out emails. Now I can know when Morg Mart is open and I don't have to delete six Pre-Law emails a week. Problem solved! If I want to find out about colloquiums, special SOY shiurim, shabbat schedule, career development, political science newsletters, or anything else, I'll just sign up for their respective lists. Obviously, should a president/vice president/dean deem that they have something to send to the entire college/all undergrads/all yp students etc., they will be able to do so (props to Dean Sugarman for his emails about dates for dropping classes and stuff).

Where would such a menu be? On a new and improved YU website. Yes, the pictures of the beautiful NYC vistas and pretty Stern girls are very nice, but under this facade lies a labyrinthine network of red herrings, trapdoors, and outdated information. A website should be the nexus of any good information network, and as far as we're concerned, YU doesn't have one. I hope to write more about this in the future, but for now suffice it to say that a website would be a great way to solve both types of problems mentioned above. Or maybe they should just send out an email...

[Postscript: I recently came across the following comment: "Blogs/facebook groups/notes accomplish nothing. Words are not action." While this may or may not be true, I certainly agree that action is helpful. I think we should all take upon ourselves to send a polite, well-worded response to any and all who use the ystud excessively or inappropiately, requesting that he/she exercise better judgement in the future. So that if indeed this post does "accomplish nothing," at least we will have begun to treat the symptoms.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Medium Sized, Somewhat Friendly Giant: A Library Update

Last Thursday, I sat with Mrs. Pearl Berger, Dean of Libraries, to discuss the suggestions posted here for improving the library. What follows is a point by point update, broken into three sections: Success, Keep Me Posted, and Never Say Never. Preceding, however, are two statements of faith:

User friendly doesn’t mean offering great services, it means offering pretty good services that are convenient, easy to use, and time-efficient enough to merit a snappy “Oh, it’ll only take a sec” and not a grudging “I’d love to, but I’m a busy student.”

Books can sit in a warehouse; it’s the little things that make a library.

When we reach Never Say Never, we’ll have an opportunity to revisit these two themes.

1. Offer YU students Color Printing- The Library is working on it. In real life, that means we’ll have to wait a semester or two. Large institutions move with relative sloth- all we can do is urge the Library to get it done as soon as possible.

2. Put old magazines into circulation- The Library is happy to put a small number of publications into circulation. While I see no reason to not go all out, this is certainly a satisfactory test-drive. I’m working on the list of which magazines will be included, in case you have any suggestions.

3. New and improved suggestion boxes- They’re on their merry way.

4. The Sixth Floor (aka 4th) is a quiet floor, even for librarians- Tell them to be quiet. Dean Berger agrees- there’s no excuse.

5. Provide golf pencils and paper squares at all reference computers- Thankfully, the Library has really come through on this issue. Unfortunately, though, I’ve realized that most stations are now sans-pencil. It makes sense: public writing utensils aren’t known for their permanence. I pray the Library doesn’t view this “pencil crisis” as a debilitating factor. The tremendous student feedback more than justifies the cost of a few dozen pencils distributed every couple of weeks.

Keep Me Posted: Still in the Works
1. Publish and distribute a Library Map and Guide- Apparently, this has been done before, but without great success: no one actually read them. Nonetheless, the Library is open to giving it another shot.

The key, obviously, is doing it right. The most useable info, in the most useable format. It should be student-focused: detailing material that student’s actually care about. I have visions of “The Underground Guide to the YU Library.” Here’s an example: it won’t expound upon the Library’s special collections, but it will tell you where to find an Artscroll Gemara.

2. New floor numbers for a new library culture- The Library has no objection, but it’s the Department of Facilities’ jurisdiction, so I’ll take it up with them.

Never Say Never: Between Hope and Frustration
1. Put up signs on the ends of each bookshelf explaining what is contained within-
This is the most important suggestion and there’s absolutely no reason for it not to happen. Granted, some shelves contain hundreds of listings, but worry not, they all fit on a single 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. And if not, summarize! True, libraries move their collections around- which means they’re all the better equipped to move around a few pieces of paper.

