Gensburg: An English class for non-majors

This week many of you have undoubtedly been searching for that one course you need to take to make it through the year. That one course that fulfills that one requirement you know in your heart is good for you but which you nevertheless can’t stand to complete.

Some of us search endlessly for that simplest of courses that miraculously qualifies as science. But as astonishing as it may be, there are others here at Yale who find themselves looking for one of those two colleges courses they will ever take in the humanities.

Suppose I am one such student, and this semester I have decided to take my one-course dip into the vast field of English. The first question that arises is whether I want to take a class focused on literature or composition. It seems a shame that, by making this choice, I am forced to forever give up the other option, as I don’t really enjoy English courses enough to take both variants.

But I make my choice, I come to the first section of class and I find myself surrounded by freshmen and sophomores for whom this class is but the first of many. When the professor makes one of his numerous references to books we will all read in later courses, I know that date will never come for me. I struggle to complete the readings of so-called great novels, and constantly wonder why the authors don’t simply come out and say what they mean.

So why isn’t there an English course for me and my peers?

I can imagine it now. I think I’d call it English 110. The course would focus on reading a variety of different authors and styles. Perhaps each week would focus on a different period or style. Novels take too long to fit allow such a variety, so many times we would confine our study of an author to a single short story, or perhaps two. The class wouldn’t presume that its members would read the entire Western canon in college, and therefore wouldn’t find it wrong to use selections from other works as appropriate.

The class would integrate lessons on how authors achieve various effects, and would perhaps have a creative writing assignment or two. Perhaps there would be a few short in-class writing assignments, requiring students to articulate their ideas on the required reading.

Why isn’t it this simple? Doesn’t the fact that I wouldn’t take English if Yale didn’t force me to mean that it’s unfair to make me do in-depth analysis and truly understand a particular idea? I don’t really want to step out of my comfort zone and truly delve into a type of thinking I wouldn’t normally use. And shouldn’t students who don’t have an interest in deep study of a field be able to see the entire breadth of the field? Many departments at Yale have come to accept this; why hasn’t the English department?

Some people just weren’t born to study English.

Sam Gensburg is a sophomore in Saybrook College.


  • Y'10

    Yale doesn't force you to take English. If you need a humanities credit, you could take a history class which wouldn't have the same emphasis on Great Novels. Also, though many of them are found in the English department, classes providing the WR credit are spread throughout the departments, including the sciences. Conceivably you could graduate without ever actually setting foot in an English class.

  • Anonymous

    I'm sure a local high school offers the course you're looking for. But this is college, my friend.

  • @2

    I know this kid. He actually is taking classes that are interesting. He is mocking the non-science majors, who search for meaningless science classes that are beneath their intellectual understanding, so that they don't have to do work or actually learn about science.

  • Anonymous

    "I don't really want to step out of my comfort zone." The ridiculousness of this one statement led me to hope that this entire essay might be some kind of misguided parody. Sadly, that does not seem to be true.

    Isn't that the entire point of the distribution requirements and, in fact, the entire point of coming to Yale - to broaden your horizons?

  • S

    "Doesn’t the fact that I wouldn’t take English if Yale didn’t force me to mean that it’s unfair to make me do in-depth analysis and truly understand a particular idea? I don’t really want to step out of my comfort zone and truly delve into a type of thinking I wouldn’t normally use."

    I would like to believe that the above sentences indicate that this op-ed is satire, even though I know it is not.

    It really frightens me that Yale admits people who think this way, especially in the place of excellent science students who WOULD be willing to do some thinking or who understand that getting some practice at thinking analytically could only help them. I am an English major, but I have approached the courses I took for my science and QR requirements hoping that my previous understandings of the world and my old habits of thinking would be challenged. I appreciate what I now know about calculus, statistics and relativity, and I would be ashamed of myself were I to graduate Yale without having at least touched on those things.

    Yale has possibly the greatest English department in the world, both in terms of the thinking and research of its faculty and of its pedagogical design. The introductory courses at Harvard are large lectures. Yale English students, majors and non-majors alike, are privileged in their opportunity to take the introductory survey courses in small seminar-style sections with distinguished professors. The introductory courses do make a point of helping students refine their writing, and often even offer, yes, creative writing assignments-though I gather writing a Spenserian stanza or heroic couplets isn't quite what you meant. Not being willing to think or read works of any length, however, is a problem only individual students can solve for themselves. My suggestion is to take humanities courses in other departments, where small reading assignments and non-demanding writing assignments wouldn't negate learning. Asking a department to invent courses below college level so scientists can get As without bothering to learn anything is rather extreme. I might as well ask the math department to offer basic algebra.

  • Mike Zink

    Let me help you guys out. This column is meant as a parody, poking fun at the existence of science classes for non-majors (e.g. "Physics for Poets") and the lack of counterparts in the humanities ("Poetry for Physicists"?).

    Commenters, #1, 2, 4, and 5, you are all wrong (and with the exception of commenter #1, you all, ironically, end up reinforcing his underlying point in some way or another).

    Commenter #4, and I feel like I've said this a million times, your failing to grasp that something is a parody does not automatically make the parody "misguided."

  • @ #5

    "I might as well ask the math department to offer basic algebra"

    uh yea… they do. It's called astronomy courses for non-science majors.

