COHEN: Redirecting Directed Studies

On Wednesday, a whole new crop of lucky freshmen buckled down to begin their year in Directed Studies. DS, the study of Western literature, philosophy and historical and political thought from antiquity through the modern era, has many advantages. It lays a solid foundation for students interested in the humanities by exposing them to many of the West’s greatest writers and thinkers. It is a crash course in college-level analytical writing. It fulfills many of the distribution requirements we’re all still trying to cram into our schedules. And it’s a ready-made community for freshmen trying to figure out the brand-new world of Yale.

But there are a number of ways that Directed Studies could be strengthened and improved in the future. To begin, students in Directed Studies are expected to read about 60 books (or at least lengthy sections of them) over the year — that’s 30 books a semester, not including any other classes students choose to take. That is an absurd amount of reading. Unless you want your only friends to be the late-night (early-morning, really) Bass security guards, it is just not possible to read all the pages assigned and make friends. Surely each discipline could find a way to cut down the reading; after all, even when DS students aren’t reading, they’re probably working on their weekly paper.

Second, on paper, everyone in DS has the same experience. They read the same books, attends the same lectures and meet in section twice a week. That would be fine if grading were also uniform, but it isn’t. Grading and paper topics depend entirely on the section professor. It isn’t fair to DS students to have varying grading standards in each section when everyone’s transcripts list the same course. If the DS faculty together came up with a list of common paper topics for each assignment and two professors read each paper to ensure that grades were fair, the entire Directed Studies experience would be more equitable and transparent for the students. With such an integrated program, a cooperative grading system shouldn’t be too hard to implement.

As a general warning to DS students this year, don’t be fooled when the class is called “History and Politics” — it isn’t. The class really is about political philosophy only, which leaves a tremendous gap in understanding the context in which the thinkers wrote. While DS tries sometimes to fill in that context in lecture, some historical context would be helpful. For example, Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” would only be enhanced if the students were taught the basics of the revolution in France. Without the background knowledge, the class can sometimes feel random and disjointed, jumping from one thinker to another.

For me, the hardest DS course was philosophy. I had never taken any philosophy before, and I didn’t really enjoy the abstract thinking about thinking. But many of my classmates were philosophy buffs who had read far more than just what is assigned on the syllabus. This disparity meant that professors were forced to try to keep class interesting for the advanced students and comprehensible for the beginners. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but organizing sections based on students’ previous exposure to the texts — not just in philosophy, but in all three courses — would help everyone have a better learning experience.

Lastly, Directed Studies is a wholly Western program. While I’m well aware that I’m not the first person to voice this complaint, there are no non-Western texts on the syllabus — not even handouts. It would immensely enhance our understanding of the texts and writers if we were exposed, however briefly, to alternate ideas that originated in a different part of the world. The strengths and flaws in each argument would become clearer, and our knowledge would become broader. I enjoyed focusing on the Western canon, but I would have loved at least to be exposed to writers and philosophers from other traditions.

All these criticisms aside, however, I am still glad I took Directed Studies. Yes, it was frustrating at times to be stuck in the library instead of dancing at Toad’s. But, for most of the assignments, the experience of reading (or skimming) and analyzing the texts was a great experience. And don’t worry, DSers: You’ll still get to go to Toad’s way too much.

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