2. Mix the circulation and reference libraries- Sure, most research libraries in the world don’t do it. So let’s be better than most research libraries in the world. It’s an arbitrary distinction, like housing books of less than two hundred pages on a separate floor, or publishing a Gemara’s Amud Alef’s and Amud Bet’s in separate volumes. Visitors are interested in topics: why should a single topic be split over two floors?

3. A “New Arrivals” shelf- The Library believes in the concept, just not the practice. Their current preference – pinning the book titles on a “New Arrivals” cork board – is not a compromise but a failure. Flipping open a new book only takes a second, stalking it through the halls of the Library is not something that busy students do. It goes from simple task to never-gonna-happen.

4. A “Featured Books” section- The library should request of each faculty member a single suggested volume and a brief explanation stating why it was chosen. From the hundreds of titles, the library could feature a dozen a week. I know the YU faculty is busy, but this is, at most, an annual request of twenty minutes. It’s the sort of little thing that makes a big difference.

5. A “Microfilm of the Week”- Bells and whistles like this are what make a library more than a warehouse. Most places rely on inspiring architecture or cozy-classy interior design. OK, we’ll work with what we’ve got.

6. “Past in the Glass”- a selection of the Library’s rare tomes open and on display. Once again, the Library believes in the concept, just not the practice. Thus, the Library will be thrilled to offer tours and there’s even an all-out exhibit planned for sometime after Pesach. Of course, these totally miss the point. YU students, as Dean Berger agrees, don’t have time for tours. The Library must take these noble ambitions and bend them to the two aforementioned rules. How can we make this a constant, integral part of the library culture? How can we make it quick and time-efficient? No grand tours or exhibits, but a simple, consistent display case.

The Library needs a paradigm shift. The ideas that succeeded improve upon the basic model of a standard research library. On the other hand, the ideas that failed thus far seek to create a dynamic, inviting, browse-able library experience. It’s not an issue of resources, but of vision. It’s a question of blasting away institutional inertia and molding a new culture. It may seem like a monumental task, but it’s the little things that make a library.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cardozo vs. Yale

This is an exciting piece of news:

"Commencing with the Fall 2008 entering class at Cardozo School of Law, a new merit-based full-tuition scholarship will be awarded to six highly qualified Yeshiva University undergraduate students. This award will additionally include a generous stipend to be applied toward living expenses while attending Cardozo."

My question is this: If you were one of these six highly qualified YU undergrads, who presumably also got into law schools like Yale, Harvard, and NYU, would the scholarship and stipend (worth, to the best of my estimates, around $150,000) make you choose Cardozo?

I can only imagine this working for students who don't actually want to practice law.

If you had the choice between Cardozo for free or Yale, where would you go?

Required Thinking for Requirement Thinking

Yes, the Yeshiva College Curriculum Review is actually happening. And general requirements are being discussed.

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. (Look out for a more fleshed out future post on this.)

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.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"What is a Yeshiva College student?"

[ANOTHER UPDATE: See Religious below.]

[UPDATE: This post has been modified somewhat because I realize I wrote something stupid. I hate when that happens.]

YSU (Yeshiva Student Union) is trying to survey YC for ideas and information pertinent to the Yeshiva College Curriculum Review (YCCR). Here it is.

I am very pleased that YSU is trying to spread awareness about YCCR and trying to get ideas and feedback. That said, I think the survey itself could be severely improved.

Here is my favorite question from the survey: "What is a Yeshiva College Student?"

It is not clear to me what is being asked. Is this question descriptive or prescriptive? Do they want me to describe the average Yeshiva College student (whom, parenthetically, I see no need to capitalize)? Or, do they want me to describe my ideal Yeshiva College student?

I will do both here:


A Yeshiva College student is:
  • Orthodox (culturally, not necessarily "frum", whatever that means)
  • Most likely from NY/NJ (we don't really mean Tri-State when we say Tri-State)
  • Most probably went to (at least officially) "Modern Orthodox" day schools
  • Most probably went to post-high school Israel
  • Attends YC either because he couldn't get in anywhere else and/or because of social, religious, possibly financial, and insofar as it is "good enough" academic, reasons.
Sadly, despite the accuracy of this general description, YC does not necessarily take the reality of its student body into account in its curricular development.

