Libresco: Shop some shop classes

Apocalypse Next

As a senior in my last semester at Yale, I’m finally free to reveal my list of must-take classes at Yale without worrying that you lot will show up with me to shop and bump me to the waitlist. But I’m not running down the usual list of top seminars and star professors. Nor is this a list of guts or easy QRs. None of these classes have final papers or any writing assignments at all. Before you graduate, I recommend taking a shop class.

Working in a shop class is an exercise in problem solving. There’s no way to pander to a professor when you’re building something, and a lack of structural integrity can’t be obscured by a fog of footnotes. What you learn in a shop class (aside from a new set of technical skills) is how to fix and prevent mistakes.

Editing is a skill you might assume you’d pick up in your normal classes, but in some seminars, it’s easy to feel disconnected from your work. Plenty of classes build to a single research paper, turned in at the end of the semester, with any feedback (aside from the grade) at the discretion of the professor. And even in the best-taught seminar, the conclusions of your paper can feel too subjective or your focus may feel too abstracted or picayune. It can be a relief to take a shop class and know that your creation works and is of use.

Here are the two best hands-on classes at Yale. Neither of them have any prerequisites besides a willingness to show up early for signups. One important note: both are marked as carrying a half credit, but neither can be used as a credit toward distribution requirements or towards graduation. Essentially, these classes carry no credit unless you’re a chemistry major, but they do appear to count for GPA. Go figure. Just remember the best part: Once you’ve taken either of these classes, you have an open invitation to return to either the metal shop or glass shop to build your own projects. (In my case, a ray gun).

CHEM 564: Introduction to Scientific Glassblowing

First of all, a safety warning: if you have trouble staying awake in morning classes or just take a heavy hit to cognition or reaction speed before noon, you probably shouldn’t take this class. Glassblowing meets at 8:30 a.m. near the top of Science Hill, and every time I didn’t go to sleep early enough the night before class, I usually had blistered fingers to show for it. But if you can manage your sleep schedule responsibly (or, like me, figure a few first degree burns are a reasonable price to pay to get to work with molten glass), the course is incredibly rewarding. The final project is a Hero’s Engine, a water-driven engine that was about as long as I am tall.

CHEM 562: Laboratory in Instrument Design and the Mechanical Arts

This class might not be such an underappreciated gem, hidden away in the list of graduate-level chemistry courses, if its wordy title were replaced by something more descriptive, like “Build Your Own Steam Engine.” The entire semester is spent learning to use the milling machines and lathes of the metal shop in Sterling Memorial Lab by building your own desk-size steam engine piece by piece. Other students working on their own projects come in and out to consult with the instructor, so you’ll get to see more complex design projects and techniques, too. When I took the class, I got weekly updates on the progress of the first human-powered spokeless bicycle, which was built by students in a mechanical engineering class.

Aside from formal classes, Yale offers plenty of other opportunities to get your hands dirty and your mind busy. I’ve spent productive afternoons in the Berkeley woodshop and got a crash course in type-setting and print making in Jonathan Edwards’s press shop last term. Any exposure to mechanical craft awakens an appreciation for design in everyday life. Even your driest course packet will look fascinating once you start spotting the design flaws of the typeface it’s printed in.

So this semester, spend some time engineering. At the very least, after a term of glassblowing and typesetting, your parents will never complain about paying for philosophy classes again.

Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.