  • Anonymous

    "I appreciate what I now know about calculus, statistics and relativity, and I would be ashamed of myself were I to graduate Yale without having at least touched on those things."
    But the point is that the math and science majors have created vast arrays of courses designed to "touch" on these subjects. Think "Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics", "The geometry of nature". These are classes with no intent of making you continue study in the area, but to give you a self-contained and fulfilling course. They are basic without being introductory. I actually think that there are some of these in the English department. But it might be nice to have a couple more, especially in creative writing.

  • Y11

    What Mike said. This is satire, kids, so don't get your panties in a bunch (especially you, S). Sam is just pointing out that while English majors can skim by taking Physics 110 or Galaxies and the Universe, there's really no non-major equivalent for the sciency camp.

  • Jon K. ' 78 (BK)

    I still remember trying to cope with an English course during my first semester.

    It was awful.

    The professor assigned our first paper right before the end of the "shopping period."

    I was up late the night before the paper was due, struggling to write anything about the book we were reading. I decided to drop the course, and switch to another from "Group I."

    About a week later, I ran into another member of my (former) English class.

    He told me that around one third of the class never showed up ever again, starting that day that paper was due.

    I never took an English course …

  • A Science Geek

    Right on, Sam…. English is really hard, but that is rarely appreciated by English majors… Any fool can understand Schroedinger's Equation but hardly anybody can understand Ezra Pound…

  • Anonymous

    A pre-med student would likely satisfy their writing requirement with the Inorganic Chem and Molecular Bio labs, both of which are WR.

    And while there are a ton of Sc/QR classes, science and math are cumulative subjects in a way that the humanities and social sciences are not, so a non-major can only expect to take the lowest-level classes in those fields. I'm reasonably sure a science student could jump into any history lecture and do just fine; I doubt a history student could do the same for organic chemistry.

  • Anonymous

    This HAS to be a parody, like Perspectives on Science…

  • Anonymous

    NO. A premed student would satisfy his or her WR by taking a year of English--which is a premed requirement.

  • English major who understands parody

    This is a parody, but the underlying idea is mean-spirited. There are always ways "around" Yale's distribution requirements by taking courses that are designed to be basic and accessible, and there are just as many science majors as English majors who do this to avoid getting burned in classes that are outside of their areas of expertise. Clearly, though, you think "gut" science classes are a joke catering towards dumb English majors, and you've invented some equally ridiculous hypothetical English class to prove your point. But to the number of students who don't have much prior experience in science, the so-called "gut" course offerings at Yale are anything but. Yes, I took Porn in the Morn for one of my science classes, but I worked hard, learned a lot about the interesting and relevant subject of reproductive biology and still ended up with a B+. It wasn't a gut for me, and it's insulting to insinuate that these classes are a joke just because people who are MAJORING in the subject or took AP biology in high school find them to be easy. If you've written this annoying article to try and encourage Yale students to challenge themselves by taking harder science classes, making fun of the ones that are already accessible to non-majors is not the way.

  • Hua Hua

    This guy is a total loser… he has returned to the PRC only to take advantage of local Chinese by paying them wages FAR below the industry standard and firing them as though they mean nothing.

    He should be regarded as an embarrassment to your university.

  • Anonymous

    Science and math courses will always have a more harsh grading distribution than any English or Humanities course. It is simply full of more competitive and cut-throat people.

  • @ #15

    Ugh, thank you for being the only voice of intelligence here. What an unhelpful and arrogant opinion piece. Mike, it WAS misguided.

  • Anonymous

    The point is not just that people skirt requirements by taking easy classes, but that people take Sc classes that don't introduce you to actual /scientific/ thought, QR classes that don't actually require mathematical reasoning, and WR classes that don't actually involve much writing. The problem is worst with the sciences: gut science classes feed students the results without teaching them what science is all about--the process.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps we should ask ourselves why Yale explicitly offers any classes for the "non-(insert any department here) major." Certainly all Yale students are bright enough to handle any department's most basic, introductory survey course. Why water down the curriculum of a department to satisfy distributional requirements? If Mr. Gensburg had sought the advice of an English professor, he may have learned that the English department's lecture courses are designed to be broad, survey courses, while seminars are more focused studies of a particular period or author. Even more, some English professors advertise their courses as friendly to the non-English major. Perhaps Sam is digging at a deeper issue on Yale's campus: Yalies don't like to get "bad grades" (ie Bs). Take a challenging course because you're excited by the material, and stop whining about not finding a non-major course you can easily ace.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, Yalies don't like to get bad grades and therefore avoid REAL science courses where the grading is far more harsh. I wonder how many non-science people make summa or magna cum laude? But then again, there are many science overachievers while non-science courses are easier to get "A" grades. So perhaps it balances itself out??

  • Anonymous

    Dumb as it sounds, I'm getting tired of statements like "there are many science overacheivers" (but apparently few Humanities or English-oriented overachievers) and "Science and math courses…is [sic] simply full of more competitive and cut-throat people."

    That you're motivated less by a love of learning than by a thirst for success is not something to brag about. It doesn't make you sound smarter, and, based on the pre-meds I know, it's not even true. Also, while grading on a curve may make science classes more competitive, type-As don't just naturally flock to those courses if their talents lie elsewhere. The ones majoring in English or Humanities are glad you don't think they're "cut-throat," but they still get insulted when you imply they must be slackers.