Prescriptive (this one is more fun)

A Yeshiva College student should be any Orthodox student who can get into any college better than YC OR who is committed to both Yeshiva and College.

YC's stated and explicit goal should be to deprive the Ivy League (and NYU, Brandeis, MIT, etc) of every single Orthodox student attending or planning to attend those schools. Any student who cannot get into any college better than YC should only go to YC if he has fitting ideological commitments, namely, to their personal best in both Torah and Madda. Otherwise let them go to Touro, Ner Israel, or Queens (assuming they aren't better than YC).

As of now, this is not YC's stated goal, nor is it their actual one. I am really not sure why not.

Of course, it is not even close to a realistic goal, but I will discuss that in a future post.

I [still] really like my definitions. What do you think?


Of course, RIETS (that is, the Religious Jewish Undergraduate Program) should have another ideal student:

A RIETS student should be any Orthodox student who is considered a "top guy" (whether in learn-ability, character, etc, and in terms of the fit for the different programs) OR who is committed to both Yeshiva and College.

So, RIETS should be happy getting that really bright Charedi student, even if he is going to spend his YC time in the Beis.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Thank You, Dean Berger!

It has just been reported that the Wilf Campus Library has distributed squares of paper and golf pencils at every YULIS computer in response to this post by Ben Greenfield.

It is so wonderful to hear that at least one YU administrator is interested in working with students for positive change.

This is why we started the YU VENT in the first place. We are not here to moan and groan, but rather to work in an open, live forum to improve YU together with faculty and administration.

A major thanks to Dean Berger for reading our blog and contacting Ben to work with him. We hope that she will post soon to tell us about other exciting updates and issues at the library.

Congratulations to Ben for seeing one of his YU dreams come true.

LOOK AT HOW HAPPY WE ARE OVER A FEW GOLF PENCILS. YU doesn't need to become Harvard overnight. Little changes like this go such a long way!

- Noah and Ben

Monday, December 10, 2007

"But this is done at other colleges...

Another fun guest post from YU Sophomore Julian Horowitz. Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

Don't even think of starting any response to any of the problems and suggestions on this blog with the words "But, they also do this at other colleges..." If you want to point out flaws or impracticalities with someone's idea, go ahead. But using others as a yardstick for one's own success is rarely beneficial, nor is it honest. We are not "other colleges," and its this type of mediocrity-striving nonsense which keeps YU so...YUish. Our measure of success should be our own cheshbon hanefesh (soul-searching) and if other colleges have stupidity we should look to improve on them, not to emulate them.

-Julian Horowitz

Refining Registration

The YU Vent is eager to spotlight guest posts from other other YU fans. Here is a guest post from YU Sophomore Julian Horowitz. Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

Remember the XFL a"h? One of the more popular modifications from traditional football was replacing the coin toss with a steal-the-salami-esque no-holds-barred race for a pigskin placed equidistant between two opposing players. While this type of thing was fun to watch on TV, it's less fun when it determines the future of your college career.

As a smaller institution, YU must inevitably deal with too-many students vying too-few spots in some popular classes. Currently, priority is given based on seniority, a largely fair system due to the need to get in those last requirements before graduation. (Even this system has its flaws, such as basing seniority on credits earned instead of something like years on campus. This allows those of us who overachieved in high school and took a lot of APs an unfair advantage over those who did High School during High School. But we have bigger fish to fry).

Unfortunately, priority is also given to those with faster computers and those willing to come late to class in order to be at a computer at the right time. What follows is a suggestion for a slightly fairer and less barbaric system:

Allow a certain time window (something reasonable, say 24 hours) for everyone from a certain credit range apply to register. After that time has passed, have a computer randomly select the students who will fill the slots in classes which have received too many applicants. Then, have this same computer kindly inform those who did not get into a class of their choice of their non-acceptance. This same email would suggest other classes in the same time slot and alternative times for the desired class, as well as reassuring the student that he/she will still have the opportunity to register for classes before registration is opened up to the next credit-range. For extra-credit, include an algorithm which ensures that no one student is rejected from two classes.

