Myths surround Directed Studies, Yale’s yearlong introduction to the Western canon. Call it D.S., call it Directed Suicide, or call it crazy, Directed Studies is infamous for requiring its 120-something students to turn in a paper every Friday morning. Beginning with Plato, Homer and Herodotus, students read their way through a few millennia of intellectual titans. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1,400+ pages) is covered in two weeks of class, as is “Don Quixote” (nearly 1,000 pages). While their friends roam campus in search of parties, D.S.students spend their Thursday nights holed up in dorm rooms, weenie bins and computer clusters reading and writing until dawn.
While Directed Studies may sound like one of the inner circles of “The Inferno” to some, for others, it represents the best that a Yale education can offer. The program requires freshmen to take three yearlong classes: Western literature, Western philosophy, and Western history and politics. Each class meets three times a week, once for a lecture and twice for discussion sections. Unlike most introductory classes, these sections are led by Yale professors, all of whom are unusually dedicated to teaching undergraduates. I came to Yale in part for D.S. While no one goes through the yearlong program without some complaints, it suited my academic interests well. Coming from a school weak in the classics, D.S. introduced me to some of the Western tradition’s finest works in a short amount of time.
For many former D.S. students, the opportunity to work closely with Yale faculty early in their academic careers is unparalleled.
“[D.S. is] a great way to prepare yourself for the difficult work you’ll be taking on in seminars later,” former D.S. student Benita Singh ’04 said. Singh also valued the time her professors took to show her exactly how to put together a solid paper.
Others remember the D.S. community most fondly. D.S. students are a tight-knit crowd, often filing into dining halls together for lunch after attending lecture. And many former D.S. participants still count among their friends many they met through the program, which allows students to become close to people from outside their residential college. Inevitably, you’ll begin to make references to D.S. texts and professors, and if no D.S. people are around to share the joke, you’ll be getting some pretty weird looks. Though wonderful friendships are integral to the D.S. experience, the curriculum is still the focus of the program. While its concentration on dead white men turns some away, the D.S. reading list is an excellent introduction to the Western canon.
Allen Dickerson ’02 felt that D.S. provided a solid framework for his Yale education. “These are the intellectual building blocks that people still talk about and discuss,” Dickerson said.
Many students, however, find the D.S. curriculum limiting.
“If I had wanted to do D.S., I would have gone to Columbia,” said Jacob Remes ’02, making a reference to Columbia’s core curriculum. Remes felt that the loss of freedom in choosing classes would have meant not taking classes that had a profound affect on his education. “I wouldn’t have taken a class on linguistic anthropology, a course that very much changed the way I look at the world.”
Even students who liked the program admit that the lightning pace of the syllabus can hinder in-depth learning.
“As a current literature major, I think it’s fair to say that I think it’s impossible to do many of the works justice in the time the program allots for them,” Singh said. “In getting the big picture, I found it was easy to miss the importance of close, textual analysis.”
While I know D.S. isn’t for everyone, I have few regrets about my participation in the program. Looking back, the unfinished readings and missed office hours seem more unfortunate than the lost Thursday nights at Naples. My friends and I still debate the D.S. curriculum, visit old professors and grow teary-eyed at the thought of parting with our books. And as glad as I am that I no longer have papers due on Friday mornings, I miss the camaraderie of Thursday nights. Perhaps you have to be slightly dorky and masochistic to appreciate D.S., but then again, I’m convinced you have to be slightly dorky to appreciate Yale.ÊFor those members of the Class of 2006 who don’t mind the pace, D.S. is an excellent introduction to the humanities and a vibrant community of freshmen.
Erin Scharff a junior in Pierson College. She survived Directed Studies her freshman year, and you can too.