How to Sniff Out the Good Classes and the Bad

by Dan Berkman

The difference between a good class and a bad class at Penn could be the difference between an hour-and-a-half of enlightenment and a couple of anthrax scares phoned in to Steitler Hall. Fine, you understand it is crucial to pick the right classes. You do not want to be bored. You want to learn but enjoy yourself. You want to avoid being an Econ major. All that might be wishful thinking, though. It’s more of a process of easing the pain than avoiding it altogether.

Do you ask around? Maybe, but everyone has their own likes and dislikes, and most people probably didn’t go to that Anthro class in the first place because it was an anthro class. Relying on your peers is dubious at best. Well, then course decriptions must be indicative, no? Well, no. Those class summaries are bursting with optimism and exctiement, like vows exchanged before the onset of a promising marriage. Then, about halfway in you realize that your enthusiasm for Ivan the Terrible/picking out curtains has waned considerably.

Sometimes, you have to fall back on old, tried and true heuristics for selecting good classes. By that I mean you should gaze up at the stars and interpret the messages from astrology. Unfortunately, city lights and poor visibility make that extremely difficult, so what you have left to go on is judging a book by its title. Course names can say a lot, and a careful eye will spot the titles chosen by professors who drink too heavily to grade with descrimination.

Avoid classes with the word “economics” or “econ” in it.
Every Economics exam follows a particular pattern: the first 35% is easy, the next 25% appears to have been expressed in a rare dialect spoken only in a small Finnish village, the next 30% is battling a total lack of interest, and the final 10% is remembering how to do the previous 90% right when you have eight minutes left. In between exams you can enjoy a classroom environment that is most like attending a funeral in a foreign country; nobody speaks english, it is very quiet, and anyone who is speaking is doing so in Mandarin.

Mixing up words is very important.
If a class were labeled, “The Philosophy of Time,” it would involve a flurry of readings on matters like time, our existence and place in the universe, and trying to bide one’s time when the power goes out in the summer. Not good. But, if a class’s title were, “Time and Philosophy,” then it is a whole different ball game. Combining those two entities with “and” implies that the professor has no idea what the class is supposed to be about. Time could be anything. Philosophy could be anything, though is usually about nothing. The presence of “and” and not “of” indicates that none of the topics in the class will be remotely connected, so there will be no need to synthesize let alone understand anything. It might as well be “Time along with Philosophy.” The challenge will be to find a comfortable, poorly-lit seat (come on Meyerson!).

Anything European will be an academic schlep.
An ancient Greek/Roman mythohistorisocietarchitecture class will require the purchase of at least $2,800 worth of textbooks, including, “The Doodles and Drunken Mumblings of Sophocles.” You like Russia? The shortest book ever written to come out of that country is 800 pages. In Russian. And then there are French, Spanish, and Italian professors who are absolutely infatuated with their respective coutries. You will never be able to match their enthusiasm or lack of professional success.

You want to be the one asking the questions.
Don’t take a class titled with a question, because even before you have come to class you are on the hook to figure this one out. If a title asks, “What’s so funny?” or, “Why isn’t there peace in the Middle East?” it is because there is no answer, it is too subjective to answer, or nobody cares enough to explore this beyond what Wikipedia says. God forbid a class would be titled, “Math 004: What’s Eight Divided by Four?” and you answer the question and class is over. Rather, you will spend four months doing what looks like problem solving, but really you just wasted a semester coming up with what explanantions cannot be the answer. This is not process of elimination. This is philosophy and working at Saxby’s.

Take comfort in the uncomfortable.
Signing up for a class touching on subjects you cannot bring up at the dinner table is a sure bet. In every lecture, you will hilariously dissect real accounts of people who closely resemble characters in Silence of the Lambs, but they are in jail and cannot eat anyone any more, so it’s okay to laugh. Also, no TA would ever want to have to personally handle a dispute over the grading on “The Weird Sexual Desires of Samoan Men” or “The Historical Impact of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Politics,” so your freaky 10-page paper is going to get an A.

Short tites or few syllables spell trouble.
“Game Theory” sounds innocent. Maybe they will teach you how to play checkers like a pro or methods for dominating in Shoots and Ladders. Nope. The people who study and developed classes like Game Theory were able to whittle down a tremendous academic discipline into a simple concise term. It looks cute, like an adorable little ladybug. A fun fact, though, is that ladybugs are highly poisonous to some organisms. These classes also compel you to tackle short, innocent-looking word problems, like, “Janie has ten dollars today, but she could have twelve dollars tomorrow. What’s the square root of trust?” The mind-strangling subtlety of these complex problems will render you a pantsless alcoholic in no time.

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