We all agree that someone has to get screwed, let's make sure it's not the guy who wants to come to his 3:00 class on time. As an added bonus, this will also avoid the server crashes endemic to registration time.

-Julian Horowitz

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Campus Right in Our Own Backyard

Dear Mr. Rosengarten:

As a caring student, I am curious to know what you think of the relationship between the Wilf Campus and Highbridge Park. I am especially eager to know if Yeshiva has considered taking ownership of Highbridge, either in a formal sense ( i.e. buying it) or in a less formal sense (cleaning it up, making it accessible to students).

Considering the current state of Highbridge (I just took a jog there - it is overgrown, covered in glass shards, with at least one or two drug dealers - and lots of simply unused land, just dirt, without any trees or anything!), meaning its disrepair and its lack of security, Yeshiva could do much with it. Minimally, creating a program for students and community members to clean it up a la Central Park and posting security guards would make it a huge asset to the Yeshiva and Greater Washington Heights community. Just contrast it to Fort Tryon park!

Maximally, if bought, or a deal made with NYC Parks, some of its land could be used for new buildings and the rest somewhat incorporated to give Wilf the grassy campusness it would do very well to have.

The current relationship, as far as I know anyway, is tragic. There is a huge, potentially beautiful piece of land literally right in our backyard that is largely ignored, at least by students. Or, to put it another way, Wilf actually has a backyard! I can only imagine the new Yeshiva College brochures, with pictures of a green campus, with students reading under the trees and playing frisbee on the large expanse of grass and learning at a park bench, overlooking the river...

I am very eager to hear you thoughts.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Science Requirements: The Real Definition of Madda

The YU Vent is eager to spotlight guest posts from other other YU fans. Here is a guest post from YU Sophomore Julian Horowitz. Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

The science and lab requirements at YU are currently fulfilled by taking courses only slightly less difficult than a 7th grade science class. Assuming we keep the science reqs, why don't we convert them from their current intelligence-insulting/annoying/waste-of-time state into a useful resource which will help us in our futures? I understand that not all of our students can handle the heavy number-crunching and memorization necessary for the "For Majors" courses, but we owe it to ourselves to not allow something as important as science (the real definition of Madda) to turn into a joke.

A few suggestions:

1. Instead of "Physics for Poets," how about "Physics for Politicians?" This course would furnish students with a knowledge of past and present issues that the leaders of tomorrow must be familiar with in an attempt to overcome the ever-present lack of communication between the science and politics sectors. Science Times articles and Al Gore's global warming documentary are the types of materials which could be the primary sources for a serious course which teaches both the fundamentals and the practical applications.

2. Some sort of Torah/Science class, such as Jewish Bioethics. Besides gaining the interest of the student body ("You get to learn during college time? Sweet!"), knowledge of the issues is not just important for pre-meds, but for the decision-making Jewish layperson as well.

3. My father often complains that schooling provides very few practical skills. Instead of an EMT course offered to fit nobody's schedule, why not offer students a serious course in first-aid, which would fulfill a science and lab req. If thats not biology, then I don't know what is. For that matter, as life-valuing Jews, maybe we should require basic knowledge of first-aid to graduate.

Obviously these represent some and not all the possibilties for an expanded and impressive science curriculum to replace the current burdensome one. I hope a meeting of heads between the science and non-science departments could come up with more interesting ideas which would give non-scientists a reason to learn science, instead of it just being a requirement to be taken and forgotten the next week. If we are going to do something, let's do it right.

Clarifying the Curriculum Problem

The most central, frontal, fundamental problem facing the YC Curriculum is one that faces modern Judaism in general. Ever since the Enlightenment, Jews have wrestled with becoming persons and a people like other peoples. Assimiliationism, Westernism, Rationalism, Socialism - even Zionism - have all pushed in this direction. Theologically, however, the Jews by definition are a people like no other.

YC tries to be, wants to be, and is trying to be a liberal arts college like any other. This, if I may wax prophetic, is doomed to failure.

