After tracing the Western canon from Homer to Brecht, Herodotus to Arendt and Plato to Nagel, I’m glad I participated in the Directed Studies program. But “Directed Suicide,” as it is commonly known, is certainly not right for everyone.
The program enrolls about 125 freshmen each year through a summer application process and consists of three yearlong courses: History and Politics; Philosophy; and Literature. Each course consists of one 50-minute lecture and two 75-minute section meetings each week.
But the weekly six-page papers are the most infamous component of D.S. “DSers” usually spend Thursday nights in their dorms analyzing Kant or Tolstoy for a Friday morning deadline instead of making it to freshman night at Naples. So when I tell somebody that I’m in Directed Studies, sympathy is the most common first reaction. The second is a question: Is Directed Studies really as bad as it sounds?
It’s possible that the paper load (which breaks down to three papers per course and no midterms) is not much worse than the written work assigned by intense non-D.S. courses. The coordination of the three classes also offers the dubious benefit of scheduling: two D.S. papers are never due in the same week, although paper-free weeks are also rare.
I found that the real differences between D.S. and other introductory classes are in the reading load and the sections. The D.S. reading load is intimidating (think War and Peace in two weeks). Ultimately, few students actually do all the reading. There is also more D.S. section time than normal courses schedule, but class time is usually well-spent because the sections are taught by professors instead of TAs.
The workload is very intense, but the academic benefits of D.S. compensate generously for the extra effort required. The classes are coordinated so that all three disciplines are studying the same time period (Greek, Roman, Renaissance, etc.) at the same time, and professors usually welcome connections made between the different disciplines. In addition, a survey of the Western canon offers the satisfaction of understanding how the tradition has built on itself, from Homer to the modern day.
When I think about Directed Studies, however, I think about the community of students as much as the academics. Our D.S. group didn’t start using an e-mail chat list until relatively late in the year, and our “D.S. parties” on non-paper Thursday nights often flopped.
But there’s something nice about getting to know a group of 125 freshmen really well, about sitting or sleeping in lecture together, about going to sections filled with people who know each other, and about commiserating on Thursdays and celebrating on Fridays. Procrastinating, working and studying are all more fun with company: study groups were a fun way to prepare for finals, and the Web site of study guides that we compiled was priceless in the week before exams. D.S. gave me a chance to meet freshmen from all twelve residential colleges, including people who would become some of my closest friends.
Before applying to Directed Studies, you should consider two potential drawbacks:
1. Directed Studies. If you enroll in D.S., the number of other courses you get to pick freshman year will fall to a meager two or three. Given the diversity of great courses offered at Yale, giving up this freedom is a serious sacrifice.
2. D.S. is the study of dead white men. They are important and brilliant dead white men, but they remain who they are. Although D.S. professors may be sensitive to the issue, the Western canon is hardly politically correct.
If, despite the paper load, the whirlwind pace of learning, the Eurocentric, male perspective, and the structure imposed by a D.S. schedule, you are still interested in pursuing Directed Studies, I strongly urge you to consider it. With any luck, you will walk away next year with an impressive and useful body of knowledge, some good friends and great stories about surviving “the D.S. experience.”
Sarah Sherblom is a Trumbull sophomore and survived the D.S. experience last year.