YC is not a college like any other, like the Jewish community it serves, because it serves the Jewish community. Every single student at YC and Stern is an Orthodox Jew. Making YC a liberal arts college like any other (admittedly inconveniently interrupted by a religious morning program in which every student is required to participate) totally ignores this fact.

Imagine the following: Julliard (the top school for music and dance in the country) suddenly adopted the YC/Stern Curriculum. Because of its great prestige, the top musically and aesthetically trained students still flock to Julliard. Yet, all the students are subject to the YC Curriculum.

In such a situation, is there necessarily anything inherently wrong with the YC Curriculum? No! The problem is that the brilliant and wonderful qualities of the Julliard students taking it are being totally ignored. Forcing musicians and dancers to take 2 Compositions, 4 Bibles, and 2 Hebrews wouldn't necessarily be bad for the world of arts. Indeed, a student of dance who also studied, say, Jewish Studies, would be all the better for it. But it would be pretty silly to require such studies at Julliard.

YC has a captive audience. Orthodox students will continue to come even if it adopted Julliard's curriculum. But they are coming for the Orthodox reasons (the social homogeneity, the religious standards, the morning program), not for the college. I have never heard anyone say: "I would go to Yeshiva College as my first choice even if the morning program didn't exist and YC accepted non-Jews."

YC has a captive audience. It can take advantage of the unique traits, talents, mindsets, and values of its students, or it can ignore them. No doubt, it should challenge them. But very frequently, the intellectual challenges YC gives to its students is akin to challenging a Julliard student to take Hebrew. It is interesting, but at the same time frustrating and irrelevant.

Either the Orthodoxy of YC students is ignored or it is taken advantage of. Instead of ignoring it, or (worse) reacting to it, YCCR needs to take full advantage of it.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Our Curriculum Is Changing Without Us

The Yeshiva College Curriculum Review is happening as we speak. Not too many students seem to care, as evidenced by the empty room in which Dean Joanne Jacobson presented on the subject 2 months ago. There are, I think, 2 reasons for this: Apathy and Hopelessness. The apathetic don't care because they just don't care; the hopeless don't care because they have discovered that caring doesn't matter. Well, I care. So I wrote up a document which I sent around to various faculty members and administrators. Overall, I have received very, very positive feedback. This should serve, I hope, to brighten the hopes of the currently hopeless. As for the apathetic, I hope they go to Touro.

The whole document can be read here. I will post several updated ideas from it in the weeks to come, based on feedback I still am receiving.

If you agree or disagree, write about it at The YU Vent. The future of the Yeshiva College Curriculum Review should not be left in the hands of the apathetic.

Our Big Friendly Library

The YU Vent is eager to spotlight guest posts from other other YU fans. Here is a guest post from YU Sophomore Ben Greenfield, author of two excellent blogs, The Kavana Project and The Dvar Torah Project. Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

UPDATE: Dean Berger has acted! Suggestion #1 has been implemented. Thanks Dean Berger! Congratulations Ben!

One down, thirteen to go... :)

The Wilf Campus Library is an unfortunate metaphor for YU as a whole. Both house an immense store of first-class scholarship, while uniquely combining Torah and secular disciplines under a single institutional roof. Both inspire an overwhelming sense of potential: so much to see, so much to experience, so much to become. And both, to their great discredit, have dabbled in the dark art of user-unfriendliness. They suffer from classic symptoms of Big: mediocre communication, aversion to change, poor user-interface, and an uninspiring common culture.

But not all big is bad: some giants are friendly and inviting. These Big Friendly Giants supply that sense of magic, wonder, insight, and adventure that only well-presented hugeness can. The YU Library takes wonderful steps towards being big, but needs to work on its friendly and inviting. To do so, it must focus on two primary goals: 1) Transforming itself into a user-friendly institution 2) Re-inventing itself as a window into the fascinating and inspiring knowledge which it contains. What follows are 14 suggestions towards these ends. Some utilize resources already in the Library's possession, while others reflect services basic to a visitor-centered establishment. Thus, all are simple, inexpensive, and undeniably doable.

(1. Provide golf pencils and paper squares at all reference computers. Yes, I should have come prepared with my own scrap paper and pen, but I didn't. YU should emulate every other human-style library in the country by providing this simple convenience. For free, recyclable, and stylish slips of paper, put out the library's old index cards.
) This has been done!

2. Publish and distribute a Library Map and Guide. It would include such gems as the difference between floors 5 and 5a, what a reference librarian is, which floor is the quiet floor, a guide to the printing system, how and where to check out books, et cetera – in other words, the basic library information which most YU students never really learn. Likewise, it could foster a sense of importance and history by highlighting the Library's special collections and key moments.

3. Put up signs on the ends of each bookshelf explaining what is contained within. The key to friendly is browse-ability. Currently, little signs on each shelf state the Library of Congress subsection (e.g. "575.4-581.2"), which is only useful if you carry a call number in hand. By posting a full listing and description (e.g. 575.4- Maimonidean Theology -- 575.5- Maimonidean Medical Writings, etc.) of the volumes shelved, the Library will enable its visitors to browse and wander and lose themselves in the fascinating material that lines each shelf. At the least, forgetting one's call number will no longer mean a lengthy trudge back to the computers, but a quick glance at these useful signs.

4. New floor numbers for a new library culture. 2a, 3a, and 5a may seem like minor technicalities, but they inspire more groans, chuckles, and negativity than perhaps any other decision in the history of Yeshiva University. It's time for a change.

5. Mix the circulation and reference libraries. Walking between floors is annoying and seriously detracts from the all important ability to browse. A "C" sticker on circulation material should suffice.

6. A "New Arrivals" shelf. New books should be showcased on front and center shelves. They encourage interest, spark curiousity, and show off the library's new and burgeoning resources.

7. A "Featured Books" section. The library should request each faculty member a single suggested volume and a brief explanation stating why it was chosen. From the hundreds of titles, the library could feature a dozen a week. Once again, it would stimulate interest, spark conversation, and endow YU students with insight into their professors and Rashei Yeshiva.

8. A "Microfilm of the Week". The Library currently owns 11,000 microfilms representing 11,000 ways to collect dust. What a tragedy – they're so cool! From the Gottesman website: "Of particular note are . . . Hebrew manuscripts from the Vatican Library." Wow! Would I ever inconvenience myself by asking a librarian to locate one of these guys, set up the machine, and teach me how to use it? Certainly not. However, a prominently placed machine, set up and running, displaying a featured microfilm and a paragraph of explanation would open up this tremendous resource to students who would otherwise continue to ignore it.

9. "Past in the Glass" – a selection of the Library's rare tomes open and on display. Who isn't intrigued by the crystal palace of antique seforim on our Library's 6th floor (a.k.a. 4th Floor). Alas, that palace has become a prison and the transparency of glass is but a lie; a simple display case will give the average student a taste of the magic.

10. The 6th Floor (a.k.a. 4th) is a quiet floor, even for librarians. It's annoying and in bad taste. Sure, some conversation between librarians is inevitable and understandable, but everything else is just insensitive.

11. Offer YU students Color Printing. Black and white doesn't always cut it. If it is significantly more expensive, then charge significantly more for it. Very few students are short on printing credits.

12. Put old magazines into circulation. I understand why new issues are not circulated - it's not fair to the other twenty sophomores dying to spend Shabbos with a Sports Illustrated. But last month's New Yorker? Last year's Atlantic Monthly? These are some of the Library's most enjoyable publications.

13. The overdue problem is overdue. It's frustrating to search for a title only to find that its two weeks overdue. I hope the Library extends some effort in hunting down the responsible parties and here are few suggestions in aiding the process: 1) Put the name of the culprit in the search engine. The student searching for his book is the most motivated to bug him to return it. 2) In my Israeli yeshiva, they held my passport until I returned my books. It worked. I suggest a hundred dollar library deposit, to be returned upon graduating over-due free. 3) Steeper fines and a freeze on library use. I've been guilty of late returning, but I've never felt guilty from late returning. The kind librarians have let me off, allowing me to continue borrowing books while reducing the fine I would otherwise have to pay. I appreciate it, but I admit that its wrong.

14. New and improved suggestion boxes. The Library already has suggestion boxes, just inaccessible ones. Let's assume that communication is a good thing. That being the case, the boxes should be prominently placed, complete with bright and clear signs. The last time I visited a suggestion box the appropriate complaint forms were missing. I was about to suggest we get more, but, well, like I said, the appropriate forms were missing. It's a vicious cycle.

The library is one of the most professional and forward-thinking parts of our University. Apart from the Batei Midrash, I would venture to say that the library is the only building on campus that excites a sense of fondness and memory. Occasionally, however, the small sins of user-unfriendliness and gaps of untapped potential build to a peak of legitimate frustration. Following these fourteen suggestions will present a proud message to the students of YU: while every institution has a little bit of backwardness built into its foundations, the library can quickly and cheaply turn itself around.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Where Are You, President Joel?

Dear President Joel,

Thanks for your Town Halls. It is so refreshing to hear you speak candidly about the State of YU, to voice my concerns and get actual, real-time feedback. I always leave those Town Hall meetings feeling really lucky to be a part of YU, really hopeful for the changes just coming around the corner. So, thanks!

But, several days later, or, often, even several hours later, I remember that I forgot to ask you a question. Or, another significant issue comes up that wasn't dealt with at the Town Hall. Well, I suppose the next time to speak is in... 6 MONTHS!

You are my main source of inspiration at this often bleak and gloomy college. "YU is pretty good, but it is getting better and better everyday," I tell high school students, "Thank God for President Joel."

Where are you, President Joel? I know, I know, you are busy fundraising and hiring new deans and doing lots of great things for YU. At least, that is what I tell myself. I rarely hear it from you.

You, for all practical purposes, are a myth. You don't really have to exist. You could be a figurehead, a puppet leader not really pulling the strings. Ultimately, you are a pagan god, Joelus, hidden from your worshipers but said to be the source of life, of all things good in our YUniverse.

Where are you, President Joel? Whatever the answer to that question, I know at least one answer: You are not with me and you are not with the students of this university, though we want you to be so badly. You are only with us for two lousy hours a year, where I get to ask one lousy question.

President Joel, with all due respect (the fact that I am writing this should illustrate just how much respect I have for you), Town Hall isn't enough. I would like to suggest another idea, implemented by a force arguably greater than even you.

In a race between YU and Google, Google wins. For humanity, and most probably even for the Jewish people, Google has way more influence and impact. It is bigger, more important, and makes the the world much better. YU has an endowment of 1.3 billion dollars. Google makes that every 2 years.

Yet, Google, even more important than YU, has a blog. That blog tells me what is going on at Google every day. The CEO of Google writes, different VPs write, product managers write. In short, the best and most relevant information at Google, the latest news, the goals, the struggles, the failures (like allowing China to censor Google searches) are all discussed, openly and immediately. People (including myself) comment and get responses. It is the best of Town Hall, 24/7.

If Google can do this, why can't YU? Perhaps a better question is: Google is doing this - why isn't YU? I want an immediate source of all things REAL about YU. When the English department hires a new professor, I want to hear about it the day it happens - I want to be made excited about it. When President Joel gets an award, I want to hear his thoughts on the matter. When a YU employee is screwed by HR, I want to know what is being done about it.

The internet demands openness. It is a wonderful place to give students, alumni, donors and potential donors very positive news about all the happenings at YU - and all the things that we want to eventually happen here. It gives those interested a place to discuss current, relevant issues. In other words, it takes Joelus out of the Forbidden Temple, away from the puppet masters, and into YU, where he belongs.

Where are you, President Joel? Maybe the next time I ask that question, you will let me know.

Why Shouldn't YC Keep Halakha?

Gil Student, over at wonderful Hirhurim, posted the following:

This is not an issue that will ever be under my discretion, but let me state anyway that I agree 100%. The courses taught at YU should be guided by and conform entirely with halakhah. However, and this is a big however, Jewish law must be implemented in a very broad-minded and inclusive way... Yeshiva College is not the place for being overly strict on these issues but nor should it be the place for ignoring them. YC should offer a top-notch secular education but that can and must be done within the confines of halakhah. It is not the latter that must be sacrificed for the former but, rather, vice versa.

I have to admit, I kind of like the fact that YC doesn't keep halakha. That said, from a conceptual viewpoint, I have no idea why this is the case.

Practically, I can imagine a few big issues:
1) The fear of an imam-like fundamentalist posek banishing Shakespeare and Evolution (and - why not? - Bible) from the curriculum.
2) The dangers of not being able to hire talented non-Orthodox or non-Jewish professors who do not want such restrictions.
3) The fact that many big decision makers at YU are not Orthodox, so they don't really care.

That said, I cannot think of a good justification for why YC and Stern do not, on an institutional level, conform entirely to even the loosest understandings of halakha. Can you?

I am going to email this post to Rabbi Lamm and President Richard Joel. I hope that they will reply. If you think there is anyone else who might be able to respond properly, please either send them the post yourself or let me know and I will.

In any case, my understanding is that there are perhaps more urgent derekh eretz issues that need to be tackled by HR before halakha should be even considered.

Please Leave

"What do you think the Devil is going to look like?... He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job... and he will never do an evil thing. He will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit."
- Albert Brooks

When it comes to President Richard Joel's YU, there is much about which to be optimistic. But the gloom of YU's past and the hopefully-progressing-but-still-malfunctioning present casts a shadow over President Joel's reign.

The many new faces at YU are another reason to be both cheerful and sardonic. On the one hand, new administrators like YC Dean David Srolovitz and Honors College Director Dr. James Otteson, and new professors like Dr. Adam Zachary Newton and Dr. Barry Eichler, provide wonderful assurance that the education here - and the college as a whole - are getting better. On the other hand, the steadfast bureaucratic nightmares, medieval policies, and otherwise, forgive the still applicable term, YUness, are not disappearing fast enough.

In the battle between light and darkness which is now playing out across our university, the greatest threat to victory is defection. We have brought in excellent professors, administrators, and students. Will they maintain their excellence, or will they succumb to the mediocrity that continues to plague YU? Will they raise YU to its lofty potential, or will they let the momentum of YU's past continue to trample the Jewish future?

A talented friend of mine, currently in YC, is sensing his potential being zapped here. I am urging him to transfer to Columbia, where he can maintain his learning and excel in an environment conducive to excellence.

I urge the same of any new professor or administrator. If you feel your standards dropping just a bit, the best thing you can do, both for yourself and for YU, is to leave. By dropping your standards just a bit, you are contributing to the continued problems of YU, not its solutions. Be strong, be vigilant, please, please raise the standards here. Make this place great!

But if not, your exit will send just the right message. Mediocrity cannot be tolerated.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Is ANYBODY listening?

There are many people who care, think about, cannot stand YU. Many of these people express their views relating to YU in private conversation. Of these, there are a small few who actually talk about it in writing. Those few are a rare breed who exist on the following spectrum.

People completely content with/apathetic to the existence of YU
People relatively content with YU
People relatively content with YU but who proactively want to make YU even better.
People no so content with YU who proactively want to make YU better.
People desperate to make YU better.
People so fed up with YU that they don't bother to write as there simply is no hope anymore. Indeed, there may never have been.

I find myself to be on the far end of the spectrum that still is willing to write. That is, I am desperate that YU get better. Though, I am prone to suffer long spurts of hopelessness.

I believe that there would be less hopelessness if there was more communication. Many people start off happily hoping to make YU better, voicing their opinions via The Commentator, or even in personal meetings with professors and administrators. But then, that is it. No one responds. Even at Town Halls, President Joel will say, "Yes, I agree. We will do that now." But that will be the last you and I will hear of it.

The blog hopes to put an end to that. Voice your well-written suggestions, ideas, issues, complaints, etc to . If they are well-written, thoughtful, and related to YU, they will be posted. They will also be sent to the relevant higher-ups with a very hopeful and polite request to respond, on this blog, for the public, for everyone to hear.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts - and the appropriate responses from the people who control our destiny.